How does this work, then? Image: Andrew Morris/Imperial College Press
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Why don't people care about science?

Science teacher and writer Andrew Morris explores how adults who struggled with the strictures of the school curriculum can reconnect with science. 

Getting to Grips with Science: A Fresh Approach for the Curious
Andrew Morris
Imperial College Press, 201pp, £19.00

I admit it. I didn’t get science. Well, Key Stage 4 science and beyond. It wasn't the science I grew to love. It seemed the curriculum was designed to persecute those who expressed individualism and independent thinking. A “thoughtcrime” in science class would probably result in a teacher embarrassing you by bluntly answering your question with the word “no”, or grading you a “D” for having regurgitated a textbook incorrectly. 

Recently, however, there has been a resurgence of interest in science. David Attenborough documentaries are now accompanied with popcorn, Stephen Hawking is a demigod and the New Horizons probe is now a celebrity in its own right. So why the sudden interest? Are scientists finding better ways to communicate? Is technology improving learning? Or is society waking up to the importance of science in wake of issues such as climate change, food crises, and epidemics? Whatever it is, it’s a cause to celebrate.

But unfortunately, many adults, traumatised by their experiences of science at school, are afraid to talk openly about it. So how can adults re-engage with science?

In this book, science teacher and writer Andrew Morris sets out innovative ways to engage lively-minded people who lack a strong background in science. This is based on Morris' 12-year experience in leading experimental discussion groups, where people, old and young alike, meet casually to pose science questions in the presence of a science teacher.

Morris recalls his experience as a child: “The idea of setting up a discussion group arose simply from the belief that it might be possible for people to talk about scientific ideas in much the same way as they do for ideas in other fields . . . this . . . stuck with me since childhood . . . I felt upset that a choice had to be made between science and arts. I watched by friends and fellow students, one by one, dropping science; I began to feel like some kind of survivor in a game of attrition.”

Morris' approach focuses on ideas rather than facts and formulae that people immediately associate with science-learning. “At first sight this approach appears to undermine the very foundations of what we have come to know as science . . . In many respects this criticism is indeed true; this kind of learning cannot be said to be “science” as such. In effect, what is being described is a different kind of subject, as distinct from professional science as English literature from journalism . . . it’s not intended to prepare people for a particular career,” he writes.  

A “science vs arts” culture seems to have emerged as a result of how differently science and arts subjects are taught in schools. Before age 14, students tend to treat all subjects the same – with equal intrigue and interest. At about aged 14 and above, students start to lose interest in science, drifting toward different but equally challenging subjects in the area of economics, social science and humanities. 

To sever subject bonds even more, Key Stage 4 science is cut into three equal parts: “biology”, “chemistry” and “physics”. In higher education, science is broken down even further. For instance, if you want to study biology you'll have to choose zoology or biochemistry or plant biology or astrobiology, and so on. Morris addresses the importance of interconnection between every subject area (science and non-science): “A comprehensive view of knowledge is needed that incorporates aspects we unfortunately see as oppositional – the scientific technology alongside the humanistic and social.” 

Morris' discussion group meetings normally start off with a reasonably defined scientific question, eg, "what are waves?". This then leads to points of references in people's own experiences – helping them relate science to everyday life. The path of enquiry might go off on a tangent, possibly into topics expected in a conventional syllabus, or it might jump into any analogy relevant to the participants. In short, participants might find their way into the fundamentals of science without even meaning to. 

Here is an example of a path followed in a discussion group. Starting from what are waves, it went -> graphical representation of a wave -> graph of oscillations -> recollection of oscilloscope screens in hospital -> wave nature of sound -> function of the ear -> nature of electromagnetic waves -> function of the microphone -> digital reproduction -> maths of binary digits -> digital transformation.

Morris writes that the many reasons people don't ask science questions is because, paradoxically, they're given straight answers. A closed answer isn't what people are looking for and it almost certainly never satisfies curiosity. "In practice a question about science can act as the herald of rich and unpredictable flow of discussion . . . ‘Does Hamlet’s speech to Yorick’s skull represent a philosophy of death?’ would hardly be satisfied by the answer ‘yes’. Beneath a scientific question may well lie an equal expectation that complex ideas are to be explored from many points of view and something deeper learned,” he writes. 

Morris thinks some of the best ways to learn science is by reading and sharing popular science books, watching science programmes, going to museums, speaking with scientists (they don’t bite!) and attending both local and national fairs and festivals.

In summary, the process of getting to grips with science, according to Morris, involves a sequence of stages with the tutor:

  1. Helps people express and share any negative feelings they hold about their experience of science to date.
  2. Encourage people to articulate questions and issues from everyday life that they have always wanted to ask.
  3. Facilitates exchanges between members of groups about the questions, to bring out the perceptions people already have, however well or ill informed.
  4. Identifies the key underlying concepts at play in the group discussion, without necessarily answering directly the questions posed.
  5. Articulates the underlying concepts (in non-mathematical terms) where possible or logs them to be dealt with later, after further investigation.
  6. Facilitates further rounds of discussion about the underlying ideas.
  7. Keeps a note of the discussion as it progresses, for the circulation later as a reminder for the next occasion.

Systematic schooling undermines the very thing we celebrate – individualism and liberty. The system appears to favour those who are innately suited to the textbook style of learning. Such approaches can be detrimental as they can deter people from wanting to learn at all. And who wants an ignorant society? I don't have the solution to the school curriculum problem, particularly with regards to science – it's quite impossible to establish the fundamentals of science and explore every query a student may have within a given teaching period. But we can offer an alternative, and I think Morris' is it. 

Tosin Thompson writes about science and was the New Statesman's 2015 Wellcome Trust Scholar. 

Photo: NRK
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Skam, interrupted: why is the phenomenally popular teen drama ending before its peak?

The show has been building towards high school graduation – but now it’s ending before its lead characters finish school.

“Have you heard they started their bus already?”
“One month into high school – and they started their bus.”

This Skype conversation between Eva and Isak comes early in the first episode of Skam. The phenomenally internationally successful series follows teenagers at a high school in Oslo. The “bus” they're discussing is a key plot point and concern of the students' lives. That’s because, in Norway, graduating high school students participate in “russefeiring” – it’s a rite of passage into adulthood, a celebration of completing high school, and a farewell to friends departing for university or jobs around the country.

Students gather into groups, give their gang a name, wear matching coloured overalls, rent a big car or a van, and spend late April to mid May (17 May – Norwegian Constitution Day) continuously partying. They call it the “three week binge”. It’s a big fucking deal. 

Skam, with its focus on teens in high school, has therefore spent a lot of time thinking about “russ”. The show, which is set at the exact same time it airs, has followed its four main characters Eva, Noora, Isak and Sana (who each have a season of the show written from their perspective, a la Skins), as well as all their friends, from their first few weeks at school in September 2015. In other words, preparations take years, and we’ve heard a lot about the plans for their russ bus.

In season one, Eva has fallen out with her best friend, and is hurt when she hears she is moving on and has formed a new bus, with new friends, called Pepsi Max.

We meet one of the show’s most prominent characters, Vilde, when we see her trying to get a bus of girls together. The show’s five main girl characters, Eva, Noora, Vilde, Chris and Sana, become friends because of her efforts: they bond during their “bus meetings” and fundraising attempts. They flirt with a group of boys on a bus calling themselves “The Penetrators”.

The latest season follows Sana’s struggles to ensure the bus doesn’t fall apart, and an attempt to join buses with rivals Pepsi Max. The joyful climax of season four comes when they finally buy their own bus and stop social-climbing, naming themselves “Los Losers”. Bus drama is the glue that keeps the show together.

But now, in June 2017, a whole year before the characters graduate, Skam is ending. The architect of the girls’ bus, Vilde, has never had her own season, unlike most of her friends. Many assumed that Vilde would have had her own season during her final year at school. Fans insist the show’s creator Julie Andem planned nine seasons in total, yet Skam is ending after just four.

The news that Skam would stop after season four came during the announcement that Sana, a Muslim member of the “girl squad”, would be the next main character. The show’s intense fandom were delighted by the character choice, but devastated at the news that there would only be one more season. “I can’t accept that this is the last season,” one wrote on Reddit.

“I'm so shocked and sad. It’s honestly just...weird. It doesn’t make sense, and it’s not fair. It’s not fair that we’re not getting a Vilde season. Most importantly, it’s not fair that we’ll never get to see them on their russ, see them graduating, nothing. It seems like such an abrupt decision. It doesn’t serve the storyline at all.”

No one has given a concrete reason about why the show ended prematurely. Ina, who plays Chris, said in an interview that “we all need a break”.

Some fans went into denial, starting petitions to encourage Andem to continue with the show, while rumours abound suggesting it will return. 

Many speculated that the show simply became too popular to continue. “I think that the show would have had six seasons and a Vilde season if the show didn’t become popular outside of Scandinavia,” one wrote. “I think the pressure and the large amount of cringy fans (not saying that some Scandinavian fans aren’t cringy) has made making the show less enjoyable for the actors and creators.”

Andem has stayed mostly quiet on her reasons for ending the show, except for a statement made via her Instagram. She recalls how very early on, during a season one shoot, someone first asked her how long the show would last:

“We were standing in the schoolyard at Nissen High School, a small, low-budget production crew, one photographer, the sound engineer and me. ‘Who knows, but I think we should aim for world domination,’ I said. We all laughed, ‘cause I was obviously joking. None of us understood then how big Skam would turn out to be. This experience has been completely unreal, and a joy to be a part of.”

Skam has been a 24/7 job,” she continues. “We recently decided that we won’t be making a new season this fall. I know many of you out there will be upset and disappointed to hear this, but I’m confident this is the right decision.”

Many fans feel that season four has struggled under the burden of ending the show – and divisions and cracks have appeared in the fandom as a result.

Some feel that Sana’s season has been overshadowed by other characters and plotlines, something that is particularly frustrating for those who were keen to see greater Muslim representation in the show. Of a moment in season four involving Noora, the main character from season two, one fan account wrote, “I LOVE season tw- I mean four. That’s Noora’s season right? No wait, is it Willhell’s season??? What’s a Sana.”

Others feel that the subject of Islam hasn’t been tackled well in this season. Some viewers felt one scene, which sees Sana and her white, non-Muslim friend, Isak, discuss Islamophobia, was whitesplainy. 

One popular translation account, that provides a version of the show with English subtitles, wrote of the scene: “A lot of you guys have been disappointed by the latest clip and you’re not the only ones. We do want to finish this project for the fans but we are disappointed with how this season has gone.” They announced they would be translating less as a result.

The final week of the show has been light on Sana. Instead, each character who never received a full season has had a few minutes devoted to their perspective. These are the other girls from the girl squad, Vilde and Chris, and the boyfriends of each main character: Eva’s ex Jonas, Isak’s boyfriend Even, Eva’s current fling “Penetrator Chris” and Noora’s on-off boyfriend William.

It’s understandable to want to cover key perspectives in the show’s final week, but it can feel teasing – we get a short glimpse into characters' home lives, like Vilde struggling to care for her depressed mother, but the scene ends before we can really get into it. And, of course, it takes precious time away from Sana in the show’s final minutes.

Some were frustrated by the characters focused on. “Penetrator Chris” is a particularly minor character – one fan account wrote of his scene: “This is absolutely irrelevant. 1) It sidelines Sana 2) It asks more questions 3) It doesn’t answer shit. This isn’t even Sana’s season anymore and that’s absolutely disgusting. She didn’t even get closure or ten episodes or anything.

“Sana has been disrespected and disregarded and erased and sidelined and that is fucking gross. She deserved better. Yet here we are watching a Penetrator Chris clip. How ironic that it’s not even called just “Christopher” because that’s all he is. “Penetrator Chris”.

It’s been a dramatic close for a usually warm and tight-knit fan community. Of course, many fans are delighted with the final season: their only sadness is there won’t be more. One of the largest fan accounts tried to keep things positive. “I know people have mixed feelings about Skam and who deserves what in terms of screentime this season (etc),” they wrote, “which I totally understand.

"However, everything has already been filmed, so there is nothing we can do about it. I think this last week of Skam will be much more enjoyable for everyone if we focus on the positives in the clips ahead. Skam isn’t perfect. People are allowed to disagree. But let’s go into this week being grateful for everything Skam has given us.”

Some fans choose to look to what the future holds for the show – an American remake. It will keep the same characters and plotlines as the original, and Andem may be involved.

Few think it will be a patch on the current show, but some are excited to have the chance to watch it teasingly as a group regardless. It seems unlikely that the US remake will compare in terms of quality – not least because the original was so heavily researched and tied to Norwegian culture. But for fans struggling to let go of Skam, it can’t come soon enough.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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