Science for Every Tom, Dick and Einstein

At some point in the last decade, science became an awful lot cooler. Perhaps this is wishful thinking on my part, or the result of a perspective warped by the Oxford bubble, but I really am quite convinced. This change in attitude is most likely due to the vastly improved accessibility of scientific information and I believe this has, and will continue to have a positive effect on science in Britain. A survey at the recent ‘Bang Goes the Theory’ festival found that many parents were struggling to answer their children’s questions. Parents speculated that this was due to the easy access of information, particularly through websites, blogs and inspiring documentaries, not to mention the plethora of exciting scientific apps available on tablets and smartphones. But how can the science community build on this infrastructure? How can we ensure that this love of pop-science translates into a generation of budding Einsteins? Or perhaps it could help increase the base scientific knowledge of the country.

What is it that is drawing people in? This is a fairly easy one to answer; the public are being shown the prettier side of science, in a non-threatening, comfortable environment. They are able to engage in the topic, but are also free to take it at their own pace, perhaps skimming over areas which are too challenging. There is no fear of failure in watching a documentary or reading an article online. It appeals to every level, whether you simply take away the fact that ‘there are planets and stars and they are really pretty’ or whether you are a step ahead of the program, actively trying to predict the next disclosure. Brian Cox rarely sets exams.

Perhaps we should consider where this interest can be exploited and built upon. The obvious places are schools and museums, by linking these environments to the pop culture that sparked initial interest. As much as I love the London Science Museum and would highly recommend it to all, I sometimes worry that it is lacking in a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ (especially when compared to American equivalents). The floor of miniature wooden ships is a collection that will surely interest some, but is not necessarily inspiring to the general public. Perhaps such collections could be incorporated into a more relevant display. The ‘history of computing’ gallery, for example, could be improved by combining the excellent historical collections they currently house with information and hands on activities relating to modern technology. Perhaps also more collaboration with the institutions responsible for this recent surge in scientific interest could help to engage the public further. For instance, linking apps with displays in the museum, or having guest voice overs from popular documentary producers.

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In schools there are already many fantastic programmes that aim to bring relevant science, which is often beyond the schools’ resources, into classrooms for free. These programmes are brilliant, but building them into the infrastructure of our formal science education would finally bring the ‘no child left behind’ policy into fruition. It would, of course, be wrong to drop the rigorous skills of science and maths and focus only on the more glamorous aspects of planets and exploding caravans. However, if more students can become engaged through putting the difficult and sometimes boring aspects of the curriculum into a wider and more relevant context, then it could prevent some students with great potential from falling off the radar. And those students who lack the necessary natural talents to progress onto further education will be able to appreciate the relevance of science when they leave.

It seems that in order to simultaneously harness the bright scientific brains of the future and bring up the average understanding of science we need to smooth the learning curve. But who can make these changes? A select few choose how to run the education system and national museums. However, as a science student there are a whole range of ways to individually fuel these recent improvements. From running workshops at schools and science festivals to starting your own pop-science venture, or simply taking the time to explain what you do to a keen friend. Everyone involved in science can help bring science to every Tom, Dick and Harry, and perhaps uncover some budding Einsteins in the process.

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