Muffy Calder

25th January 2013 at 00:00
The chief scientific officer for the Scottish government talks about STEM ambassadors, the importance of computer programming lessons and whether tablet computers for schools are worth the investment. Interview by Henry Hepburn, Photography by Alistair Linford

If one thing could be done to get more girls into science, what would that be?

It's not necessarily about having a female teacher, or female role models. A lot of it is about connecting to what you can do with science - how it empowers you to change and understand your world.

Are schools able to gain access to enough positive and exciting STEM role models and real-world links at the moment?

I haven't heard to the contrary. I've been invited on Speakers for Schools, Robert Peston's initiative - I think it's fabulous.

What do you think of sending university students into schools, through schemes such as STEM ambassadors?

It's a really good idea, for everybody concerned - it gives the students a deeper understanding of their own field. Our students come back so enthused, and often want to become teachers after it.

How concerned are you about school science budgets and technician numbers falling?

It's on my to-do list to look into. I am concerned - I need to know more.

We reported last year that professor Alan Roach advocated a general science Higher. What do you make of that idea?

It's not something I've thought of. I'm keen on retaining disciplines, while always exposing links to other disciplines - multidisciplinary success comes from being an expert in your own discipline. I wouldn't dismiss it out of hand, but I'm keen that the separate scientific disciplines are not compromised in any way.

Biotechnology and geology have recently dropped out of the Scottish Qualifications Authority's portfolio. Is Scotland too focused on the 'big three' sciences?

I'm not an educational expert, so what I say has to be understood in that context. It's always a shame to see a number of sciences cut back. On the other hand, the core sciences are so essential that I really don't want to see them compromised.

You have said that every child should leave school with some knowledge of computer programming. What level of expertise are you talking about?

It doesn't have to be very advanced. It's about being exposed to what it is like to program - not seeing someone else do it, but actually doing it yourself. Computation is so fundamental to modern life now, and we use software everywhere. We all have an exposure to chemistry, physics, to the fundamentals that explain our physical world. At the same time, we need fundamentals that explain our digital world, our virtual world.

How difficult will it be to boost computing in schools when the number of computing teachers has dropped by 100 in five years?

That's a big issue - not only the number of teachers, but also their own development and CPD. There are proposals being drawn up now - there's a computing science excellence group - to develop a continuing programme of CPD. Communities of teachers are very much required.

You have been heading up the national ICT excellence group. Are you truly confident that, as you've put it, Glow can 'keep pace with rapidly-changing developments and speak the language of young people'?

I'm very confident that a successor to Glow could be implemented and used very successfully in Scottish schools.

If an intranet for Scottish schools had first been mooted after the likes of YouTube, Twitter and Facebook came into being, rather than before, would it ever have got off the ground?

"Intranet" is kind of passe. By definition, the answer's "no." The phrase now is "the digital learning environment" - we want something more than an intranet.

What is the most crucial factor for this new version of Glow to work?

The involvement of users, throughout the governance and future developments. The world has changed in so many ways - we don't have just a model of development that we throw over the fence and tell people to use. We live in an agile development context where we would expect to see the whole system continually evolve. The involvement of users in that would make it more successful.

Can you understand local authorities' nervousness about internet filtering?

Oh, sure. And we will be making what we hope to be positive and constructive recommendations in our report about how to deal with that, but it's not right for me to discuss them until it's published.

Do tablet computers justify the investment required for their use in schools?

I would say, 'Where's the evidence?' Just because you've got a hammer, don't go looking for a nail everywhere. I learned quite a lot of science without a tablet. Why do you need a tablet? Why are you doing something virtually and not physically? I wouldn't choose a school just because they gave kids tablets. If they used only chalk and a blackboard but taught really good science, I would be impressed.

Who is your science hero?

Marie Curie was hugely influential. Apparently, when her husband was knocked down a by a carriage, and his brains were on the road, she scooped up a bit in a handkerchief, brought it back to the house and kept it in a drawer for a year. That impressed me - what a sign of love. And she was a stunning scientist.


Born: Quebec, 1958

Education: Schooled in Canada. BSc, University of Stirling; PhD, University of St Andrews

Career: University of Glasgow department of computing science since 1988. Also worked at universities of Stirling and Edinburgh and short spells in industry. Roles included head of department and dean of research in college of science and engineering. OBE, 2011. Scottish government's chief scientific adviser since 2012.

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