Science, entertainment and Gillian McKeith – Ed Walsh reports from the Education Show.

To the NEC for the Education Show.  Actually this ended up on a slightly surreal note; the final day of the show coincided with Comic Con, to which many people went dressed as their favourite comic book characters.  I had lunch next to a table full of Pokémon monsters and the walk back to the car park at the end was like home time at Marvel Comics.

Not that the Education Show itself was without entertainment.  Brian Cox was interviewed in a session on the first day and Dara O’Briain on the second.  Both have young children and both were asked how they were inducting them into the exciting world of science and mathematics.  Their responses were similar – see what they’re interested in and nurture that interest.  If it happens to be science, then great.  It’s hard to imagine either sets of children being devoid of a wide range of stimuli.

Dara was also asked about the interface between STEM subjects and entertainment (after all the number of Maths and Theoretical Physics graduates in stand-up isn’t great).  He cited several factors, such as the rise of social media making it easy for people with similar ideas to develop their views but he gave particular credit to dietician Gillian McKeith.  He said that he felt that the way she used science to support assertions about what people should or shouldn’t eat was more than he could take. “Enough” he said “is enough.”  He, and several others such as Ben Goldacre, were spurred into action and the rest, as they say, is history (and science).

A few years ago I was part of a group of science educators invited by one of the awarding organisations to debate the future direction of science.  One of the contributors asserted that we should make it clear to students that science is cool.  I think he was wrong.  Not that science isn’t cool but rather that people of our age shouldn’t try and tell fifteen year olds what’s cool.  They’ll decide that for themselves.  Our job is to present science in a variety of ways, true to its nature, and, then youngsters like those of Messrs Cox and O’Briain, will see what they are attracted by.

I think one of the ways is to promote a degree of healthy scepticism, asking the question “how do we know what we know?”  How do we know that the earth rotates on its axis, that air has mass and that trees can raise water higher than a house?  Many teenagers know that the world doesn’t work as they thought it did when they were younger and they also know that they shouldn’t always accept claims as valid just because big scientific words are used.  We should encourage curiosity about what’s really going on and how it can be tested out.  Performers like O’Briain aren’t teachers but they do a good job of reminding us that being curious is not only healthy but engaging.

Those of us who led sessions at the show were invited to add suggestions about the future of education to a large board.  Mine was that students being engaged should be the first criterion of a good lesson.  Dara’s? That you should start with e = mc2 and that everything else follows from that.  Comedians, eh?

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