Category Archives: education

Considering science and children

I did my PhD on children’s science books. I happen to think children’s interactions with science – and the way adults decide to build such interactions for them – is a fascinating area of social analysis. I hope to spend much of the next few months (while I’m on research leave) going back to this work, so I thought I’d turn some of my old teaching notes into a blogpost.

In advocating research on children and science it is all too easy to fall back on overly self-important (and under-analysed) celebrations of their significance. Yes, political intersections between children and science and/ or technology can be some of the most controversial: vaccinations, digital culture, the future effects of current energy policy. As I wrote on an old blog years ago, children are at the center of an awful lot of science news stories. Yes, increasingly, science and technology is a central part of children’s lives; whether because they find themselves in front of flickering electronic screens or because various people mobilise their concern to train a scientifically literate futurepeople, plotting science into curricula the world over. But I am not in the business of repeating such rhetoric. I’d much rather have a good, hard look at it; examine it, consider what makes it tick, take it apart and see if we can’t put it together in more useful and interesting ways.

Imagining the child and science

There are many ways to define both ‘science’ and ‘the child’. Moreover, the ways we imagine what counts as either scientific and childish effect how we structure our world, and can be used rhetorically. Interestingly, both the child and science are subjects that have, at the end of the 20th century, been described as being ‘under threat’ in some way: the Science Wars (see Labinger & Collins, 2001) and a perceived End of Childhood (e.g. Postman, 1994). Arguably both were largely momentary non-events, the controversies of which have largely settled down to be unpicked by social and historical scholars (e.g. see discussion in Leane, 2007, Broks, 2006, Prout, 2005, Buckingham, 2000a). Still, notions that either science or the child might be under threat from aspects of post/late modernity remain in public discourse. Moreover, both (non)events at least underline not only a suggested ‘crisis’ in childhood/science, but also a desire to maintain a sense of singular identity for these groups.

As Anne Higonnet (1998) and Patricia Holland’s (2004) studies of iconography of the child in visual culture both emphasise, the child is often used to stand for a form of unquestioned, unsullied, pre-social ‘natural’ human state. Higonnet in particular emphasises the ways in which imagery of childhood continually depicts children as existing somehow beyond or above social life: presenting a ‘secret garden’ of classless, androgynous non-identity. Several scholars of children’s literature have argued that such Romantic imagery put the child at odds with science, placing children firmly (iconically, even) on the side of the natural. As Jacqueline Rose puts it, the child is thus ‘set up as the site of a lost truth’ (Rose 1994, 43) somehow in opposition to book-based, scientific or technical knowledge. Noga Applebaum (2006) argues that such Romanticism surrounding the child also explains a thread of anti-science/ technology she perceives in much of contemporary children’s science fiction.

However, sociologist of childhood Chris Jenks (2005) stresses that there is a diversity of ideas as to what the nature of childhood equates to: innocent, pure, pre-social, but also playful, innovative, futuristic, mischievous, even deviant. It is worth quoting Jenks at length to help us consider the range of meanings at play here:

Whether we regard children as pure, bestial, innocent, corrupt, charged with potential, tabula rasa, or even as we view our adult selves; whether they think and reason as we do, are immersed in a receding tide of inadequacy, or are possessors of a clarity of vision which we have through experience lost; whether their forms of language, games and conventions are alternative to our own, imitations or crude precursors of our own now outgrown, or simply transitory impenetrable trivia which are amusing to witness and recollect; whether they are constrained and we have achieved freedom, or we have assumed constraint and they are truly free – all these considerations, and more, continue to exercise our theorising about the child in social life (Jenks, 2005: 2)

It is important to note that when Jenks talks about ‘theorising’ about the child, he does not only mean academic work, but also refers to the quite prosaic theorising which we all do as part of everyday social life.

As Jenks acknowledges, there is a key distinction to be made between such everyday theorising of the child and similar social work we all also do around class, race or gender. Every adult has at one time been a child and every child (tragic events avoided) has the potential to be an adult. Indeed, it is what is expected of them. As Jenks puts it, children are both alien and similar to adults: ‘the child inhabits our world and yet seems to answer to another’ (Jenks, 2005: 3). James and Prout (1997) in particular draw our attention to temporal issues in terms of ideas of the child and emphasise that part of the work of the sociology of childhood is also an understanding of the social construction of time. Childhood is social identity that is, unusually, at once apparently timeless and yet also heavily reliant on ideas of change over time. Vivian Sobschack (1991) puts it well when she describes children as equally futuristic and nostalgic.

Some ways of framing child/science interaction

Different definitions of what it means to be scientific and a child mingle to construct a range of presumptions over how children and science should relate to one another. The following list is not exhaustive, neither are any of these categories mutually exclusive (see Bell, 2008, for development with examples. It is free to download).

Children as distinct from the scientist. This is an oppositional category that, like scientist/public or any number of other cultural dualities, draws a boundary and defines one member in comparison to another. In such a system we might imagine the child as naïve, lacking a scientist’s “mature” knowledge, and therefore work the boundary and its associated definitions of child and scientist around notions of intellectual capacity and/or learning. We might, however, equally see the child as good and science as corrupt. The cultural image of the child comes with many optimistic and positive connotations, and we should not assume that children are always placed at the bottom of the comparison.

Children as similar to the scientist. In some respects, this is the opposite of the first category in that it finds points of similarity between children and scientists. We see this both in educational theory with ideas of the child as acting “like a scientist”, and in the construction of images of the scientist where a sense of the childlike can be worked to endow science with the positive connotations of the child. For example: the idea of having “the future in their bones”; the curiosity of a child; an intuitive link to nature; or a sense of innocence which fits neatly with the scientific aim to attain the simplicity of Occam’s Razor.

Children as scientists in waiting. This is often articulated in policies stressing the need for more trained scientists to maintain the national economy. In some respects, this is to think of the children in question not as children, but as the adults they will be in the future. Thus, studies of the child and science also show us something of the (youthful) construction of the scientist, as well as ways in which science interacts with a (youthful) public. This category could be subsumed within child-as-scientist; it tends, however, to maintain a sense that children will remain distinct from science at least until they have reached a certain age. Therefore it could also be seen as a mix of the first two categories.

Children as “critical friends” (in waiting). This has a very different political history from the other three categories. Rooted in “post-PUS” calls for engagement or dialogue with science, it suggests a collaborative relationship between science and the child, in which they can work in dialogue to work out issues of science policy. I place the “in waiting” in brackets, rather than defining a separate category, because such dialogic work tends to be considered only in terms of adult relationships with science. This is not simply a science-specific issue. Opinions on current affairs and matters of public policy may be encouraged as part of personal development, but tend to be ignored substantively until individuals reach voting age. When the education community has taken on such ideas, it tends to be seen as preparation for a later, adult role.


References:

  • Applebaum, Noga (2006) ‘The Myth of the Innocent Child: the Interplay Between Nature, Humanity and Technology in Contemporary Children’s Science Fiction’, The Journal of Children’s Literature Studies vol. 3(2): 1-17.
  • Bell, Alice R (2008) ‘The Childish Nature of Science: Exploring the child/science relationship in popular non-fiction’, in Alice R Bell, Sarah R Davies & Felicity Mellor (eds) Science and Its Publics (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing) 79-98.
  • Broks, Peter (2006) Understanding Popular Science (Maidenhead & New York: Open University Press).
  • Buckingham, David (2000a) After the Death of Childhood: Growing Up in the Age of Electronic Media (Cambridge: Polity).
  • Higonnet, Anne (1998) Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood (London: Thames and Hudson).
  • Holland, Patricia (2004) Picturing Childhood: The Myth of the Child in Popular Imagery (London: IB Taurus).
  • James, Allison & Alan Prout (1997) ‘Re-presenting Childhood: Time and Transition in the Study of Childhood’, in (eds) Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood: Contemporary Issues in the Sociological Studies of Childhood, second edition (London & New York: Routledge) 230-250.
  • Jenks, Chris (2005) Childhood, 2nd edition (Routledge, Abingdon).
  • Labinger, Jay A & Harry Collins (eds) (2001) The One Culture? A Conversation About Science (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press).
  • Leane, Elizabeth (2007) Reading Popular Physics: Disciplinary Skirmishes and Textual Strategies (Hampshire: Ashgate).
  • Postman, Neil (1994) The Disappearance of Childhood, vintage edition (first published 1982) (New York: Vintage Books).
  • Prout, Alan (2005) The Future of Childhood (London & New York: Routledge Falmer).
  • Rose, Jacqueline (1994) The Case of Peter Pan: Or the Impossibility of Children’s Literature, 2nd edition, (Macmillan: Basingstoke).
  • Sobschack, Vivian (1991) ‘Child/ Alien/ Father: Patriarchal Crisis and Generic Exchange’ in Constance Penley et al (eds) Close Encounters: Film, Feminism, and Science Fiction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) 2-30.

Science Top Trumps

This is a picture of my small collection of science-themed Top Trumps. It’s one of those things you only remember you own when you are moving house (I have just packed up my possessions to store while I spend two months in North America*).

my science-y top trumps colection

Top Trumps, if you haven’t heard of it, is a card game. Each set of cards is themed. In the picture above you can see chemistry, dinosaurs and scientific careers, but they’re more likely to be characters in a TV show, cars or footballers (yes, there is a Royal Wedding set…). Each card will have a set of values relating to that theme (e.g. height, weight). You play in rounds. Someone picks a category, and the player with the card with the highest value in that category wins the round. Popular in the 1970s and 80s in the UK, they were relaunched about ten years ago. As one might expect, there’s a detailed Wikipedia entry. Or there’s the official site, Planet Top Trumps.

I’ve written about the dinosaur set before. As I said then, it reminded me a bit of Buckingham & Scanlon’s comparison the way dinosaurs are used in non-fiction publishing with Pokémon (it’s all about collecting and exchanging facts, with the odd semi-fantastic monster thrown in).

dino top trumps

Each round of Top Trumps is very quick, but this doesn’t leave much time for considering the context of the values assigned, and we did query the scientific basis for some of these too. The ‘dinoman’ card is especially weird (I’m not the only person to have spotted this. There is a facebook appreciation page).

That old post about these was passed around a few bits of the internet, and as a result I was sent a pack of Dr Hal’s Chemistry Top Trumps. The ‘values’ here are atomic weight, danger factor, usefulness factor, melting point and year of discovery. Each card comes with a picture and a few sentences of ‘elementary facts’. I played this with some friends recently, and like the dinosaurs set, we wondered why we had to assume the biggest number is best, and there was some debate over whether it should be the biggest amount from 0 (either 0 degrees for temperature, of 0 years before common era in terms of discovery date) that won.

chemistry top trumps

Still, even our grumbles were, arguably, forms of learning about chemistry, and I do think I gained some feel for the elements as we sifted through them in the course of the game.

About a year ago I picked up a set of science career trumps card at the Science Museum shop. As a procrastination from packing I was reflecting on the chemistry pack anyway, I had a bit of a shuffle and a read.

Science careers top trumps.

Each card is carries the logo of an organsation connected to the job, and along with the values (travel, communication , numeracy, computer and technical) there are illustrations and a blurb. Here’s a picture of a few more. I was a bit surprised that the Association of British Science Writers say a qualification in a scientific subject is essential for a career in science journalism (I’m a member of the ABSW. I don’t have any scientific qualifications).

Science careers top trumps.

Playing the careers one, I really felt this was a blunt way of learning. I could see how the processes of the game could help bring some familiarity with the materials (and, as with the chemical elements, reminded me of ones I forgot I knew about), and I could imagine kids going ‘I want to be a…’ or ‘ha, I wouldn’t be a…’ off the back of one card ‘trumping’ another. Still, for me, it’s no substitute for something like the I’m A Scientist project, which connects young people to professional scientists. I’m not sure we should play games with careers. Maybe I’m being oversensitive.

I should probably note that the I’m a Scientist team do also produce debate packs structured through cards as another thread of their work. These aren’t Top Trumps though, they aren’t so competitive and don’t try to assign these odd numerical values to everything. The aim of the card-playing aspect of these packs is to prompt and help structure discussion (it’s worth looking up Democs if you are interested), which I suspect is the key way people learn from the chemistry or careers sets too.

I’d be interested to know if any science teachers have used Top Trumps though, and what the students thought.

I'm a Scientist cards

* I’ll be in the USA and Canada from the 18th of April. I’m mainly going to be in DC (at American University, School of Communication) but with some time in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Toronto and Ottawa while I’m in that part of the world.

The google-ifcation of the science fair

I’m one of the judges for Google’s Global Science Fair, something I’m rather excited about.

I’ve always been a bit jealous of American kids and their culture of science fairs. As I put in a post for the Guardian’s science blog last week, there has been a fair bit of talk over the death of the science fair in the US recently, but Google’s entry into the scene promises to bring a degree of geeky glamour. Big and spectacular, this is a souped-up science fair for an online world of interconnected knowledge creation and interconnected knowledge sharing (though we might also raise a sceptical eyebrow at the project too).

For me, the most important part of the google-ification of the science fair is the knowledge-sharing; that you enter by building a website and so open it up for others to see. Science fairs have always been about communicating your project as well as doing it (indeed, we might argue this is true of science in general). In many ways, they exist as events where people can get together to share science. They are focused on the work of young people, but no child is an island, and science fairs involve family, friends, teachers and other community members too. They are social events.

Science teacher Alom Shaha wrote recently, secondary school students routinely produce original works of art, music, poems, stories and plays, why not ask them to make some science too? We should be wary of loose comparisons between subjects, but in many respects Shaha makes a key point. Not only do we ask children to make art, music and writing, we get them to share such work in concerts and displays. Through this we share an understanding and experience of such culture across generations. We should share, applaud, critique (grumble about … ) and collaboratively enjoy cultures of science too.

The international scope of the Google fair means we can’t all pour into one town hall, but I hope that the same technology that allows this event to happen will also encourage people to share its entries as widely as possible. So, keep your eyes on Google’s Science Fair blog, and I promise to post from the finals at Google HQ in July.

In the meantime, in the spirit of sharing kids’ experiences of and with science, I can seriously recommend the I’m A Scientist twitter account at the moment (or just keep a look on the latest questions bit on their website).

Science education for all

Back in 1976, science teacher turned sociologist Michael D Young suggested science education sorts people into three types: pure scientists, applied scientists and failures. The final group, he went on, would forever feel at a distance from science, alienated by the experience.

Arguably, this view is a tad gloomy and simplistic (not to mention, outdated?) but there is a nugget of truth here. There are social divides around science, and these are probably caused and facilitated by structures of scientific learning.

The problem, at least as I’ve heard it voiced by many people in education, is that the universities demand too much specialisation. They want undergraduates to have arrived in their lectures halls already steeped in several years of specialised study, even at the expense of having done anything else. In making such demands, they support a system which asks young people to opt in or out of science aged 15. Many people would much rather we sacrificed depth for breadth and instead asked 16-19 year olds to take more subjects, perhaps with a large self-directed subject to allow some specialisation. This would mean more people leave school knowing some science, just as it means more people leave with languages, some feeling for history, geography and literature (etc…). But no, the lobby for specialisation win.

With that in mind, it was interesting to see a recent report from the Royal Society argue that we modify the curriculum to allow 16-19’s to study a wider range of subjects. This would expose more students to science and therefore increase the likelihood of them continuing to do so at university (increasing the ‘pool’ of scientists as they put it).

One might argue that such broadening of access to science will serve more than just the Royal Society’s ‘pool’. Indeed, the idea that school science should be for the many who do not take science further, as well as the few who do, is a guiding principle behind the 21st Century Science project. Although there is provision for those who want to take up scientific training, 21st Century Science aims to serve those who will grow up to be ‘consumers’, not producers, of science (I first spotted this metaphor in Hollins, 2001: 22).

I dislike the producer/ consumer distinction between those who will grow up to practice science and those who will not. Aside from the argument that 15 year olds don’t know what they want to be when they grow up, I think that a taste of what it is to train to be a scientist should be a shared cultural experience. 21st Century Science argue this is a ‘courses for horses’ approach which provides targeted learning. I think it’s culturally divisive.

A friend recently said that schools are so important because it’s the only time when everyone is exposed to science. I couldn’t agree more. Not because it means a load of young people will have to sit in a room while a teacher bangs on about some super-important topic or another, but because these young people will have to do so together. Before we go about the ever-so-modern business of specialisation, school is a time where we can build shared experiences and so sow the seeds for trust between those who grow up to be scientists (or historians, or any other specialist) and everyone else.

At this point, it’s probably worth saying that 21st Century Science is a set of GCSEs – exams taken at 16 – but the philosophy goes further than this, and was trialed at post-16 level (for more detail see also the Beyond 2000 report, especially point 4.2 on ‘who is science education for?, as well as Millar & Hunt, 2001, and Miller, 1996).

I also worry about 21st Century Science’s special provision for those wanting ‘applied’ forms of scientific training, a sort of middle path between routes for scientists and non-scientist. It would be overly-cynical to say they offer posh boys a chance play doctor, whilst hardworking girls get to be nurses and those who haven’t the opportunity or inclination can hang around to be treated as patients. However, it is all too easy to imagine how pre-existing social divisions might hook onto such a structure. Something that always annoys educationalists, and helps point us to the politics of references to ‘the public’ here: the first politician to publicly advocate a shift in school-science to focus on the majority who don’t become scientists, was, in 1971, the then secretary for state for education… Margaret Thatcher (Layton: 1994: 39).

If you really want science for all, then forget fights over whether to focus a curriculum for future-scientists or future-publics, and instead teach everyone together. Most teenagers haven’t had the chance to decide whether they want to be a scientist when they grow up yet. Moreover, whether they do or not, adult scientists and ‘publics’  should be able to discuss science together from some sort of common standpoint. Work together, not apart.

Anyway, this is all just my opinion. I’d be interested to hear what other people think.

References:

  • Hollins, M (2001) ‘Keeping school science in step with the changing world of the 21st century’, Education in Science, vol.194: 22-23.
  • Layton, D (1994) ‘STS in the School Curriculum: a Movement Overtaken by History?’ Solomon, J and Aikenhead, GS (eds) STS Education: international perspectives on reform (Teachers College Press, Columbia University: New York).
  • Millar, R & Osborne, J (eds) (1998) Beyond 2000: Science Education for the Future (London: Kings College, London) pdf download.
  • Millar, R (1996) ‘Towards a science curriculum for public understanding’. School  Science Review, vol.77 no.280 pp.7-18.
  • Millar, R & Hunt, A (2001). Science for Public Understanding: a different way to teach and learn science. School Science Review, vol.83 no.304.
  • Young, MD (1976) ‘The Schooling of Science’, in Whitty, Geoff & Young, Michael (eds) Explorations in the Politics of School Knowledge (Driffield: Nafferton Books).

Uncertainty (again)

I’m blogging from the Science and Citizenship Conference. It’s being held partly to mark a ten year anniversary of the Lord’s report on Science and Society. Much of the programme was based on workshops considering key theme’s in the report. I took part on one about uncertainty and risk, and thought it was worth sharing my notes.

We started off with four key questions. Is it a new problem? To what extent are journalists to blame? To what extent are scientists to blame? What can we do to make it better? What can we all do to improve things?

We passed back and forth through various reasons why the issues of risk and uncertainty might be new, and then in turn why they are not. For example, I played the annoying “I once did a history of technology course” card that many of the fears about online media could be seen at the introduction of public libraries (the printing press, paperbacks…). Instead, I suggested maybe we have a growing intensification of activity and awareness around issues of rick and uncertainty.

In many ways, the things were were saying reflected ideas Ulrich Beck discussed in terms of ideas of the Risk Society, decades ago. As I grumbled a few months ago, the debate is an old one. That said, one of the reasons why Beck makes for an interesting example is his discussion of an increasing awareness not only of uncertainty, but the various contexts behind such uncertainty (which in turn can make us more uncertain as we seek new certainties, part of Beck’s notion that “modernity has become its own theme”).

We all seemed to agree that there was a lot of uncertainty in science and that this should be discussed openly with non scientists. We went through the various reasons why we might blame the media or scientists for not communicating such uncertainty, before critiquing ourselves to then defend both groups. For a while we seemed to pour blame on the education system, arguing that school science needs to think more about how to best prepare future-publics (rather than just training future-scientists). Though I agree school-science is important and could be improved, playing who’s to blame isn’t especially productive and  I’m not sure it’s realistic to pile too many expectations on the shoulders of an education system.

One participant mentioned a line from David Willetts – that in a society which is fragmented and uncertain, scientific evidence gives you something you can all agree on – and argued that this actually puts a huge pressure on science. It’s easy to say “yay, the science minister likes science”, but the scientific community should think about what they are are being offered here. When talking about who might be to blame, it was suggested that science holds some responsibility for being seduced into a political and media system where they are asked for certainty. That science from WW2 onwards might have seemed over-confident, but if so, it was because it sold a confidence back to people who (unfairly) asked it of them. It was also suggested that sensitivity over climate change denial is making things worse, with people defensive over the authority of science denying uncertainty. Again, it’s worth asking who’s hands are the scientific community playing to if they try to claim undeniable certainty?

(I don’t know, maybe climate change is another issue with it’s own context, and maybe working in a context with “merchants of doubt” means it’s necessary).

I’ve heard Willetts use that line too. As I argued at the time, in some respects this is a lovely thought. The big and scary postmodern world brought together with the warm glow of science. I just don’t think science tends to work like that. The very “scientific way of thinking” Willetts is prizing here is, itself, fractured and contestable. Indeed, the delivery of evidence can often be the beginning of a debate. I don’t think this is a criticism science, if anything it’s a celebration: the capacity for debate and sense that there is always a possible black swan around the corner is one of the things I like about science.

And solutions? There were the arguments about education. Perhaps predictably, “dialogue between journalists, scientists, members of the public and politicians” was mentioned, though, again predictably, we didn’t seem to have time to talk about how. Other suggestions included more standup maths shows, and citizen cyber-science. There was also some discussion of the advantages of citizen science projects in helping people feel ownership of science in some way – so science doesn’t seem like a project done by “those other people”. An interesting point was made with respect to work in Kenya; that science is sometimes seen as a Western thing and it’s been important to communicate that science can be African too. As one participant put it, this is perhaps “engagement through a sense of appropriation”.

For me this boiled down to another key word in that Lords report – trust. As Demos said back in 2004, an emphasis on risk and uncertainty is arguably a consequence of engagement happening too late in the process. If you want to build trust, you have to start early.

My favourite scientist

I’m not really someone who does “favourites”. When people ask my favourite colour, favourite t-shirt, or favourite food I tend to roll my eyes and point out that I’m not seven. But I do have a favourite scientist. His name is Frank Oppenheimer.

This is a bit embarrassing because, as a trained historian of science, I really should be above a “great man” view of our past. I know science doesn’t progress genius by genius. I know any greatness of science is (a) up for debate and (b) tends to come from long, iterative work done by largely anonymous groups, not starry individuals. I have to admit to finding the veneration of Darwin last year a bit weird. But I’ve thought Frank Oppenheimer was amazing ever since, as an undergraduate, I stumbled across a dusty book about him at the edge of the Science Museum library.

Really short version: Frank was J. Robert Oppenheimer‘s little brother. Like his brother, Frank was also a physicist and also worked on the Manhattan Project. Post-war, he was blackballed as a communist so went off to run a cattle ranch, later becoming a teacher before re-joining academia. After a brief sabbatical at UCL he dropped university life again and moved to San Fransisco to found the Exploratorium (now a model for science museums all over the world).

Short version: Go read my second piece for the Guardian science blog festival.

Medium-long version: Have a play at the Exploratorium’s history site.

Long version: Get hold of a copy of  KC Cole’s biography.

Let’s not build heroes here. Frank Oppenheimer didn’t save the world. In fact, we might even say that as someone involved in the Manhattan Project, he played a small part in the closest we’ve come to destroying it. It’s also worth emphasising that the guy wasn’t a saint, and that it’s not like the Exploratorium is the definitive word on how to do science education (personally, I love it, but I appreciate I’m a kinesthetic learner who likes physics). Plus, let’s not forget, he was a rich, white man of the 20th century who’s Dad left him a Van Gough. Still, I think he’s a fascinating chap.

Every now and again I pop into the Science Museum’s mini-Exploratorium, Launch Pad. I build an arch bridge. I mess about with some bubble mix. I remember all the similar exhibits I’ve played with in similar museums all over the world. And I remember that I have a favourite scientist. His name was Frank Oppenheimer.

Miracle Mineral Solution

If you keep an eye on the UK skeptic media you will have probably already heard the story of 15 year old Rhys Morgan and Miracle Mineral Solution (“Bleachgate”). If not, let me share it with you.

Crohn’s disease is horrible. Being a teenager is horrible. Have a read through The National Association for Colitis and Crohn’s Disease pages for 16-29 year olds to get an idea of what it’s like when both happen at once. Welsh teenager Rhys Morgan was diagnosed with Crohn’s a few months ago. He did what a lot of people with similar conditions do and joined some online support groups.

It’s probably worth repeating that Crohn’s is horrible. I should also stress that it’s a complex and unpredictable condition, the details of which medical science is still unraveling. Such support groups are not only an emotional support, but can be great for sharing information, knowledge and experience. They can also be ways of spreading things that aren’t so helpful, and they can emotionally difficult places too (I can recommend this book for some discussion of issues surrounding this).

Rhys was sceptical of one of the treatment being pushed on a forum, something called “Miracle Mineral Solution”. Very sensibly he did a bit of digging, and sound found that the FDA describes it as industrial bleach. Rhys shared his concerns with the forum, and a whole story of internet community nastiness followed. Watch Rhys’ videoblog for the full story, as he tells it himself so well (or see transcript on his blog).

When the story first broke about a month ago, it was covered extensively by skeptics bloggers, but no where else much. This week, there was an overview of the story in the Guardian, via a column by skeptic-blogger Martin Robbins. It’s great that Martin’s connection there gets the story into such a high profile site (and, as Paul Bradshaw says, it’d be good if lots of people link to Robbins’ piece with the words Miracle Mineral Solution…). Still, I’d have loved to see it covered by, for example, reporters on education or health beats too. Not just for the extension of coverage, but because I think it’s worth reflecting on the story from more than just a skeptic perspective.

There has been a move in recent years to make UK science education more about public engagement, designing curricula that not only train the next generation of scientists, but equip young people to use and critique claims to scientific authority as part of their everyday lives (see this GCSE for example). However, a lot of this sort of work seems to see the process as preparation for later life, as if active engagement is something adults too whereas kids are simply passive. Similarly, I’ve heard activists in young peoples’ health complain that under 18s are too often seen as “human becomings” rather than “human beings” when it comes to medicine; that teens are simply taught how to prepare for a healthy adult lives as if they have little role in their current existence.

I can see why people have been celebrating and supporting Rhys on this issue, but he’s not the only teenager to take such a sensible and active role when it comes to their health (e.g. the trustee of Body and Soul featured in this podcast). I suspect a lot of young people hope to get the best possible information about health; that they will spend time looking for such information and will be sceptical about what they find. Also that the care that others get good information too, and so share it about, and that they will get into fights with other young people and adults while they do so.

That’s why, for me the tale of Rhys Morgan and Miracle Mineral Solution isn’t just a story for or about skeptics. It’s a genuinely interesting, concerning and illuminating story of inter-generational health communication in a digital age, and one I’d have love to see talked about more.

EDIT: 19/9/10 changed reference to Martin’s piece in Guardian which was initially down as a blogpost rather than a column. See my comment on Paul’s blogpost for context. Also, look – the story has been picked up by a Kenyan newspaper and on the PLoS blogs.

Pink Chemistry Sets

In case anyone thinks the pink construction set (with sparkles) is a new thing: a chemistry set for girls, 1958 (USA). Or rather, a kit for a wannabe “Lab Technician”, because the girl would be just supporting the actual chemist, naturally. Apparently it included a pink microscope. Mother and daughter look terribly happy though, don’t they?

1968 Chemistry set

Apologies for bad quality photograph, it’s of a powerpoint slide. From an event on 20th century popular science I ran yesterday (full blogpost on this forthcoming). The paper was given by Maggie Jack, a History and Philosophy of Science MPhil student at the University of Cambridge, based on the dissertation she wrote as an undergrad at Harvard.

Early/ mid 20th century chemistry sets were marketed quite explicitly for boys and their fathers, as if chemical experimentation was an opportunity for male bonding and general expression of red-blooded manhood. Fear not the explosions, take power over nature, etc, etc. Insert your favourite feminist philosopher of science here. It really wasn’t anything subtle: the box covers and advertising for chemistry sets seemed to want to signal BOY, and do so as unequivocally as possible. This isn’t just an American trend, Salim Al-Gailani (another HPS Cambridge student) gave a similar paper about UK chemistry sets at the 2007 British Society for the History of Science. It’d be interesting to know if the same was true in non-English speaking countries too.

I’m sure 1950s girls played with the non-pink chemistry sets, however they happened to be presented. Just as girls read Harry Potter, even if his name is bigger than J(oanne)K Rowling. It probably goes without saying that when it comes down to their actual use, gender messages of kids media aren’t nearly as simple. In fact, one of the key points Jack wanted to make about Chemistry sets was the way they provided materials for exploratory work; that they allowed play through unintended consequences of science (indeed, they celebrated this), rather than necessarily being a matter of leading kids through a set of pre-ordained educational outcomes. I’m a bit too cynical to necessarily agree with her entirely on this, but it was a worthwhile point. Plus, my expertise on the topic is rather skewed to late 20th/ early 21st century kits: maybe such toys were a lot more exploratory in the past (even if gender identities were not?).

Finally, before we dismiss the pink microscope/ lab technician kit as a funny old 1950s thing, here’s an fword post about chemistry kits, written just last year, which brings out some of the gender issues involved in our recent fashion for retro kids’ non-fiction (*cough* Dangerous Book for Boys *cough*).

EDIT (15:10): from tip-off via twitter, a pink telescope with a lower power than the boy’s model (worth scrolling through the comments on that post).
EDIT (15:25, 2nd April): from various comments I’m getting about this, I just want to underline that I can see how a pink microscope might be seen as something quite empowering, a positive expression of feminine science (now as much as in 1958). Personally, I’m not convinced by this argument, but I don’t think we should simply say pink stinks and that’s the end of the debate. Gender issues are always complex, in toys and in science perhaps no less so.

Media Coverage of Science Education

Cross-posted from The Science Project.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills have just published a report on the state and possible future of Science and Maths Secondary-School Education. From a group headed by Sir Mark Walport of the Wellcome Trust, it is one of a series interrogating issues in science and society (see also one on engagement from Roland Jackson of the British Science Association, and another on the media from Fiona Fox of the Science Media Centre).

I’ve been in and out of meetings most of the day, so haven’t had time to read any more than the executive summary. Well, the executive summary and the news coverage, which was pretty interesting in itself. So, I thought it was worth putting off reading the full report for a bit longer, and doing a quick blogpost pulling out the issues that the press seems to have decided to pull out of the report.

If you want to read the report itself, for yourself, you can download it here, complete with cover-pictures of hair-raising play with a Van der Graaf generator. Ah, where would science education imagery be without Robert Van der Graaf.

DBIS education report cover
First up, BBC online news, with Science and maths exams ‘need shake-up’ . They start by reiterating the report’s point that science and maths education have clearly been priority issues in recent years, but that nonetheless, people are still worried about it. They emphasise the report’s call for specialist teachers and more maths to be taught within science teaching. They also pick up on concern that the science and maths community want a greater say in school science. This is significant, considering a recent trend in science education to curricula that aims to serve the needs of “the public” before professional science. Note it was the director of the Wellcome Trust (which funds scientific research and some education and engagement), not a full-time educationalist, asked to lead this report. But I’m editorialising.

Next, The Times: Science lessons need more explosions and pyrotechnics, report says. This starts: “Science lessons should be more hands-on and exploratory, according to a new report that criticises a dangerous obsession with results that has stripped science teaching of explosions and pyrotechnics”. According to my rather rough Ctrl-Alt F research methodology, the word “pyrotechnics” doesn’t actually feature in the report. They then go onto reflect on the way “teaching to the test” has pushed out more “exploratory learning”. As they quote Walport, the “danger that assessment becomes the tail that wags the dog”. They cover the smaller issue of the report’s call for science and maths specialists to be paid more, before running through quotes from various stakeholders in the area.

I would now like to pause for a little rant. This is directed at the world in general, not the Times in particular, although they inspired it. Exploratory does not equal explosions. Similarly, just because an activity is hands-on, or demonstrated live in the classroom (as opposed to described in a textbook), it doesn’t mean it is an “experiment”. It certainly doesn’t make it investigative or “exploratory”. Simply being hands-on doesn’t necessarily mean the student is allowed to explore. Quite the contrary, some of the most explosive demonstrations are not only done by a member of staff for students to watch, but have exceedingly tightly defined and predicted/ predictable outcomes. The point of an explosive demo is generally that we know what’s going to happen (i.e. it’ll explode – a brilliant big bang of a dramatic ending). They are used to demonstrate why and how science already knows something. They can be exciting, inspiring and explain some aspect of science with immense clarity. By they allow little space for creative exploration. There is difference between expository and exploratory, explanation and experiment. I know they all start with the same three letters people, but get a grip.

Ahem. Rant over, onto The Telegraph: School science undermined by ‘easy’ exams. Their lead paragraph, interestingly I thought, stresses a language problem; that multiple choice questions leave students unable to express their understanding of scientific concepts. They also highlight, early-on, the ways in which examination boards sell their own textbooks to schools (and therefore fuel an exam-driven bite-sizing of curriculum). Like the BBC, the Telegraph are keen to note that science education has been a priority. They also pull out the report’s insistence that science courses have remained popular among young people. The focus of the piece though is (what I read the focus of the report to be…): problems endemic in the curriculum, qualifications and the structure of exams.

Next, the Daily Mail, who’s How Labour’s ‘reforms’ of A-levels have dumbed down exams pulls no punches. Apparently the report is “devastating [...] a damning indictment of the exam system”. Content-wise, their emphasis is again on the way the structure of exams and associated bite-sized curriculum effects (/prevents) understanding, referring to worries about the “use of the English language”. They make liberal use of the phrase: “dumbing down”. They also quote schools minister Iain Wright. As with some of the other pieces, this places Wright in a rather defensive position, as if he is only brought in for journalistic balance, to defend himself. I thought this was an interesting positioning: these BIS reports come from groups led by independent(ish) experts, but they are basically government publications, reflecting government desires for change (though they are also from BIS, not the DCSF…). The Mail’s piece ends with a reasonably tame quote from Malcolm Trobe, of the Association of School and College Leaders, underlining the distaste for modular assessment within teaching communities.

Finally, The Independent: Make maths and science exams tougher, says report. A relatively short piece, heavily reliant on quotes from the report itself. As their headline implies, their emphasis is a lack of challenge in the current curriculum (they aren’t clunky enough to use the “dumbing down” phrase, but they breath the sentiment nonetheless). They note complaints that the current system dose not give students enough of a chance to display or develop their depth of knowledge of the subject, that a “tick-box approach” to teaching and assessment lacks depth, and finish with a call for examiner to “devise searching questions for pupils”.

The Guardian haven’t at time of blogging, bothered. Which I thought was odd seeing as they have such strong science and education pages. I’m oscillating being saying this is probably because the issue is just a way to bash Labour (so the Guardian are avoiding it) or that they prefer more nuanced expert analysis on these topics (so are waiting to have a more thoughtful comment is free piece later in the week). Either prediction is largely (rather ridiculous) guesswork on my part though. They’ve likely just got other things to worry about. It’s easy to get your knickers in a terribly self-important twist about science education, especially worries that it’s just not as hard as it was in my day. Whether this generates anything more than rhetoric is another matter.

Before I sign off, I’d also like to note that none of these pieces quotes a child. There are all sorts of very understandable reasons for this, to do with press reporting as much as cultural norms (not to mention legal issues) surrounding education and/ or the voice of children. Still, I hope that as/ if the report’s recommendations are developed, young people are used are more than just cover- boys and girls.