Use the F-word in science

The murder of Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko was not just an international news story; it was an opportunity for science teachers to show the effects of polonium on the human body. So says Anne Glover, Scotland's chief scientific adviser, who this week spoke to The TESS about her hopes for making school science more appealing.

Professor Glover believes that they have to see science extending beyond dusty laboratories, whether that means focusing on Russian spies, global warming or any other issue of the day. "They need to understand the big ideas and concepts, and have a sound working knowledge of the processes of science, but we need to relate that to the issues that concern them."

She also believes that aspects of science are inherently fascinating to young people and can act as "hooks". Drawing on her own background in microbiology, she explained, for example, that there were as many microbes in a pinch of soil as people in the world.

Science is often a nebulous concept for young people, as Professor Glover underlined. "They know what a doctor does, or what a lawyer does, or even an engineer. They don't know what a scientist does."

That is partly the fault of scientists themselves, she argues. Just as producing research papers is a requirement of scientists, so they should make regular visits to schools to inspire pupils. "It's one of those things where I feel scientists should feel a degree of obligation."

Professor Glover is not afraid to use the F-word to emphasise that science need not be defined purely by ascetic rigour. "I've had a fantastic life in science -every day is fun," she says. "I can keep asking the questions we were asking as kids."

Interactive displays, such as those at Aberdeen's Satrosphere and Our Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh, are perfect examples of how to go about making science equally enjoyable for children. "It gives people a real feeling for what science is about. Sometimes they aren't thinking they are being educated."

Professor Glover is excited by the potential for A Curriculum for Excellence to follow the example of such centres and make science more interesting for children and teachers alike. "I think it's a real opportunity to allow kids to get a hold of the information, the knowledge, and to play around with (it) rather than just deal in facts."

She stressed that improving the curriculum should not aim simply to boost the numbers entering education and employment in science after school.

Instead, it should stimulate a lifelong interest in science among all pupils, in the same way that they might retain a passion for reading, initially sparked at school.

"I don't want everybody to be scientists, but I do want everybody to know about science; in the way that they know who William Shakespeare is, I want everybody to know who Charles Darwin is."


Scotland's chief scientific adviser, Anne Glover, started her academic career with a BSc in biochemistry from Edinburgh University. She completed a PhD in microbial biochemistry at Cambridge University, before setting up a research group at Aberdeen University.

She has researched areas including microbial diversity and community structure, development and application of whole cell biosensors for environmental monitoring, and the molecular response to stress.

Professor Glover is currently working on a national science strategy due for publication later this year.

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