All of this sounds time-intensive and fairly expensive. You recently secured $480,000 in funding over the next two years from the Jacobs Foundation and are pursuing additional philanthropic grants, but have you considered charging for the site or finding a corporate sponsor?
K: I want to make sure nobody ever commercializes this. I want it to be open source. I want it to be free for everyone. A lot of people involved in online projects will say it’s all kumbaya, we’ll do it because we love the world. Baloney. They’ll do it because they want to make zillions of dollars. We’re not going to slap ads up on the site. But our budget to do this is about $1.2 million a year. That’s a lot of dough. To keep it open access, I’ve got to line up that money. I’d like to stick to government agencies and foundations, but if some big corporation offers me $500,000, I’m not going to turn it down. But I’m not going to put ads for them on the site, either.
OK, so we’re not talking from a marketing perspective but, from an audience perspective, among children, who is Frontiers’ prime demographic?
K: You know, I was just at the D.C. science festival. It was incredible. There were 35,000 attendees, and I think 10 to 12 was the average age. That’s the right age. It’s becoming clear to me that this is not a high school science club journal. Frontiers is a middle school journal to get kids engaged in science, to show them how fun it can be. It’s about analytical thinking and understanding the scientific method, which will help them figure things out in their lives, not just in science. It’s about using more analytical thinking, not just emotion-based.
Do you think it’s a basic lack of analytical thinking that is causing Americans to fall further behind other countries in science literacy, or is it how we’re teaching children? Or is it perhaps how issues such as climate change and evolution have been politicized?
K: I think first you have to make clear that there’s a difference between ignorance and intelligence. I was raised in Laurence Harbor, N.J., and I think I was only the second person from there to go to college, though the kids there were just as smart and creative as the ones I come across here [in Berkeley]. The reason I’m doing [Frontiers] is because education was the ticket for me — it’s the only thing that makes up for a lack of socioeconomic access.
Telling kids you have to believe in climate change, or you have to believe in evolution, is not going to go anywhere. You have to let them figure it out, to explore the world, to test their ideas. That’s the only way you’re going to get change. Trying to change things from the top down never works.
So, would you include Frontiers as part of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) trend in education?
K: This STEM thing that everyone’s always talking about and touting is all top-down. People are telling kids do this, do that. I’ve never heard anybody say, “Maybe the kids should tell us how they want to be educated.”Frontiers is about putting kids in control. We’re not there yet, but in the future I’d eventually like kids to be the ones guiding the material and driving the content.
Aside from STEM, another big trend now in science education is citizen science: projects, often crowdsourced, in which non-scientists, including children, contribute to research through collecting data or analyzing it. Do you see Frontiers evolving a citizen science component?
K: I don’t know. I’m about to set up a parallel editorial board of kids. If they tell me, “Hey, we want to crowdsource something,” fine, but it’s got to come from them. I don’t want to tell them what to do.
A common criticism of the gulf between researchers and the public in science understanding and interest is that many researchers aren’t able to explain their work in terms the average American can understand or find relevance in. Do you think that’s a fair critique?
K: I think most scientists can talk about what they’re doing and why it’s important if you let them. But I think most journalists don’t give them that chance. They think scientists are these weird, geeky people. And kids have the role models that the press promotes. I heard that the No. 1 role model in the world is Beyonce — give me a break. If that’s true, we’re in the most shallow end of the pool.
Where will Frontiers go from here?
K: When I first came up with the idea, we were going to call it Frontiers in Neuroscience for Young Minds. But we took out the neuroscience part. That was a calculated decision. We will be expanding: The next three areas we’re exploring are medicine, which is huge — everything from asthma to pimples to obesity; and astronomy, which is a natural — kids wonder what’s up in the skies; and environmental science. We’re definitely going to branch out. But we want to grow it organically. We want to be a portal for good information for kids. You have to go through us and you have to go through our scientists, but once it’s vetted, we post it.
So, is Frontiers going to be the answer to motivating kids to want to emulate scientists rather than pop stars?
K: Is it just a cool website, or is it going to change things long term? I don’t know the answer to that. We have to wait and see. Things aren’t going to change in five or six years. It’s going to be a generation. But I would like to think Frontiers is a small building block leading to that change.
[This article originally appeared in print as "The Kids Are All Right."]