Live and learn

UNDER THE MICROSCOPE
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The Independent Culture
So now we have a Government with the agenda, Education, Education and Education. In the maelstrom of suggestions into which David Blunkett has been plunged, I wonder if anyone has touched on a specific issue - one that got us all thinking at a recent meeting on advancing the teaching of science and technology in schools. If it's vital for the technological future of this country to ensure that more schoolchildren become excited by science, then a pivotal key must be attracting top-class science graduates into teaching. How can it be done?

The obvious answer is, of course, more cash. All the goodwill, social conscience and vocation in the world will not pay the mortgage. But as well as the incentive of a salary commensurate with a teacher's talents, there may be less fiscally dependent, additional ideas that could reshape the way a science graduate views a teaching career.

At the meeting there were representatives from secondary education, people like me from uni- versities, as well as those from industry. Clearly universities and industry have a stark and vested interest in high standards of science teaching in schools. The preoccupations of adolescents could be counterbalanced by stimulating science teaching from highly motivated staff.

One idea that would depend on goodwill rather than large sums of money, would be to reduce the isolation that science teachers must feel. I wonder how many leave the profession, or don't even consider entering it, because they see it as a backwater, a betrayal of their interest in "true science", because the very essence of science progress, constantly learning new things, is removed. The thought that struck me as I surveyed the industrialist and university academics in the audience, was that it may be possible for them to link up in some grass-roots way.

Would it not be possible for a research scientist such as myself, to be twinned with a local teacher of shared interest? Even the simple act of communicating by e-mail might help - making the teacher feel involved in research and the academics more aware of the standards prevailing in schools.

Beyond this it would presumably not require too cumbersome a bureaucracy for the teacher to shadow a researcher for the occasional day in the lab. Similarly, scientists could give guest lectures at schools which would not only offer the pupils a change of face and a fresh topic, but enable the scientists to develop often sorely needed communication skills, as well as to contribute in a non-onerous way to the public understanding of science.

A similar, happy symbiosis could unfold between industry and schools, expanding on the sessions already run by large companies where sixth formers hear talks from scientists.

Then there could be a reinforcement of a third twinning, between industry and universities. This type of relationship is already taking off with great success in terms of funding collaborative research. If even the public-sector funded scientists had a twin in industry, a personal understanding between what has been two very different cultures, would be vastly improved. Also, it would be very valuable for graduate students to know more about what life is like in private - as opposed to public-sector - research before crossing that all-career Rubicon.

Such liaisons could be of enormous benefit in allowing the needs of the three chief concerns for science in this country to dovetail. More specifically, if a career in teaching science did not entail consignment to a frozen moment in scientific time, but instead becoming involved in part of a larger whole, then science graduates might not treat the prospect of teaching with the scorn that currently prevails. And if a small amount of cash was needed to launch the idea, would it not be money well invested?

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