This extends my piece on Comment is Free.
Science minister David Willetts recently gave a speech to the Royal Institution. He was asked a question about how he would work effectively with schools and young people (another minister’s brief). He started off well before putting his foot in his mouth with this little piece of laziness: “The two best ways of getting young people into science are space and dinosaurs”.
It was a flippant point, but indicative of a flippancy which is somehow ok when it comes to “kids stuff” (and pisses me off). It could have been worse. Willetts could have put the space-dinos point the way he did in Portsmoth the previous month: “All the evidence suggest if you’re going to get young people into those subjects they are the two most powerful things” (source: local newspaper report).
All the evidence? Really? Er, no. I checked. What “evidence” does exist is deeply flawed and/ or contradicts a love of space-dinos (for very brief discussion see the comment is free piece). It’s a seriously under-researched area. There should be a lot more work in this area, and it should be a lot better. Interestingly, many of the CiF comments reflected a tendency in educational discourse to hold personal experience above research that aims to consider a broader range of people. For example: “Dinos and space worked for me”. I’m sure they did, and I’m not seeking to devalue that personal experience in any way, but the world is bigger.
I should underline that I wrote this piece because the Guardian asked to respond to recent HESA data, and a perceived problem of attracting women in science. This is a knotty question, there are oodles of issues involved (as Sheril Kirshenbaum’s recent blogpost reflects on). I wanted to stress that, in working through all these issues, we have to be careful of making broad statements about gender, age or science.
For example, Susan Greenfield says physics has a problem recruiting girls because girls “want to know about relationships” (yes, in that interview). Maybe she has a point, she’s not the only one to say this (some history of debates around this documented in this reader). But “girls” are rather a large set of people to pin down. Educational researcher Heather Mendick found that apparently “hardness” of A-level maths could be part of the (many) appeals of the subject for girls as well as boys. Of course, Mendick’s study is of girls who have chosen to study maths, not the ones who had been put off. But we can’t ignore those already-interested either. That’s really my point: if you’re worried about inspiring the next generation of scientists, boys or girls, you need to listen to young people, in all their diversity. You can’t just rely on your own experience, you have to let yourself be surprised by your audience.
Further, to pick up on the “generational issues”: as I say in the CiF piece, a lot of children’s media (be it books, tv, museums, school exams) can seem a generation or two behind. There is a long history of analysis of spotting this in literary/ media studies. Jacqueline Rose wrote the book on it. Her study of Peter Pan is subtitled “the impossibility of children’s literature”, arguing children’s literature is produced and controlled by adults, so it reflects an adult’s idea of the child (it’s not “children’s” at all, it belongs to the grownups). Personally, I much prefer David Buckingham’s extension of Rose’s idea. He applies the idea of “impossibility” to Timmy Mallett and argues that kids tv presenters who try to appear “down with the kids” as largely acting out a role of what they think children are and will like; a form of “generational drag”. There’s always a bit of “dressing up” involved.
So, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that projects like I’m a Scientist or SciCast are somehow simply bottom up, or (more ridiculous) a clean articulation of what children are “naturally” interested in. It’s worth noting quite how connected to the school curriculum the SciCast films are (maybe that’s a good thing though, a sign that aspects of the school science system are working, at least in places). Equally, we shouldn’t write off these projects because of adult involvement either. Education is largely a matter of passing on ideas from one generation to another, but SciCast and I’m a Scientist involve young people as active participants in this, letting young people express their own interests. That’s why I mentioned them on CiF. The question banks in I’m a Scientist and SciCast’s films provide some rough idea of what aspects of science today’s young people find exciting. In the absence of much more decent work in the field, they are one place to at least get some clue of what inspires young people.