Campus & Community

Q&A with Kathryn Hollar

6 min read

SEAS director offers ‘science for K to gray’

Kathryn Hollar, a chemical engineer by training, grew up in a family that encouraged her interest in science. Now she is director of educational programs at the Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, where she teaches the public. She calls her program “science for K to gray.” In an interview with Harvard staff writer Lauren Marshall, Hollar talked about science and how parents and their children can learn it together.

Q: Why is science so important?

A. When I take children on a campus tour, I always introduce them to the first computer ever developed. It’s on display in Harvard’s Science Center: 50 feet long, taller than a person, and about two feet wide. In its day, around the time of the Second World War, it served some important functions around national security. While we discuss this mammoth structure, I ask my students: “How many of you use a cell phone? How many use a computer? Now, how would you like to carry something like that computer in your pocket?” That is what science can do for you.

Science has revolutionized our lives. It’s changed how we communicate with each other. It can make you safer. Children can call their parents on their cell phones. And scientists and engineers are responsible for that. Computers not only help with national security. There are so many other ways science and engineering touch our lives each day, including human health, sanitation, even warmth and protection of your bodies.

Q. Why is it critical for school-age children? What are we trying to teach our kids through science?

A. School-age children have an innate curiosity and a natural desire to invent. Our job is to nurture that interest, to keep our children curious and inventing. Children will have to learn skills along the way. Let’s face it. Some inventions of fourth-graders aren’t entirely feasible. They need tools like math to figure out if something’s going to work or not. Math is incredibly useful in helping us predict how systems work, and is an essential tool for science and engineering. Children also need an understanding of physics, chemistry, and biology.

Q. As an educator, how do you turn children on to science?

A. We have an annual holiday lecture in December that draws approximately 1,000 children and their families each year to learn about a particular aspect of science. This year the theme was germs. Last year it was chocolate. The year before, we did the science of pizza. We try to show that science is in everyday things, and give families the opportunity to celebrate science together.

Another program, Project Teach, gives middle school children at local schools a chance to talk to Harvard researchers and students about science and college. People who do science every day get children really excited about science and encourage them to find out what courses they should be thinking about taking in the sciences. Middle school is a crucial time to start preparing yourself for any opportunity you want to take advantage of in the future.

Q. What challenges do students face in the sciences?

A. In the context of pursuing a career in science, there may be a lack of local role models who have careers in science and engineering, so children don’t have the exposure early on to what it means to have that kind of career. Combined with some of the traditional stereotypes of scientists and engineers we see in the media, children without science and engineering role models may not see people with whom they can identify themselves in science or engineering careers. However, there are a lot of great resources on the Internet that parents and their children can explore together.

Also, I think it may be a question of children not really understanding what they need to do to be successful. TV gives children the perception that things can be resolved in 30 minutes, or at least really quickly. That is not always the case. Any success in life is the product of perseverance, and it’s important in the sciences and engineering. If you want to be a great musician, or a great basketball player, you need to practice to become better. The same is true of becoming a scientist or engineer.

Q. What can a parent do to help their child in school?

A. Make sure your children are doing their homework.
■ Talk to their teachers and school administrators.
■ Find opportunities for your child outside of school.
■ Let a child know it’s OK to try something that is foreign to them.
■ And, last but not least, let them know it’s OK to fail, as long as you pick yourself back up.

Failing is as important as success. It teaches them how to persevere. And it’s not just a skill essential to science and engineering. It’s important that our children take on challenges outside their comfort zone.

Even though a parent may know about a subject, they may not know how to teach it. If you don’t know everything you need to know to help your child directly, you can get them the support they need — whether through additional tutoring at school or mentoring — that can help them succeed academically.

Q. What can a parent do to encourage interest or advancement in the sciences at home?

A. There are fun experiments to do in your kitchen. In fact, there’s a lot of science in a kitchen. And the great thing is, almost everybody I know has a kitchen or access to one.

When you wash dishes, look at the bubbles. There’s a lot of science there, a lot of chemistry there. If you put soap in the water, does a paper clip float or does it sink? The best scientists are the ones who are very good observers. Teaching a child to be curious about the smallest things is very good.

Encourage your child to ask questions. Validate that they have asked a good question. If you don’t know the answer, try to help them find answers to their questions. Work on the problem together.

You don’t have to have a college education to help your child be successful. My parents didn’t go to college. They just cared and found opportunities for me outside the home, so I could explore my interest in science. And in the end, I discovered a good career for me.