On the shoulders of giants

11th March 2005 at 00:00
In National Science Week Susan Greenfield explains why pupils are being encouraged to identify today's Einsteins

Can there be anyone left in the country who isn't worried about the "education crisis", even if opinion might vary as to what it actually is? My own view is that it is not just about where we are today but where current trends are leading us into the middle of this century. The picture is one in which teachers are demoralised and parents angry and anxious. But the existing culture of core curricula, pressure, audits, consultations and experimental new ideas is surely secondary to the central issue - the need to encourage and nurture young people's innate curiosity and enthusiasm.

Although I've been a working scientist for many years, initially my education was arts-based. I was drawn to literature and history because it was all about people and didn't just focus on hard facts, as the science curriculum did. Science didn't seem relevant and certainly didn't give me an exciting picture of the individuals who were behind the bald facts.

Arts and humanities taught me a great deal about the power of personality and how they drive culture and society. Perhaps that's what we need now in science and technology - more publicly-admired science personalities and more enthusiasts for science who speak out. In government, in business, across the media, in social situations and, of course, in schools.

Scientists are driven by a passion for discovery. But arguably our system places too much emphasis on the audit of people's basic skills. How might a less tangible quality like curiosity be evaluated? Who are the role models that might set the example? Surely one way to excite people about science would be to reveal the human stories behind the everyday lives of scientists and engineers.

"We liked meeting the women - our teachers are men and they probably don't mean to but they make engineering sound boring," said a Year 9 female pupil.

Schools that work with role models in science, engineering and technology see a range of benefits: awakened interest in the subject from pupils; a way for teachers to keep up-to-date with the latest research or science, engineering and technology business applications, and some teachers even say that behavioural difficulties are reduced when role models are in the school.

Today sees the launch of UK National Science Week - a 10-day smorgasbord of media coverage and events up and down the country to promote science in all its aspects. Let's focus on the personalities behind the science. Everyone has heard of Michael Faraday, the discoverer of electro-magnetic induction and much else. But behind these great discoveries is a man who presents a fascinating role model to young people today. Born into a low-income family - his father was a blacksmith - he was apprenticed at the age of 14 as a bookbinder. During his apprenticeship he developed an interest in science, which grew and eventually drove him to change career direction entirely.

He was given tickets to hear Humphry Davy's last four lectures at the Royal Institution, and this inspired him to ask Davy for a job there. There was no position but Davy remembered the young enthusiast, and some months later, after a fight had broken out in the main lecture theatre of the RI between the instrument-maker and the chemical assistant, which resulted in the dismissal of the latter, Davy asked Faraday to take up the position.

Great as the Einsteins and Faradays of our past are, however, what about the scientific heroes of today? Who are the organisations and, indeed, the people behind the major discoveries and inventions of our world? How many can you actually name who are still alive?

As part of the institution's science education programme, we are working with the Dan David Foundation and have launched a new competition this year, designed to do just that. The Dan David Prize for Students is a vehicle for unmasking the living heroes of science and technology. The idea is to hold a feature-writing competition for 16 to 18-year-olds across the UK to describe whom they most admire in science (defined in the broadest sense possible).

This is quite a challenge, and one which many young people are already excited by weeks before the closing date of April 29. Perhaps by revealing the personal struggles and triumphs of these people in their quest for success, we can inspire a generation. The competition also offers attractive prizes - Pounds 10,000 to the winner along with four other financial prizes and an incentive for schools to participate, with five opportunities for the school to win pound;1,000.

Apart from the desire to excite young people about the human faces behind science, those prizes are also a significant incentive. I come from a working-class background and I am very sympathetic to the pressures and financial barriers that young people face today - the high costs of housing; the spiralling costs of further and higher education, which I certainly didn't have to consider. Certainly, pound;10,000 will be a welcome gift.

For more details on the Dan David prize see www.rigb.orgddp Baroness Susan Greenfield CBE is a professor of pharmacology at Oxford university and director of the Royal Institution

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