Tuesday 13 July 2010

Dinosaurs In Space: How Not To Get Kids Into Science

Unless you have have been in a coma for three months or you rely on getting all your world news from Fox, you will know that we in Blighty have a new party (parties?) in power and a new prime minister. With this, we also have a new science minister, David Willetts MP. He made his first big speech last Friday, in which he said:
"The two best ways of getting young people into science are space and dinosaurs. So that's what I intend to focus on."
Really, David? Really? You are currently battling against a tide of derision and mistrust of scientists spearheaded by the tabloid newspapers. Your predecessors brought in tuition fees and top-up fees that are putting bright students off going to university. The top universities for science in the country are contemplating even higher fees. There are bugger all jobs for scientists in the UK. And a depressingly large number of people still believe in astrology, homeopathy, psychics and detox products. And getting kids more into dinosaurs and space is the way to heal the festering wound that is Britain's disdain for science and scientists?

Don't get me wrong. I bloody love dinosaurs. I am happy as the proverbial pig when I'm in dinosaur country out in the western USA, or visiting a museum, or having them indelibly inked onto my body. But it's rather a western thing, or, dare I say, rather a white thing. I teach a lot of refugees and immigrants in my GCSE classes - very few of them know what dinosaurs are. Yet many of these young people will make excellent scientists, and they need to be encouraged too. They are unlikely to find dinosaurs inspiring.

I think space is pretty awesome too. Ten years ago I would have said you would be hard pressed to find a child who was not either dino-crazy, space-crazy or both. I don't see that anymore. Sure, I took my National Diploma students to the Science Museum a few weeks ago, and the young men in my group would have happily spent all day looking at the various rockets, probes and landers in the space gallery.

Do they want to be astronauts now? No. One of my students said during the previous term that she wanted to be the first Muslim woman in space, until she found out that someone has beaten her to it. I have directed her to my friend Brian Shiro's website, Astronaut For Hire, where she has been reading about some of the amazing projects he has participated in, and I hope I can encourage her to follow her dreams.

But here's the rub - no teacher would say it is sufficient to just expose students to space and dinosaurs. It is not enough to get students to say "Wow - that's cool!" unless they then follow that with "I could do that!". It's all about helping children realise that science is something that people like them do. It's about showing them that scientists are not all old, bald men in white coats, as the Fermilab project "Drawings Of Scientists" has shown.

I have some modest suggestions (you knew I would, right?).
  1. Talk to students about stereotypes of scientists - the images we see in the media, what their own thoughts are.
  2. Get them interacting with real scientists: take them on behind-the-scenes visits to scientific laboratories, or get them involved in the superb I'm A Scientist event. Show scientists in a good light, and for the love of Flying Spaghetti Monster STOP CALLING THEM BOFFINS!
  3. Take every opportunity to help them find out about scientists from their background and culture. Yesterday was the birthday of George Washington Carver (despite the Wikipedia suggestion to the contrary). My students have learnt about Neil deGrasse Tyson, Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, Rosalind Franklin, Henrietta Lacks, Stephen Hawking, and other scientists or people involved in science, who are not from privileged white male backgrounds (I'm always looking for more inspirational stories of minority scientists, so please drop me a line if you have more to add).
  4. Let students touch science. When covering plant tropisms, all my A2 students (over 18 years old) declared that plants were the Most Boring Things Ever. Which is when I presented them with a Mimosa pudica and changed their minds. They've cut up sheep's hearts, climbed trees, stroked newts and articulated skeletons.
  5. Remember that there are all sorts of science-based careers. My students aspire to study medicine, dentistry, radiography, physiotherapy, sports science, psychology, biochemistry, forensic science, biomedical studies, engineering, chemistry, ecology, palaeobiology and genetics. I doubt many of them were inspired by space or dinosaurs (well, except the palaeobiology student, obviously).
In the end, what David Willetts said about dinosaurs and space is at best, simplistic and naïve, and at worst, downright patronising to the students. Can't we encourage a curiosity in the natural world, the rewarding of intellectual endeavour and the restoration of science to its rightful place as a desirable profession?


  1. Hear, hear!

    Space and dinosaurs (and earthquakes and volcanoes and robots) might create a spark of interest in the younger kids, but that spark is soon snuffed out without slightly more coherent strategies such as you outline.

  2. Ah I think 5 year olds would love space! Though I tend to be biased studying astrophysics, but it's as good a place as any to start with? Less dangerous than showing kids the interesting bits of chemistry.


  3. All good suggestions. I'd like to add compulsory education in evidence based logic and debating skills from the day a child first joins their school.

    We wouldn't need to worry so much about AGW denialism and astrology if children knew how to think. Once they've learned those basics, I'm very happy for them to go off and be dancers or interior designers if they don't feel science is for them.

  4. If I recall correctly, it was volcanoes, felt-tip-pen chromatography and butterflies that got me into science rather than space dinos, and I ended up doing a PhD in developmental biology.

    There's more to science than T Rex and rockets. 3/10, Willetts - must try harder.

  5. Dinosaurs are a white phenomenon? That's news to me - I've been running a Paleontology Blog for 5-6 months now and I'm of South Indian descent. AND I've lived most of my life in the Middle East. I'd be hard-pressed to name a single child in my Indian-syllabus school who wasn't familiar with/aware of Tyrannosaurus rex or Triceratops.

  6. Willetts isn't an idiot - he knows that some areas of science are simply more likely to attract an initial interest than others. This is the reason that the media in general runs lots of stories on dinosaurs and space rather than analytical chemistry or tribology. Both astrononomy and palaeontology have the advantage that they are easily accessible to citizen scientists too - amateurs can still make valuable front line contributions in both fields and so become directly involved in science, whereas this is not possible in particle physics or biochemical research. Willetts simply wanted to find routes to engage people - there are plenty of people who become professional scientists who get turned on to the subject by dinosaurs and space and then go on to other far-removed disciplines. We need to use every means at our disposal to get people interest and he was right to highlight two areas that get lots of public attention. This doesn't downgrade the significance of everything else (which actually gets the bulk of the funding from both government and industry, after all), but draws on strengths that astronomy and palaeontology have.


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