Science beyond playtime

Back in January, celebrity petrol head Richard Hammond – he of Top Gear and crashing jet cars at 464 kilometres per hour infamy – wrote for New Scientist magazine on the challenge of teaching science to children. Hammond made a few reasonable points in his chatty opinion piece, but I was unimpressed with the advocacy of whiz-bangery in science education.

Children, says, Hammond, are “natural-born scientists”, in that they have enquiring minds, and are not afraid to admit ignorance. That may be true of particularly young children, but adolescents? By the time they reach their teens – the age when young people start to seriously consider their life options – this natural inquisitiveness is tempered by real-world concerns.

So is it appropriate to teach older children in a manner that keeps them “bouncing along and excited”, as Hammond urges?

As a journalist and blogger I have written about science education from the perspective of both consumer and provider. For example, there are a number of comments on this site, and a few of my online Guardian articles address the subject. But such angst-ridden verbosity is no match for the succinctness of Averil Macdonald, who in a letter to New Scientist writes:

“Teenagers are more pragmatic and sophisticated than we realise. How often do you see accountants in schools trying to excite students with accountancy? Yet plenty go on to become accountants.”

Macdonald is also unimpressed with Hammond’s call for whizzier school science lessons. Encouraging teenagers to choose science and technology as a career requires candour when it comes to outlining the prospects available.

How about role models – people working in satisfying, secure jobs, and earning decent salaries? Therein lies the problem. Macdonald again:

“If we can’t do that then what right do we have to attract them to a poorly paid career just to keep the country ticking over?”

I’m not sure about the relevance of ‘rights’ in this context. It is in the interests of politicians and business leaders to sell science and engineering to school students as viable and potentially rewarding career options. But it is dishonest.