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Science is not just for schools

Science is not just for schools

by Kate Mills, doctoral student at the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience. Kate can be found on Twitter at @le_feufollet

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The astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan was my childhood hero. My first flashbulb memory occurred on the last day of school before winter break, when I heard the news of Carl Sagan’s death on the radio. I had come to know Carl Sagan's existence so young in my life not because my family were particularly keen on science, but because my grandfather was awarded a telescope from his company for having worked 30 years in a chemical factory without sustaining an injury.

However, my childhood dreams of becoming an astronomer were stifled in my pre-adolescence when I was told that to become a scientist I would need to do very complicated maths. My experience with maths up until that point had been rather dull, with most of the classes focused on preparing students for the state exams. The results of these exams not only determined my educational trajectory, but also my school's funding and the job prospects of my teachers. What these exams failed to predict is how their existence could make learning more of a chore than a pleasure for many students.

It wasn't until I was free from the pressure of exams, and formal schooling, that I rediscovered my love for science. I left high school early to explore, work and live in the world, and when I returned to academia it was because I had acquired many questions and the motivation to spend my life answering them. My undergraduate maths classes were both exciting and surprisingly easy, likely because they took on a new purpose in my life. I was learning how to use tools, rather than pass exams. And because I was lucky enough to work in research labs under the guidance of fantastic mentors as an undergraduate student, I was able to reap the rewards from using complicated maths almost immediately. I was answering the questions I had about the world using the scientific method; in my mind, I had become a scientist.

Becoming a scientist is easy. We are a naturally curious species, and applying the scientific method to answer a question does not take years of training. Learning all the ways to ask your question, and the tools that go with it, does take time. Like all things, more practice will increase expertise, but obtaining formal training does not transform one into a scientist. However, a cultural boundary does seem to exist between individuals in formal settings conducting science and 'amateurs' conducting science out in their communities. I’ve argued previously that the barriers that make up this boundary should be broken.

There’s currently a crisis in many science disciplines where the make-up of senior-level scientists does not reflect the make-up of junior scientists. This has prompted many universities to reflect on their policies, and scientists themselves are testing to see what might be driving the discrepancy. I worry about what barriers are created when individuals are required to navigate the academic system in order to conduct science. Requiring teachers to train children and teenagers how to pass an exam could stifle early interests in science. Yesterday, the Royal Society launched their vision for science and mathematics education, which addresses this very issue. However, I also think other practices in academia, such as penalising gaps in formal schooling, might prevent individuals from diverse backgrounds and experiences from contributing to science. One of the many ways that we can address these problems is to celebrate and encourage the current amateur scientist movement, especially when young people are leading the projects. By doing so, we can circumvent some of these barriers and bring more diversity into science by working toward making science a community open to all those interested in answering questions through the scientific method.

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