Roger Highfield: With a teacher's inspiration, the glory of science can shine through

Thursday 30 April 2009 00:00

It is A matter of some angst just how we get young people animated by science, though I can easily pinpoint what launched me on a scientific trajectory.

When I was in short trousers, there was a terrific sense of optimism about science. Harold Wilson talked about the white heat of the technological revolution. When I was 11, I was blown away by the Apollo moon landing. I can't believe it is 40 years since I watched those black and white images from the moon but for me the feat seems more impressive today than it did all that time ago.

More than that, I was lucky to encounter a series of teachers who turned me on to science. That is why I find the debate about the curriculum and what teachers should teach a bit depressing. Sure it is important what is taught but I have always taken it as a given that teachers know what they are talking about. What we need more of is passion. Kids can tell when a teacher is the real deal, knowledgeable and enthusiastic.

From mathematicians to Nobel prize-winners, their single greatest influence was the presence of inspiring – intelligent and dedicated men and women who helped them fall in love with science and engineering.

And I'm right behind the drive to ensure that STEM careers (science, engineering, technology and mathematics) are shown as being as relevant and attractive to women as they have been traditionally to men. Increasingly New Scientist covers those "great idea" stories in which women are the stars of the show, whether the primatologist Jane Goodall, Prof Anne Dowling of Cambridge, who did that milestone report on nanotechnology, Susan Greenfield at the Royal Institution, Kathy Sykes in Bristol and so on.

That is why I love the STEM ambassador idea. It sends out a signal that science, engineering, technology and maths are useful and relevant. It shows the human face of science (not the crazy, white-haired old bloke). It gives teachers much needed support.

There's no better way to turn kids on to STEM than to connect them with people who have a genuine passion for the subject. Enthusiasm is infectious. So keep on fanning those little embers of interest into flames.

Roger Highfield, the editor of the 'New Scientist', was speaking at the national STEM Ambassador Awards

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