“What is gravity?” asks my then four year old nephew to his family.
Quite an inspirational question from a four year old! But then again, at the time they were all watching the highly acclaimed Cosmos; the science documentary hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. A child’s curiosity clearly knows no bounds when it comes to the world around them, and I am astounded by the equally captivating questions his brother asks me (“What does e in math[s] mean?”)
It is sad that in later years children eventually lose their interest in science. In 2008, The Telegraph published a report with statistics that showed some children were losing their interest between primary and secondary school (42% of 9 year olds were interested in science, but this drops to 38% of 12 year olds and 35% of 14 year olds). In 2013 Ofsted reported an assessment of science education and recommendations based on a survey [Maintaining curiosity: a survey into science education in schools] conducted between 2010 -2013. CaSE in London responded positively to this report and has called for the UK Government to heed these recommendations.
I had the chance to observe such inspirational curiosity during my Easter holidays when I visited my cousin and her children (hereafter referred to as my niece and nephews) in Boston, centre of scientific excellence. It really doesn’t get any better than that! One of the things I was particularly looking forward to was extracting DNA from strawberries with them. I had of course previously done this with Science Brainwaves at a school outreach event in 2011. Just telling my 11 year old niece and 9 year old nephew about this got them really excited. When I told them their dining table needed to be cleaned, my nephew (who prefers to kick a football around the house much to his parents’ disapproval) was so eager that he could not clean the table fast enough! I complemented this little experiment with a brief 101 on DNA and PCR (polymerase chain reaction, which copies DNA). When I interviewed them later about it, they told me they loved it and would gladly do it again. Score 1 for science! If doing practical experiments benefits children so much, then it certainly makes the removal of practical work for A’ Level exams by Ofqual in the UK dubious. Naturally, this move has been criticised and on the 12th May 2014, a hearing was hosted by the Commons Select Committee to discuss this proposal.
I also had the opportunity to visit some of the scientific attractions of Boston with the kids; the New England Aquarium and the Museum of Science. I found that the trip to the aquarium was definitely worthwhile. My nephew had his own epiphany linking the ecology of sharks and their prey to the food web, as he dictated later in the evening. I was amazed and a little scared when I had the chance to touch stingrays and a baby shark in the giant ‘touch-tank’. But I wasn’t the only one in seventh heaven. It was interesting to find out that my niece actually wants to be marine biologist. Score 2 for science. I asked my 9 year old nephew what he wanted to do and he replied with a list of potential careers: archaeologist, cosmologist or footballer. I was completely honest with him when I said that he might make more money becoming a footballer, there probably won’t be very much opportunities in archaeology, but that cosmology might be more fulfilling. He didn’t seem too upset or waylaid by this. I neglected to ask the youngest, as at the time he was 4 years old and most of his ambitions included chocolate and tickling. I will ask him another time.
When it comes to their parents encouraging them into science, my cousin and her husband do not hold back! Amazed by my nephew’s questions, the family is now subscribed to the Scientific American and together they all sit down to watch Cosmos. This documentary, playing on Fox and National Geographic, follows on from the Carl Sagan version which played in 1980. I watched the second [Some of the Things That Molecules Do] and fourth [A Sky Full of Ghosts] episodes, glad that the second episode provided a neat and tidy introduction to genetics and evolution, the ideal precursor to extracting DNA from strawberries. I was really astounded at how the show pitched itself perfectly to both adults and children. The parents and all three kids were glued to the screen, and I found the balance between explanation and visuals in complete harmony. But of course, a documentary like this does not go unnoticed by the Creationists in the USA, especially when evolution is involved. In an article in the Huffington Post, the show was criticised by Creationists for not given its due time on Creationism. I asked my niece and nephew what they thought and they make the same claims as any scientist would make: Why give inaccurate information to the public, especially when there is evidence to back up what we already know? Score 3 for science.
For the final flourish in this scientific journey with my niece and nephew I tell them I write a monthly blog for Science Brainwaves. So I asked them to read Resurrection! Bringing species back from the dead, and get their thoughts and feedback. They both would like to see the sabre tooth cat brought back (clearly indicating they have not seen Jurassic Park). My niece is for bringing back species from the dead as she thinks it will make great study material. My nephew on the other hand is a lot more cautious. I don’t think I can score this as either for or against science, but I’m definitely happy to see this younger generation at least considering the ethical options. Either way, the final score is 3 for science, I’m still the Cool Fun Aunt and now I can happily watch and nurture their scientific ambitions to reality.