I cultivated an extreme aversion to science at school. Or should I say, the way I was taught science at school left me completely cold. My memory of physics for example – and I know I am as capable of hyperbole in the interests of a good story as the next man – is of being set endless homework problems, along the lines of working out how long it would take a stone to reach the bottom of a cliff if thrown from a great height. Call me an unwilling participant, but I couldn’t work up the enthusiasm to care, far less see the relevance of the problem. The fact that our textbook was called, without a hint of irony as far as I’m aware, Physics is Fun, only served to bolster my resistance.
Fast forward several decades, and along with a great many of the population, I have been transfixed recently with the apparent ‘discovery’ by Italian scientists of tiny particles called ‘neutrinos’ moving faster than the speed of light, and in the process upsetting everything we thought we knew about the universe since Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was – er, ‘universally’ accepted. Numerous eminent scientists have subsequently weighed in with huge doses of scepticism of course, which all adds to the fun (Best related joke so far: Barman says ‘we don’t serve neutrinos in here. A neutrino walks into a bar.)
My interest in the story was already primed, having recently finished reading Free Radicals – The Secret Anarchy of Science by Michael Brooks, in which the author argues that science has suffered over the years from a very safe and conservative image, with scientists portrayed through the mass media as dependable, rational and almost always correct, an image which Brooks claims is inaccurate and which has done science and science teaching little favour. Here is how he describes the situation in his own words:-
Then there is the issue of science education. How do we inspire the next generation of scientists? Since the 1950s, the public face of science has been dull, spiritless and cautious. Scientists have taken a back seat in society and culture, allowing rock stars, sportsmen – and women, and fame-hungry TV celebrities to win the attention of our children….If the high school students of today were permitted to learn – perhaps through scientists taking a more honest approach with the media – what science and scientists are really like, the days of a career in science being the dull, dismal road less travelled would be behind us.
There is also the problem of methodology: science teaching methods and curricula have also been the victim of the cover-up. Children have, by and large, been taught the letter but not the spirit of science. As the philosopher Rousseau suggested, we should not teach children the sciences, but give them the appetite for them.
It is open to question, for instance, whether students really need to learn all of the scientific information on the science curriculum. For most, it is an experience that seems to destroy any interest in science. And anyone who has done a school science practical will know how hard it can be to get results that the textbooks say they should. Why is this seen as a failing? Imagine if teachers were then allowed to use this experience to explain the challenges and rewards involved in making breakthroughs and discoveries, rather than having to press on to the point where the student’s notebook contains the ‘right’ answer. Science teachers have been unwittingly co-opted into the effort to conceal the true nature and spirit of science.
It strikes me that the new Scottish science curriculum provides teachers with the opportunities to do exactly as Michael Brooks suggests here. But then again, I’m not a science teacher, so what would I know. Any science teachers out there care to comment?
Since writing this post I have been directed to two exciting new, free, science teaching resources from the BP Educational Service.
There is a teaching resource for Primary called Young Science Investigators: Project Kit www.bp.com/bpes/ysiprojectkit, which is a new interactive resource for pupils aged 7–11 that focuses on science at work in the real world and scientific enquiry skills through practical hands-on activities, animations, lesson plans, worksheets and teacher guidance.
How Science Works – Clip Bank www.bp.com/bpes/howscienceworks is the secondary resource which provides students aged 11-16 with great examples of real-life science in action. The materials include video clips, animations, interactive activities, photo slideshows, teacher guidance and curriculum links.