The truth is that science is boring to schoolchildren

The trouble with teaching science to children is that it's chiefly a method, not just a body of facts
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LONG, LONG ago, when Peter Mandelson was in charge of the Department of Trade and Industry, I went to see him launch a campaign to get more girls to take up science at school. The venue was a school in Camden, and, of course, the only suitable place to launch such an idea was in the science laboratories themselves.

It was not an auspicious choice. The event was delayed because a fire alarm went off - caused, it was said, by faulty wiring in one of the school's four laboratories. Then before we trooped back in to hear Mr Mandelson announce that pounds 85,000 would be spent printing posters and somehow persuading secondary school girls that science really is fun, a member of staff sidled up to me.

"Ask him how long it is since the laboratories were refurbished," the teacher said. "Because I've been here 20 years and they've certainly never been improved in that time."

"Do you think that old laboratories like this give pupils a good message about the value you put on science?" I asked.

"What I think is a good message," he replied through gritted teeth, giving me a look that would deselect a Labour MP at 50 paces, "is how much money is going into science in the classroom, and investment in the interface of science laboratories and teaching in our schools."

Whatever that meant, it didn't disguise the fact that on the board where safety glasses should be, pair No 30 was missing; or that some of the potentiometers (used to vary resistance in electrical circuits) looked as though they had been handed down from Thomas Faraday. I'm prepared to bet, as Science, Engineering and Technology (SET) Week starts today, that the No 30 pair is still missing and that the potentiometers have not been replaced.

Contrast that gloomy thought with the news, reported in this paper earlier this week, that "narrative non-fiction" - and especially science - is enjoying a boom among publishers. If you want to read up about superstring theory, look no further than your nearest bookshop, where Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe will lead you gently but thoroughly into a comprehension of 11-dimensional space. Science books are enjoying a boom. So are science programmes on TV. People are fascinated by science and scientists, and especially by the power they wield in the modern age.

However, power also leads to fear, especially if you don't understand how it is that the scientist gains that power. And while it may seem like a huge leap from Peter Mandelson in a run-down school laboratory to the sort of concerns - most of them groundless - expressed over, say, genetically modified foods, there is a clear link.

The trouble with teaching science to children is that science (and, by extension, engineering and technology) is predominantly a method, rather than being just a body of facts.

It is important for the science student to discover that when you perform experiments all sorts of things don't happen as you want them to: that copper sulphate, while having interestingly shaped crystals, is very hard to measure out exactly (unless you grind it, in which case it's hard to keep track of the bits). Or that repeating 19th-century physics experiments in such a way that you get the same results is in fact extremely hard.

Learning to "do" science, rather than just "learning" science (such as the sequence of hormones in the menstrual cycle and pregnancy - a group of facts I learnt at school whose value has become clear only 25 years later) is difficult. It puts people, including girls, off. To be honest, I'm not sure whether gleaming new laboratories would make much difference. You have to like the practice, not the theory.

However, it is through carrying out the experiments that a scientist is truly born - fired, if you like, by the flame of the Bunsen burner. Graduate scientists know that textbooks may offer all the answers, but they hide the long slog involved in getting there - all the peculiar data usually dismissed as "experimental error", and the joy of being able to make your experiment work not once but twice and then three times.

It is much easier, though, to read a book. Which is why although fewer people are applying to do science and engineering at university, and fewer are taking science subjects at A-level, we have a publishing boom for science books.

Is that a bad thing? If we are truly headed for an economy in which knowledge and science are the keystones, then yes, it is bad that fewer people are now doing science. It is always better to be a producer than a consumer.

In addition, reliance on predigested information means that when a new technology, such as GM foods and crops, appears on the horizon, the non-scientist's first reaction is panic. Professor Steve Jones, an expert in genetics at University College London, remarked this week that: "the story of GM foods has been the biggest disaster for the national understanding of science in the past decade... everyone, on both sides of the argument, seems to have suspended their critical faculties, just because science is involved."

It is interesting to note what Professor Jones - a geneticist, but not an expert in genetic manipulation - did when he wanted to find out more: he asked other scientists who would know about it, and weighed up their answers for himself. He carried out the procedure. The reaction of the public, by contrast, has been to try to find ready-made answers. I have to admit that I don't hold out much hope for SET Week breaking through the public's ignorance about science, and particularly in getting people to understand the science questions that matter to them - such as the safety of GM food, whether or not genes define your destiny, and perhaps even whether the universe really is made up of superstrings. That is because they will have been turned off the practice of science long ago, in those antiquated school laboratories, despite the best efforts of ministers.

Not even Peter Mandelson was immune from that indifference. On that November day in Camden, he recalled his own science teaching: "My headmaster tried to get me to do arts and chemistry A-levels, each in a single year. I didn't. In my end-of-term report he wrote, `I have tried to show Mandelson the path to greatness but he has chosen to ignore my advice.' And look," Mr Mandelson said, "at where I am."

Perhaps he should have done accountancy instead of art. But the chemistry might have been a useful fallback.