Abby Dennison, Fulbright ETA, Saint-Ouen-l’Aumône
“Ok, so before we begin, I have a quick warm-up question: is there anyone here who knows a scientist personally?”
“Your mom, your dad, your neighbor, your family friend…Do you know anyone who studies science or uses science for a living? A nurse, an engineer, a pharmacist, a researcher, a mechanic?”
« Madame, vous voulez dire, est-ce que nous connaissons des scientifiques?”
“Oui, c’est ça. Exactement.”
I nod, dipping momentarily into a bit of French in order to make my point. But, the linguistic shift does little to resolve my students’ confusion. They shrug, looking around the room, pursing their lips as if deep in thought. One, giggling, points to his neighbor, who quickly slaps his hand away. Another suggests Albert Einstein, evidently taking the verb “connaître” in its more flexible sense. Scientists, it appears, are hard to come by in Saint-Ouen-l’Aumône, an admittedly lackluster suburb in the far reaches of Paris. At least, I don’t seem to be getting many answers…
Over the next few days, I repeat this little experiment in six of my classes, asking each the same question and in each receiving the same response. From the young age of 14, these students have devoted themselves to France’s official “scientific track” (a combination of physics, chemistry, life sciences, and math), and yet few seem to have any personal connection to the fields that they are pursuing. Most report that they have chosen the sciences because they believe that the domain will lead to a bright future, or, just as often, because their parents strongly “recommended” it.
And yet, I can’t help but feel that this belief is, at least for them, a bit unfounded. No one seems to know what to expect after graduation, and few have the role models to help them envision a potential career. So, like lemmings towards a cliff, they march ever onwards, unsure of the murky waters ahead. Their days are spent memorizing textbooks and practicing problem sets, stressing about the upcoming “Bac” without any real knowledge of where their endeavors may lead. Certainly, genuine scientific passion is in short supply — and, under the circumstances, that isn’t entirely surprising.
Yet, I know that my students’ situation is not unique: it reminds me of the stories that my father, now deceased, used to tell me about his childhood in the coalmining town of Keyser, West Virginia. Teased mercilessly for his status as a “nerd,” it wasn’t until university that he met “real” scientists and “real” academics…and, for him, the experience was like a breath of fresh air. When he went on to become a professor himself, he believed that some of the most promising thinkers in his field were likely undiscovered, unencouraged and unrecognized. Like he might have been, had he stayed in Keyser. It was with these musings echoing in my head that I drove home from class that week, invigorated to do something that would spark the latent passion that I knew my students must possess.
And so, I did what any good millennial would do: I wrote a few emails. I posted a few Facebook statuses. I sent a few texts. To my friends, my teachers, my family members, my former coworkers— not to mention the brilliant, caring, and approachable scientists that the Franco-American Commission never fails to attract. Within a few days, I had assembled a panel of 20 working professionals, conducted my first batch of virtual interviews, and even whipped up a little logo for appearances. After a few months of indecision, I finally had my culminating project: Lycée Edmond Rostand’s Ask-a-Scientist Initiative.
Monday morning, I was nervous to present the idea to my students, imagining a chorus of groans at the thought of dissecting scientific texts in English. But, thanks to the amazing, generous, creative, and hilarious scientists that participated (really, no list of adjectives would be quite long enough), my fears were far from reality. After perusing their photos, Googling their slang, laughing at their jokes, and gawking at their research, my kids were totally hooked! Several raced up to me in the hallways over the next few days to ask if and when “les scientifiques” would respond. The idea that these individuals — people with jobs, careers, ideas, experiments — would take the time to communicate with a few French high schoolers was nothing short of unfathomable to them. More than one student accused me of manufacturing the profiles myself — an amount of effort that, I assured them, I would never expend. (Oh, and for ethical reasons, obviously. I’m still learning to identify these “teachable moments,” as they’re called…)
All in all, it’s safe to say that Ask-a-Scientist was a hit among the students and the scientists alike. The exchange prompted unplanned geography lessons, philosophical discussions, and numerous recitations of nerdy, technical jokes that, frankly, I needed a few more cups of coffee to understand. But, most importantly, the project revealed an essential ideal, one that I’ve been struggling to communicate to my students throughout the year: people are just…people. That’s it! French or American, working professional or angsty teenager, brilliant researcher or class clown. We’re all worth the same time, the same consideration, the same attention. This, I think, is exactly what I hoped to accomplish through my time here; this is what these scientists unknowingly made possible. And this, undoubtedly, is what the Fulbright Commission is all about!