Last week I was at a family reunion where I had the chance to talk to one of my more distant relations, Calvin. At 10 years old he seems to know more about particle physics and cosmology than most adults I know. We spent a couple of hours talking about the LHC, the big bang, trying to solve the energy crisis, and even the role of women in science †. It turns out that Calvin had wanted to speak with a real scientist for quite a while, so I agreed to have a chat next time I was in the area. To be honest when I first agreed I was rolling my eyes at the prospect. I’ve had so many parents tell me about their children who are “into science” only to find out that they merely watch Mythbusters, or enjoyed reading a book about dinosaurs. However when I spoke to Calvin I found he had huge concentration and insight for someone of his age, and that he was enthusiastically curious about physics to the point where I felt he would never tire of the subject. Each question would lead to another, in the meantime he’d wait patiently for the answer, giving the discussion his full attention. He seemed content with the idea that we don’t have answers to some of these questions yet, or that it can take decades for someone to understand just one of the answers properly. The road to being a scientist is a long one and you’ve got to really want it and work hard to get there, and Calvin has what it takes.
Next month Calvin will start his final year in primary school and his teacher will be the same teacher I had at that age, Mark (a great name for a teacher!) From an early age I was fascinated by mathematics and computation, and without Mark I would not have discovered how much fun it was to play with numbers and shapes, something I’ve enjoyed ever since. Without his influence I probably would not have chosen to be a scientist. So once I found out Mark was going to teach Calvin I got in touch and told him that Calvin had the spark within him to get to university, but only if he had the right help along the way. In the area we are from, an industrial town in the North West of England, it is not usual for children to go to university, and there’s often strong peer pressure to not study hard. In this kind of environment it’s important to give encouragement to the children who can do well in academia. (Of course it would be better to change the environments in schools, but changing attitudes and cultures takes decades.)
All this made me think about my own experiences on the way to university, and I’m sure everyone had their own memories of the teachers who inspired them, and the frustrations of how much of high school focuses on learning facts instead of critical thinking. At primary school I had exhausted the mathematics textbooks very early on, under the guidance of Maggie Miller. From there Mark took over and taught me puzzles that went beyond anything I was taught in maths classes at high school. It was unfortunate that I was assigned a rather uninspiring maths teacher who would struggle to understand what I said at times, and it took the school about four years to organise classes that stretched its top students. This was mostly a matter of finding the resources than anything else; the school was caught in the middle of a regional educational crisis, and five small schools were fighting to stay open in a region that could only support four larger schools. One of the schools had to close and that would mean a huge upheaval for everyone. Challenging the brightest students became one of the ways that the school could show its worth and boost its statistics, so the pupils and school worked together to improve both their prospects. Since then the school has encouraged pupils to on extra subjects and exams if they want to, and I’m glad to stay that not only has it stayed open but it’s now going from strength to strength, and I’m glad to have played a very small part in that success.
By the time I was at college there was a whole new level of possibilities, as they had teams dedicated to helping students get to university, and some classes were arranged to fit around the few students that needed them, rather than the other way around. Some of the support still depended on individuals putting in extra effort though, including staff pulling strings to arrange a visit to Oxford where we met with tutors and professors who could give us practice interviews. I realised there was quite a coincidence, because one of the people who gave a practice interview, Bobbie Miller, was the son of Maggie Miller, one of my primary school teachers. At the same time one of my older and more dedicated tutors, Lance, had to take time off for ill health. He invited me and two others over to his house in the evenings for extra maths lessons, some of which went far beyond the scope of the syllabus and instead explored critical and creative mathematical thinking to give us a much deeper understanding of what we were studying. After one of my exams I heard the sad news that he’d passed away, but we knew that he was confident of our success and all three of us got the university positions we wanted, largely thanks to his help.
Unable to thank Lance, I went to visit Maggie Miller and thanked her. It was a surreal experience to go into her classroom and see how small the tables and chairs were, but it brings me back to the main point. Finding tomorrow’s scientists means identifying and encouraging them from an early age. The journey from primary school to university is long, hard, full of distractions and it’s easy to become unmotivated. It’s only through the help of dozens of people putting in extra effort that I got to where I am today, and I’m going to do what I can to help Calvin have the same opportunities. Looking back I am of course very grateful for this, but I also shudder to think of all the pupils who weren’t so lucky, and never got a chance to stretch their intellectual muscles. It doesn’t benefit anyone to let these children fall through the cracks of the educational system simply because it’s difficult to identify those who have the drive to be scientists, or because it’s hard work to give them the support they need. Once we link them up to the right people it’s a pleasure to give them the support they need.
There have always been scientists who have come from impoverished or unlikely backgrounds, from Michael Faraday to Sophie Germaine, who fought hard to find their own way, often educating themselves. Who knows how many more advances we would have today if more of their contemporaries had access to a university education? In many cases the knowledge of children quickly outpaces that of their parents, and since parents can’t be expected to find the right resources the support must come from the schools. On the other hand there are many parents who desperately want their children to do well at school and encourage them to excel in as many subjects as possible (hence my initial skepticism when I first heard Calvin was “into science”.) This means that we also need to be wary of imposing our own biases on children. I can talk about particle physics with Calvin all day, but if he wants to study acoustic engineering then nobody should try to dissuade him from that. Nobody has a crystal ball that can tell them what path Calvin will choose to take, not even Calvin, so he needs the freedom to explore his interests in his own way.
So how can we encourage young scientists-in-the-making? It can be a daunting task, but from my own experience the key is to find the right people to help encourage the child. Finding someone who can share their joy and experiences of science is not easy, and it may mean second or third hand acquaintances. At the same time, there are many resources online you can use. Give a child a computer, a book of mathematical puzzles, and some very simple programming knowledge, and see them find their own solutions. Take them to museums, labs, and universities where they can meet real scientists who love to talk about their work. The key is to engage them and allow them to take part in the process. They can watch all the documentaries and read all the science books in the world, but that’s a passive exercise, and being a scientist is never passive. If a child wants to be an actor it’s not enough to ask them to read plays, they want to perform them. You’ll soon find out if your child is interested in science because they won’t be able to stop themselves being interested. The drive to solve problems and seek answers is not something that can be taught or taken away, but it can be encouraged or frustrated. Encouraging these interests is a long term investment, but one that is well worth the effort in every sense. Hopefully Calvin will be one of tomorrow’s scientists. He certainly has the ability, but more importantly he has the drive, and that means given the right support he’ll do great things.
† “Girls aren’t good at science!”, Calvin said. So I told him that some of the best physicists I know are women. I explained how Marie Curie migrated from Poland to France about a century ago to study the new science of radioactivity, how she faced fierce sexism, and despite all that still became the first person in history to win two Nobel Prizes, for chemistry and physics. If a 10 year old thinks that only men can be good scientists then either the message isn’t getting through properly, or as science advocates we’re failing in our role to make it accessible to everyone. We need to move beyond the images of Einstein, Feynman, Cox, and Tyson in the public image of science.