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29 July 2015

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. 

By Tosin Thompson

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.

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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. 

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