Chickens and eggs

Which comes first, the love of science or the understanding of it? In my opinion this is a bit of a chicken and egg situation. If you do not appreciate and understand how amazing science is, why would you want to learn more about it? And if you do not learn about it, how can you appreciate its true wonders?

I recently had a discussion in which I defended the importance of scientists going into teaching. I’ve also been doing quite a bit more in the way of public engagement type activity, as some of you may have noticed from my last post about the British Science Association event. I started this because I think it is important to ensure scientific literacy and appreciation in everyone, kids and adults alike. My experience and observations doing it have been great, and they have been thought-provoking.

Many of the comments we’ve received during the science-busking events we’ve done have gone along the lines of “Better than science in school”, “I’m really into science and this is great”, “Why don’t we learn about this in school?” Many adults assumed that the event was aimed at their kids and not for them, because “Science is for kids, it’s something you learn in school”, which is a shame because what we are trying to show is how vital science is for everything that you do, it surrounds us and is integral to our lives. Now you can argue that the busking is not the best way to reach the adults, and this may be right, but the attitude still persists and must, I feel, be addressed.

Science teaching is really important because it contains the message about the significance of science in everything. But the way that science is taught in many schools (especially due to over-zealous health and safety concerns) means that the wonder and amazement is difficult to convey. I’m not an expert in education and I don’t have direct answers to this, but I am sure that is would help if impressionable minds could be impressed with amazing things that science can do. It would also help if parents believed that science was important and conveyed this attitude to their children. It might help if science was not just one lesson in a list of english, maths, french, science, PE, etc. Science comes into all of these subjects and could be demonstrated in all of the lessons rather than as a rather abstract thing to be  learned by rote. There have been various attempts to do this and I am sure that some of them are successful. As I said, I’m not an expert. But you can tell by the state of society today and the media in particular, that many people have no interest in or understanding of science. So what’s going wrong?

Instead of targeting the kids, we could start with the people in charge, those with the power to make a difference. Ask them to promote the importance of science, and the importance of having a future generation as well as a current generation of scientifically literate people. They don’t all need to be scientists, but understanding the scientific method will help in so many ways in different parts of society. But if science continues to be taught in a way that makes it difficult to be enthusiastic about it, none of this will have much effect. We will just be imposing dull lessons on our kids, who will probably then hate science forever.

And how do you convince the policymakers etc. of the importance of something that they have hated since childhood and that only a minority wants to study?

As ever I would love to hear what you think – do we aim to start with the chicken or the egg? Or something entirely different? And what is the most effective way for one person to make a difference in this regard – should I write to my MP (who seems most uninterested in scientific questions in general) or go into teaching? (this is not a serious career-change question as I would make a terrible teacher but as a means to make a difference it certainly has potential).

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4 Comments on “Chickens and eggs”

  1. Russell Says:

    For me (as a child) it was almost always interest first, then understanding. Wow that’s cool! Why does it happen? I don’t think you always have to understand something to be intrigued by it. Often not understanding something is inherently intriguing.

  2. sciencecarol Says:

    I guess that’s probably true for most of us who are into science currently – simply because the importance of science is not really conveyed as it should be. What worries me a little is that those people who are not initially intrigued and excited by it will never get the message about the importance – and often it is these people who go on to teach others and tell others about the world, especially in the media and politics. How can we address this?

    It’s interesting that you feel you don’t need understanding to be intrigued by something. Does understanding increase or lessen the excitement?

  3. Russell Says:

    Sorry for the delay. I don’t think understanding is necessary for excitement but it doesn’t prevent it either. Certainly there’s a thrill in discovering something even if the discovery is just you understanding something for yourself, but there’s a reason you tried to understand it for yourself – normally it’s because you were either forced (school etc…) or gained a personal benefit, such as satisfying a personal curiosity.

    If someone’s not interested in science because they don’t understand it or don’t know its importance that’s one thing – teaching how science solves problems and enables our everyday lives (or just cool stuff like fireworks) will spark off this interest if you’re naturally interested – but if they’re simply not interested full stop then no amount of exposure will correct this. I watch TV but there are some programmes I won’t watch no matter how many adverts are put on – I know very little about them (having never watched more than the advert) but I’m just not interested; however, I wouldn’t dream of teaching people about them. Anyone teaching science needs to understand and be interested in it.

    So if I had to choose whether the chicken or an egg came first I’d say that interest comes before understanding. Unless the off course you need to understand why it’s important to be interested in the first place… Oh dear.

    • sciencecarol Says:

      Thanks Russell. In general I think you are probably right that interest comes first. I guess my dilemma is what to do if interest does not arise – can it be sparked by understanding (possibly in some people but not others) or is this a hopeless cause? And what can we do to make people more open-minded about it in the first place?


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