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The University of Texas at ArlingtonThe University of Texas at Arlington

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Nye brings science education campaign to UT Arlington

Bill Nye
Bill Nye responds to a question during the ACES Roundtable at Texas Hall on March 23.

Listening to Bill Nye talk, it’s obvious right away how passionate he is about science and math. He’s made it his mission, in fact, to champion them to anyone who will listen, insisting that by embracing a love for science, people can, as he says often, “change the world!” Nye - a science educator, engineer, comedian and inventor best known to a generation of kids as host of the popular TV series Bill Nye the Science Guy - visited UT Arlington on March 23 for a pair of appearances at Texas Hall. First was an afternoon roundtable discussion as part of the Annual Celebration of Excellence by Students (ACES) symposium, followed by a sold-out evening talk as part of the Maverick Speaker Series.

The central theme Nye wanted to get across was that science is the key to solving many of the problems facing the world, including global warming. He encouraged students to be passionate about science and to shatter stereotypes of math as dull and difficult by understanding the “PB and J” (passion, beauty and joy) of math.

There is no doubt about Nye’s popularity. His evening lecture sold out in record time, and when UT Arlington President James D. Spaniolo introduced him before his talk, Nye received a loud and boisterous ovation more befitting a rock star than a 55-year-old, bow-tie wearing scientist/engineer.

Nye encouraged the students in the audience - of whom there were many - to embrace their passion and challenged them to change the world for the better. He used his skills as a comedian to emphasize his points and had the crowd laughing frequently.

“We need to make society more scientifically literate so we can solve all these problems,” he said. “We need people who are passionate about science, passionate about learning. That’s what science is all about, the joy of discovery.”

Nye earned a degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell University - Carl Sagan was one of his professors - and he worked for several years at Boeing after college. He also had a knack for comedy and began working nights as a standup comic. He got his start in TV on Almost Live, a Seattle sketch comedy show where his “Science Guy” persona originated. That led to his Emmy Award-winning show, Bill Nye the Science Guy, which ran from 1993-97.

Since then he has hosted other TV programs and continues to advocate for science education while also working as a consulting engineer on various projects. His latest media projects are the show Stuff Happens on the Planet Green channel, which focuses on the environment, and the upcoming Solving for X, which will show the importance of algebra for school-age children.

He is also executive director and past vice president of the Planetary Society, a group which aims to inspire people to explore other worlds and seeks to create ways for the public to have roles in space exploration.

Nye’s UT Arlington talk featured anecdotes from his own life, explaining how he acquired his interest in science and in how things work. His parents, Edwin “Ned” and Jacqueline Nye, both had strong interests in science. Nye’s father was an avid rock collector and became fascinated by sundials after fashioning one to tell time while being held as a prisoner of war by the Japanese during World War II. His mother was enlisted as a code breaker during the war.

Nye has taken his father’s love of sundials to a whole new level, helping in the construction of sundials on two Mars rovers.

Nye talked at length on the evidence for global warming, noting that the past 10 years are the warmest since detailed recordkeeping began 130 years ago. Another major concern, he noted, is the ballooning world population. When he was nine years old, Nye said, the Earth’s population was around three billion people. Today, it’s nearing seven billion.

“In your lifetimes, the population is going to grow to 12 billion, and possibly as high as 15 billion,” Nye told the audience. “We’re going to have to figure out how to do more with less.” Finding ways to make alternative energy more efficient would be a major step in reducing global warming and making the planet more sustainable, Nye said. He noted that while he has solar panels on his own house, and his monthly electric bill is around $10, the efficiency of the technology is presently very low.

“Right now, solar panels are about 15 percent efficient,” he said. “What if we could make them 35 percent efficient? Or 50 percent? Or 60 or 80 percent? That’s your challenge. If you can figure that out, you can be Bill Gates-rich. Doing more with less is where it’s at.”

The afternoon roundtable was a discussion featuring Nye and College of Science faculty members Minerva Cordero, Greg Hale, Ramon Lopez and Kevin Schug and moderated by Science Dean Pamela Jansma. The topics focused on ways to improve science education and how to keep students engaged.

Asked how educators can get students more excited about math, Nye pleaded for more enthusiasm by teachers. He still recalls many of his junior high and high school math teachers, saying they each made major impacts on him.

“We need to get better at teaching math,” he said. “Math is in everything we do. You can predict the future with math! It’s so exciting; there’s a beauty to it. There’s a real need for us to do a better job teaching it.”

Nye said scientists need to do a better job of promoting their research and discoveries with the media. And as the population becomes more diverse, Nye said it’s even more important to reach out to young kids, because “you can reach them in any language and they can learn anything,” he said.

At both events, Nye answered questions from audience members, many of whom were young devotees of his Science Guy TV show. Among his responses to their queries: He applied numerous times to become part of NASA’s astronaut program, but was denied each time. His hobbies include bike riding and swing dancing. If asked, he would love to compete on Dancing with the Stars. He wears a solar-powered wristwatch and recently bought an all-electric car. Mainly, he returned to his central point again and again.

“I’m hoping to change the world, and I’d appreciate your help as scientifically literate people,” he said. “I want all of you to chase your passions and change the world, too!”