Death of the nutty professor

5th September 2008 at 01:00
Scientists are now emotionally well-balanced and nice to know, say budding boffins

Being able to talk openly about your feelings is not a trait one traditionally associates with the successful scientist.

But the image of the wild-haired, socially inept boffin peering into bubbling test tubes needs to be revised, say Cambridge academics.

The researchers, who work for the exam board Cambridge Assessment, asked almost 2,000 pupils to sit an emotional-intelligence questionnaire before taking their GCSE science. Pupils' responses were then compared to the examination grades they received. Their findings are being presented today at the British Educational Research Association conference in Edinburgh.

Contrary to expectations, the researchers found that achievement in science was linked to high emotional intelligence. Those pupils who were naturally better at empathising with others and at adapting to their circumstances were most likely to succeed academically.

Marianne Cutler, of the Association of Science Education, is unsurprised. "The geeky image is based on Marie Curie, Lister and all the old scientists working in their laboratories," she said. "But any science teacher in the classroom today will work with a range of students, many of them showing very desirable emotional-intelligence skills."

Skills of empathy and adaptability had a particular impact on pupils sitting the applied-science double award, a vocational GCSE.

Meanwhile, high ratings for self-esteem, happiness and adaptability had a noted effect on candidates' grades in mainstream chemistry and biology GCSEs.

The researchers said: "This would suggest that schoolchildren's performance could be improved substantially by devising strategies for even modest improvements in their emotional intelligence."

Sharon Hall, a molecular biologist and science communications officer at Warwick University, said these skills would provide long-term benefits. "A lot of science projects involve chemists, biologists and also social scientists," she said. "You have to interact with other people, and disseminate research findings to wider groups. You have to be multi- faceted. Those who can't do that would probably struggle in the new world of interactive science."

The only science subject that the Cambridge researchers found to be unaffected by emotional intelligence was physics, a finding which may reinforce as many stereotypes as the other results shatter.

But Marianne Cutler says this is another unfair prejudice. "Physics, music and maths often go hand-in-hand," she said. "The creative approach and emotional empathy one needs across all these is really apparent. A good physicist should be just as emotional intelligent as a biologist or a chemist."

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