Getting children involved in science

Peter Vukusic is a Professor of Biophotonics at the University of Exeter, and helps coordinate science and outreach universities for the College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences. He discusses how he helps get children involved in science and why it’s important for us all.

Take a minute to think back to your childhood, and some of the moments that stand out in your memory. Peppered amongst the landmark events of birthdays, Christmas and school days, do you recall gazing into a clear night sky and seeing millions of dazzling stars, watching a classic steam locomotive journeying along Brunel’s South Devon railway lines, or searching for the thousands of tiny life forms that make their home in the shrubs and trees of your back garden or nearby countryside?

As children, we are blessed with an instinctive curiosity towards the world around us, and we are encouraged to explore our surroundings and discover the rich diversity that both our natural and manmade environments provide.  Yet somewhere, along the journey into adulthood, many of us lose our fascination with these still mesmerising aspects of our neighbourhoods and surroundings.

You may be asking why I have taken you on this short trip down memory lane. What you have perhaps unwittingly carried out is essentially a potted history of your love affair with science.  Think back again to those memories and think about how many relate to science in some way or another – that steam railway was a marvel of contemporary engineering, trying to calculate how many stars illuminate the skies above us is a fundamental questions for astrophysicists, while even board games such as Top Trumps rely on a embracing statistical analysis.

In short, the influence of science on our everyday lives is evident pretty much wherever you look. We are fortunate to live in a part of the UK blessed with not only a rich biodiversity, but also a varied landscape ranging from the rugged moorland landscapes to the majestic Jurassic coastline. Meanwhile, Britain’s position as a cradle of invention has mean that we take so many incredible innovations and developments, from the railways to television and radio, and even the internet, almost for granted.

Yet if we are to continue to lead the way in innovation and new technology, there needs to be a sea change in our attitudes towards science. The next technological breakthrough won’t be possible without the passion, perseverance and skills of the scientists, mathematicians and engineers of tomorrow. Put simply, it is time to kick-start a quiet revolution to place science at the heart of the next generation.

Friday 14 March marked the start of the National Science and Engineering Week, which aims to give children the confidence to question the environment, develop basic scientific theories, increase their observational skills and, perhaps most importantly, have fun while they do so. A huge number of fascinating events and opportunites have been going on to support this. If we can enhance the skills and attitudes towards science in our children now, it is far more likely to stay with them for the rest of their lives.

Here at the University of Exeter, we are already passionate about sharing our knowledge and enthusiasm for science with the local community. Throughout the course of the year our staff run a series of outreach events designed to encourage children of all ages to think about what science means to them, and what opportunities it can provide as they start their journeys through adulthood. For example, the University of Exeter Medical School hosts the exciting “Men in White”, event, which allows Year 9 students from schools across the region to experience what working in a research laboratory is really like. Meanwhile, colleagues from our Penryn Campus in Cornwall run the hugely successful Science in the Square event, as part of Falmouth Week, where families can come and learn more about insects, space, ocean life and much, much more.

We believe events such as these are the perfect way in which we can give something back to our local community, but just as importantly by allowing children to become scientists for the day, we will sow the seeds to produce the next generation of scientists.

In recent decades the lure of science has perhaps been lost to many. The government has recognised the importance of attracting students into science, and last year announced that science and engineering teaching at UK universities will receive a £400 million boost. It is a welcome decision, but is not a total solution to what has become a longstanding problem. Instead, it is up to all of us to make a difference. If we can rediscover our passion for trying to understand the world around us, to marvel once again at the exceptional feats of engineering and technology that we see and use daily, to nurture our natural desire to observe, question and learn, then we can encourage those around us too – and who knows, perhaps discover the next Brunel, Tim Berners-Lee or Professor Stephen Hawking right here on our doorstep.

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