Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Thinking outside the SpaceDino


This Dinosaur resides in Crystal Palace, not outer space

This extends my piece on Comment is Free.

Science minister David Willetts recently gave a speech to the Royal Institution. He was asked a question about how he would work effectively with schools and young people (another minister's brief). He started off well before putting his foot in his mouth with this little piece of laziness: “The two best ways of getting young people into science are space and dinosaurs".

It was a flippant point, but indicative of a flippancy which is somehow ok when it comes to "kids stuff" (and pisses me off). It could have been worse. Willetts could have put the space-dinos point the way he did in Portsmoth the previous month: "All the evidence suggest if you're going to get young people into those subjects they are the two most powerful things" (source: local newspaper report).

All the evidence? Really? Er, no. I checked. What "evidence" does exist is deeply flawed and/ or contradicts a love of space-dinos (for very brief discussion see the comment is free piece). It's a seriously under-researched area. There should be a lot more work in this area, and it should be a lot better. Interestingly, many of the CiF comments reflected a tendency in educational discourse to hold personal experience above research that aims to consider a broader range of people. For example: "Dinos and space worked for me". I'm sure they did, and I'm not seeking to devalue that personal experience in any way, but the world is bigger.

I should underline that I wrote this piece because the Guardian asked to respond to recent HESA data, and a perceived problem of attracting women in science. This is a knotty question, there are oodles of issues involved (as Sheril Kirshenbaum's recent blogpost reflects on). I wanted to stress that, in working through all these issues, we have to be careful of making broad statements about gender, age or science.

For example, Susan Greenfield says physics has a problem recruiting girls because girls “want to know about relationships” (yes, in that interview). Maybe she has a point, she's not the only one to say this (some history of debates around this documented in this reader). But “girls” are rather a large set of people to pin down. Educational researcher Heather Mendick found that apparently "hardness" of A-level maths could be part of the (many) appeals of the subject for girls as well as boys. Of course, Mendick’s study is of girls who have chosen to study maths, not the ones who had been put off. But we can’t ignore those already-interested either. That's really my point: if you're worried about inspiring the next generation of scientists, boys or girls, you need to listen to young people, in all their diversity. You can't just rely on your own experience, you have to let yourself be surprised by your audience.

Further, to pick up on the "generational issues": as I say in the CiF piece, a lot of children's media (be it books, tv, museums, school exams) can seem a generation or two behind. There is a long history of analysis of spotting this in literary/ media studies. Jacqueline Rose wrote the book on it. Her study of Peter Pan is subtitled "the impossibility of children's literature", arguing children's literature is produced and controlled by adults, so it reflects an adult's idea of the child (it's not "children's" at all, it belongs to the grownups). Personally, I much prefer David Buckingham's extension of Rose's idea. He applies the idea of "impossibility" to Timmy Mallett and argues that kids tv presenters who try to appear "down with the kids" as largely acting out a role of what they think children are and will like; a form of "generational drag". There's always a bit of "dressing up" involved.

So, let's not fool ourselves into thinking that projects like I'm a Scientist or SciCast are somehow simply bottom up, or (more ridiculous) a clean articulation of what children are "naturally" interested in. It's worth noting quite how connected to the school curriculum the SciCast films are (maybe that's a good thing though, a sign that aspects of the school science system are working, at least in places). Equally, we shouldn't write off these projects because of adult involvement either. Education is largely a matter of passing on ideas from one generation to another, but SciCast and I'm a Scientist involve young people as active participants in this, letting young people express their own interests. That's why I mentioned them on CiF. The question banks in I'm a Scientist and SciCast's films provide some rough idea of what aspects of science today's young people find exciting. In the absence of much more decent work in the field, they are one place to at least get some clue of what inspires young people.


  1. 'Generational drag' - love it. Maybe that's why the best children's TV presenters from my youth were John Craven and Johnny Ball. They weren't wearing wacky clothes, just explaining things simply and clearly.

  2. Great post, and a good demonstration of Mark Henderson's point at the #TalkFest about blogs providing the "DVD extras" to news articles that will have been subject to editing. I had a feeling there were things missing, or touched upon too briefly, in the Guardian article. While this is understandable (they are certainly more "technical" points), they've been covered here. Thank you for posting them.

    For example, I don't think I'd fully appreciated the point about "I'm a Scientist" and "SciCast" involving young people as "active participants". The talks I give in schools generally feature me talking "at" kids, and questions will largely revolve around the science I've been talking about - and to be fair, that's part of my remit as a funded STFC PhD student. I think @imascientist phrased it nicely when she mentioned the "empowerment" aspect of the voting system in #IAS2010. More research in this area would indeed be welcome.

    Waving my flag for science teachers again, it might also be worth mentioning that projects like "I'm a Scientist" and SciCast generally take place in schools (so you're not relying on parents to bring their children anywhere), and generally rely on good, enthusiastic science teachers to work. I say "generally" because the 2010 winner was done by a 17 year-old working on his own:


    That said, we can probably ignore this isolated example. After all, the film was about space, wasn't it? ;-)

    Cheers, Tom

  3. As a recent contestant, I think I'm A Scientist succeeds because despite adult involvement it is very bottom-up. Students could and did ask questions on almost any topic. As you suggest, if you wanted to get a clear impression of what interests them in general, you could do worse than categorise and count the number of questions on different topics. Anecdotally, my impression was that "space" was very well represented, "dinosaurs" somewhat less so, but both were fairly popular. What was most surprising was the level of interest in Physics. Students also asked lots of difficult, but reasonable questions about cosmology. They seemed genuinely fascinated by the really tough questions, well beyond the school syllabus. I wonder whether school science misses a trick by focusing too heavily on topics where the answers are known, at the expense of topics which inspire wonder and inquiry. Looking at the scientists profiles, finding answers to unsolved problems is what motivates us all.

  4. Hmmm... You've a few sentences that I can't make sense of, as-written. Feel free to delete this comment if they're just typos you can correct.

    "He stared off well before putting his foot in his mouth..."

    "I should underline that wrote this piece because the Guardian asked to respond to recent..."

    "...provide some rough idea of what in and around science today's young people seem to be getting excited by."

  5. @Theo

    Typos corrected. Thank you

  6. My 17 year old daughter is doing maths, further maths, physics and French A levels - wants to do engineering at university - and what inspires her? Top Gear and Richard Hammond's TV programs on engineering - especially the one on the Sydney Opera House - at one point she said "Wow - that woman's an engineer who knows all about glass in buildings - how cool is that?"..... It may be genetic - her grandfathers were both engineers.

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