Science is fun

2nd March 2001 at 00:00
Just as M Jourdain was pleasantly surprised to learn that he had been speaking prose for 40 years without knowing it, children must be persuaded that the activities they enjoy include "science" even when they have little perception of what that means. A main conclusion of the Children in Scotland inquiry into primary pupils' ideas about science and scientists (page four) is that the mismatch between action and understanding has to be addressed.

Young children are eager to find out how the world works. They have the spirit of wonder and inquiry that has prompted scientific inquiry through the ages. But they cannot associate their interests in, say, natural history or computers with what they regard as the boring and "nerdish" life led by middle-aged men - always men - in white coats. The caricature of comics and television removes any desire to follow in the scientist's footsteps. A few well publicised demonsrations of flashes and bangs in Christmas lectures for young people are no counterweight, nor, unfortunately, is the excellent schools programmes of the Edinburgh International Science Festival (ScotlandPlus, page six).

Children in Scotland heard the views of younger children. Their older brothers and sisters are also turned off by the sciences, which they regard as difficult at Standard grade and certainly beyond. The mathematics required in physics, chemistry and thereafter in engineering is a further deterrent, as the lowly number of Higher, Sixth Year Studies and university candidates testifies.

Relating children's interests to scientific reality and showing how the benefits of advances far outweigh the damage and dangers are one way to redress the balance. Some schools have brought in postgraduate students to show scientists are not loony - they are usually young and increasingly female.

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