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A Big Bang, and a whimper


Mr James Cracknell. Photo by Jo Mears. Drooling by everybody.Sarah Day attends two events aimed at persuading young people that science is for them, and comes to the conclusion that it works best when the science is allowed to speak for itself…

Geoscientist Online 13 March 2009

Next to the government, the NHS and immigrant workers, a popular Daily Mail-reader rant is the ‘youth of today’. They have no respect. They have it too easy at school. They wear sinister jumpers with hoods attached. And they certainly have no interest in worthwhile things like science and engineering.

March 6-15 2009 has been National Science and Engineering Week, and has featured lots of events that hope to combat this apparent apathy. The biggest of these was the UK Young Scientists & Engineers Fair, ‘The Big Bang’, ranging over three days and five floors of the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster. Any Daily Mail readers attending the Big Bang would find themselves well and truly stumped. I’m happy to report that, judging by the young people we met over the three days (4-6 March), science and engineering is alive and well in schools. Admittedly, they were probably a very select sample and not particularly representative of the average, but it’s still nice to know that there are enough bright, enthusiastic and disturbingly well behaved 11-19 year olds to fill the QEII Centre for three days.

The aim of the fair is to inspire students to study for a future in science and engineering, and to raise their awareness of the huge range of careers such study could lead to. As well as exhibitions and theatre shows, a main feature of the event was the competitions, including the National Science Competition to find the first UK Young Scientist and Young Technologist of the Year.

For the Geological Society, the event represented an opportunity to raise awareness of the subject, which is often taught in a fragmented way in schools. Armed with a ‘Seismic Simulator’ (think very slow driving game, but with a boat), cute button badges and pictures of geologists at work in exotic locations, we were encouraged by the level of interest and enthusiasm shown by visitors to the stand, many of whom had been studying geology at school and thinking it was geography.

Nearest to us was a stand about physiology and healthy living. I have to admit, I didn’t notice exactly which organisation this was run by, so distracted was I by the presence of James Cracknell, Olympic rower and love of my life, who’s just come back from an expedition to the Antarctic, as you do. I managed to pull myself together for long enough to ask about the trip, and whether he came across any evidence of geologists at work in the region.

‘There were quite a lot of American scientists there, but they were doing more molecular science’ he tells me. Then he thinks for a bit. ‘There were some Norwegian scientists who seemed to be moving lots of boulders around, and doing stuff with rocks’. "Ah ha! They were probably geologists", I tell him.

Unfortunately for my article, it turns out James was in the Antarctic mainly to take part in a race – a 495-mile trek across the Antarctic ice cap against five other teams, recreating Captain Scott’s race to the South Pole back in 1912. Nevertheless, the trip did give him a unique insight into the environmental issues the world is facing.

‘It’s an amazing, beautiful place that needs to be looked after’, he agreed, although he admitted that it was hard for him to observe the effects of climate change first hand. ‘All we could see was mountains and ice, and when you go above the mountains you can’t see anything’. Such unspoiled landscape is potentially under threat, however, with the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty due for a review in 2041. The treaty, signed in 1991, prohibits any mining activity in the Antarctic, which is sitting on valuable oil and natural gas fields. If not renewed, the excavation of the area could destroy the landscape forever.

‘Either way’, James pointed out, ‘we have to find a way of surviving that doesn’t involve using those resources. We can’t carry on like we are, using oil at the rate we are. Hopefully in 30 years time we’ll have come up with an alternative. I think we underuse nuclear power, for example’.

It’s possible after this that he outlined a comprehensive and insightful solution to the energy crisis, but I’m afraid I was distracted by his penetrating eyes and lovely floppy hair, so I missed it.
The Antarctic theme continued downstairs in the competition area, where I found three schools competing to design a jacket worthy of the lovely James to wear on his trip. Particularly impressive was Hadley Catholic High School’s efforts, explained to me in exquisite detail by twelve year old Helen. Their effort included solar cells sewn into the inner lining as a more eco friendly power source, and even a little fleece jacket to keep the radio warm. According to Helen, their entry comprised fifty-six hours of work. ‘We do a STEM club after school with our science teacher’, she explained. ‘She teaches us about everything really’. All three of the Hadley team seemed hugely enthusiastic about their project, and about the possibility of a future career in science, although not so keen on the prospect of testing out their creation themselves. When asked who might want to wear their innovative design, Helen gravely replied ‘the daring’. (Oh, and for James fans, she agreed that she likes him ‘more than chocolate’).

A slightly more serious conversation was had with Rachel from the Royal High School in Bath. Despite having yet to finish her second year of A-levels, Rachel is already carrying out vital research for the National Oceanographic Centre, helping with preparations for the Cape Farewell expeditions to the Arctic. Her work involved collecting satellite data and analysing equipment already in situ, in order to determine the best launch sites for oceanographic equipment. Rachel got involved with the project by applying for a Nuffield Science Bursary for her project.

‘I chose Oceanography because we know so little about it. We know more about the moon than we do about the deep ocean, which is just fascinating’.

Rachel has already secured a place at Oxford, to study biochemistry. ‘It’s a different kind of challenge, interesting in a different way’. She’s convinced that the project had a big influence on her University application.

Back on the Geolsoc stand, we were teaming up with Paul Denton from the BGS, who was promoting his UK School Seismology Project. The project aims to enthuse school children about science by using seismology as a teaching tool. Schools can apply to have a free seismometer with which they can observe the effects of earthquakes all around the world. ‘It’s not specifically about teaching seismology’, Paul explained. ‘Seismology is the “hook” we use as a way of teaching science. This makes it very similar to lots of other projects with the aim of making science exciting’. A subsidiary aim of the project, however, is to raise awareness of the geosciences in schools and to pull it back into the science, rather than the geography curriculum.

The seismometer went down very well, with kids lining up to create their own mini earthquake by jumping up and down (other techniques, such as bashing the instrument against the table or spitting on it were attempted, but discouraged). Sceptics take note, I overheard one hairy teenage boy say to another hairy teenage boy ‘this is well cool’.

All of which seems to suggest that it’s not as impossible as people may think to enthuse children about science. For many, the enthusiasm is natural, which begs the question; what is it that prevents so many from pursuing careers in science and technology?

I may have found a clue to this mystery at another NSEW-themed event. Voice of the Future, organised by the Royal Society of Chemistry, aims to give young scientists the opportunity to question ministers involved in science policy, and discuss their concerns about how science is dealt with by Parliament.

School children, Phd students and post-doctoral researchers packed out a room at Portcullis House, Westminster, where they were addressed by Phil Willis MP, Chairman of the House of Commons Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills, among various other illustrious ministers. Central to the event was a 70 minute ‘Question Time’ to a Panel of MPs from the Commons Select Committee on Science & Technology.

The approach from the ministers to the event was what you would expect: talk talk talk. Interlude for excessive catering, (including approximately 30 bottles of wine which seemed slightly inappropriate), followed by even more talking. I would estimate that the phrase ‘you are the future of science’, uttered in a slightly sing-song tone popular amongst primary school teachers, was used around 15 times.

Adam Afriyie (Con), Shadow Minister for Science and Innovation. Fewer deep insights than James Cracknell. This is not the way to enthuse young people about science. If any of them were thinking about a future in science and technology at 11am, (during the hour long pre-event pointless catering break), by 3.45, after being talked at incessantly about issues which were unlikely to resonate with them, they were probably considering a degree in English literature. At one point I was considering a degree in English literature.

Add to that, the confusing muddle of issues that were brought up. I think this was largely the result of the age range of attendees being so broad – issues such as how married scientists can cope with short term contracts are hardly of relevance to students considering their A-level options. But it went deeper than that. What was the event for? One minute we were discussing how to combat the energy crisis, the next we were listening to a recruitment drive for parliamentary internships for scientists, which can only be taken up by PhD students. On top of that was all the 20 minute speeches by various ministers which all amounted to the same message. (That’s ‘you are the future of science’, in case you missed it the first time). My own favourite moment was provided by Adam Afriyie, Shadow Minister for Science and Innovation, who seemed to run out of things to say after about five minutes of his slot, and at one point came up with ‘so, yes, what can I say?....Science and Engineering week….It’s great!’ Cheesy grin, smile for the camera.

As an opportunity for scientists to ask the questions that have no doubt been rankling for some time (‘where has all my funding gone?’, for example), the event is commendable, as was the participation of so many undoubtedly very busy MPs. The trouble was, unlike the Big Bang, Voice of the Future didn’t seem quite sure what it was trying to do. Much of the focus was on enthusing young people about the importance of science – by now a familiar theme. But half of the audience were already pursuing that career, and wanted answers to the questions that now affected them – funding, job opportunities, etc. If these people were the target audience, then all the incessant ‘you are the future of science’ messages were somewhat redundant. And for those who were there to ask the tough questions, the recognition quickly set in that they weren’t going to get any answers. Several of the Phd students I knew in the audience had left before the Q&A was even over.

It may have been bigger, more complicated and far, far more chaotic, but at the heart of the Big Bang was a much simpler aim. No one sat people down in a room and lectured them, no one grinned inanely and told young people they were the ‘future’. They just gave them the opportunity to explore the possibilities of science and technology themselves. Sometimes the best way to enthuse people is to recognise that the enthusiasm is already there. Give them a seismometer and a wiggly line on a computer screen and they’re, quite literally, jumping up and down.

The Big Questions can wait.