Teaching science to communities


A specific challenge to Cambridge’s science communities 

This blogpost stems from the tweet below:

I’ve sort of touched on this in the following blogposts

  1. Public understanding of science
  2. How can ‘geeks’ reach out to ‘non-geeks’?
  3. Puffles’ Twitter Lists – Communicating Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths (STEM)
  4. Evening classes in a Big Society context – why have politicians undermined it?

I get this feeling that ‘science’ is seen as ‘complicated’ by more than a few non-scientists in the same way that politicians are seen as worse than the worst insult you can think of by more than a few people in society. Or rather, politics requires reasonably high levels of general knowledge that not everyone has.

A second chance

I remember in the mid-1990s, just after starting A-levels of doing a short course in bio-technology on the grounds that I wanted to keep something science-wise ticking over. I wanted to do the same with languages too. But the three-A-level framework back then didn’t allow for it. It didn’t allow for lots of things. Teaching to the test seldom does.

There wasn’t an option back then for me to continue both those strands combined with humanities-based A-levels. The mindset of careers advisers back then was that you only did languages if you wanted to be a teacher or a translator, and you only did sciences if you wanted to become a scientist. And history if you wanted to become a history teacher. The cluelessness about careers generally was unreal back then. Going by conversations I’ve been party to locally, it doesn’t sound like things have improved – despite the wealth of the internet.

The thing is, I’m still interested in science. The problem I have is that there is no suitable learning environment for me to bridge the gap between when I last studied science, and today. Formal courses are too intense, too time-consuming and prohibitively expensive – and they have exams at the end of them. While informal workshops that happen around Cambridge – along with the Cambridge Science Festival – are interesting, there’s nothing reasonably structured, delivered over a period of time that allows you to build on or apply that learning. Bear in mind many people’s apprehensiveness about signing up to anything new that’s outside of their comfort zone. How do you reach out to interested but shy people?

Cambridge has the facilities and it has the experts. So…why is little happening?

Not everyone interested in science wants to become a scientist in exactly the same way not everyone interested in politics wants to become a politician. So how can scientists in whichever village, town or city reach out to non-scientists who are curious about what they do? In particular, how are you going to reach out to those who’s interest and potential lies dormant for whatever reason? Perhaps they had a bad time at school – a barrier we often forget about. Perhaps they were brought up in an environment where science was seldom discussed by their elders or peers. Think Lisa Simpson.

Cambridge is about to get a University Technical College. I’ve also enquired there and elsewhere about structured science teaching & workshops over time aimed at the curious & those seeking inspiration, rather than those seeking qualifications. But nothing doing. And that’s ***really*** disappointing.

“Why is it really disappointing?”

Because for me it betrays a lack of imagination from the science communities in Cambridge about outreach. And yet scientists need the support of wider society because without it, crazy stuff like this happens. Or even crazier stuff – at the same place.

Science also matters in public policy and political discourse. Few more so than with climate change. For me, one of the biggest misunderstandings is with the word ‘theory’. Scientific theory is ***very different*** to how we often hear the word in day-to-day light conversation. For example:

“Well in theory what you’re saying seems to make sense, but in practice…”

Chances are you wouldn’t hear a scientist repeating the above in a scientific context.

“Well…your Theory of Gravity seems to make sense when I drop this cannon ball on your foot, but when I try to do the same with a balloon full of helium…there! So much for your theory!!!”

Yeah…exactly. Scientific theory on the other hand…

“…refers to a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence”

That explains one of the reasons why I’ve become interested in the cross-over between science, big business, ‘intellectual property’ and politics. Not making the vast bodies of evidence held by multinational corporations freely available – let alone the evidence held by publicly-funded bodies – brings science into disrepute and can also have public health implications. Ben Goldacre has done a splendid job bringing this to the public.

“Yeah, in theory I understand the public interest, but firms need to make profits – so science is wrong again!”

Can you see why scientists get frustrated when politicians – some of which sit in the House of Commons – respond with point-scoring type arguments that only make them look like idiots to the science community and make them look like blustering bullies to everyone else not sharing their political viewpoints?


“So…who’s going to do what? Who needs to do what?”

I want to go beyond the “Somebodee needs to do sumthing!!!” sort of response. It reminds me of the phrase: “Well why doesn’t the council do something?” in a local government context. How many of us have a regular interaction (other than us Guildhall Groupies) with elected councillors and council staff?  Not many people I’d guess. I’m slightly different in that I have a working background in local government policy, and also I have a dragon.

But in terms of who needs to do what, the first thing to do is define the problem – or problems. Personally I’d take the economics arguments out of this context. The reason being that the economists (and politicians linked) will be looking at science from a perspective of getting trained scientists & engineers into the workplace or starting their own businesses for the benefit of the economy first, and society second. I want to look at science benefiting people and communities first. If people choose to get trained and qualified afterwards, that’s their call.

“What is the problem?”

Different people will have different takes on this. The two I’ve been pondering have been around access to learning about things that are genuinely interesting, and then being able to apply some of that learning to the things that we do in our local communities – including scrutinising politicians. That way it won’t be just GCSE students tearing government education policies to pieces on social media – such as Vida Adamczewski here. You know that bit about policy-wonks saying we should involve service users in the design and delivery of public services? There are more than a few bright young people that could help – as this shows – as well as this by me last year.

“Are evening classes the solution?”

Because the problem is likely to be complex, inevitably there won’t be a single solution. Evening classes along the lines that I have sketched out will have their own risks in a time-poor income-tight society we’re in. That’s why venue, teachers and content are vital. Are the venues of the sort that will have that ‘wow!’ factor compared to people’s experience of school science labs? Are the teachers some of the best science communicators in the city? Is the content the sort that people will be able to relate to in some of their day-to-day lives as well as having the ‘out of this world’ stuff? Is it the sort of content that will inspire people to find out more in their own time?

There will be other solutions too. Some might involve outreach to specific individuals (such as politicians) or groups (such as people from economically deprived wards or communities where school attainment is historically low).

“So…who is going to take the lead on this?”

I’m throwing this out towards the science communities and networks in Cambridge. What do you think?

[Updated to add]:

The syllabus for the international summer school here might given an idea of what a term-long course might cover. But again, how do you make it affordable and accessible? (This one being aimed at the wealthy international market).


3 thoughts on “Teaching science to communities

  1. Very interesting post, I agree with you especially about the level of misunderstanding about how science works, and the implications of that for the strength of public policy and engagement in democratic processes. Cambridge is just the place to start – did anyone take the ball and ru with it?

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