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The public understanding of science

Franklin JOHNSTON

Friday, June 13, 2014    

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OUR failure to prosper may well be linked to our deficit of science savvy. Science is a big deal and the Ministry of Education is to deploy STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) across the school system to empower people and prompt innovation. Those who "whinge" that STEM restricts are misled. Science is not an enemy of creative people as science innovation moves the world. Science gave us aircraft; lazer lights; your 'criss' car is from science's wind tunnel; without keyboards and mixing suites musicians would suffer; and light, aerodynamic gear assists even Usain Bolt: pigments and alloys not found in nature and a trove of devices enable the plastic and all arts to flourish. We need poets, painters, entertainers, but know this, science is the Daddy.

The smallest flower is a scientific marvel -- form, fragrance; fantastic! The hummingbird engineered to pivot on a pinhead, hovers endlessly, refuels in flight. Only science can explain it. The scientist is the consummate artist! Who can forget Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa? Who remembers his design of irrigation systems for the Medici? Military tactics, arms for warring city states - a tank, explosives, a proto helicopter? He eviscerated cadavers to explore the human body. Lack of STEM literacy means we do not understand ourselves our environment and cannot manipulate either well. After 175 years of Mico we still call diabetes "sugar" - flippin' illiteracy our leaders condone and wonder why we are still in a dark hole? God help us!

The early years

Parents must help build STEM thinking in kids so they do better than we are doing. "Curiosity kills the cat" is out; encourage inquiry, applaud naïve curiosity, reward discovery. Kids must question, prove all things; use feet, hands, mouth as a God-given laboratory; play in a rain puddle; stick a hand in the dirt-feel it! Use your lungs -- breathe! Try this fruit -- taste! Experiential learning is doing; explain the elation when you score a goal. Age-related STEM may be a child's swing -- a push, momentum, a "pump" to increase velocity in the arc inscribed by ropes of fixed radius; but upset it and the rider is ejected... bust lips, bruises, tears, and a science lesson in first-aid begins. Teachers must intuit. Education builds intuition. Get educated!

Seeding the syllabus with age-appropriate STEM is the key. A candidate for teacher-training should be asked: "Do you love science?" If he/she does not, there will be no learning in her class. Some of the old school teach STEM subjects but did not do them well, do not like them, find them "hard" and can't answer questions. The body is wondrously made, study it and you may master major primary STEM. Add real-world STEM and you are clear. Poor teaching means students are not given a fair chance to like STEM subjects -- most won't. Teachers are trained to learn how to learn and should embark on self-study-Internet or print to experience their "eureka" moment, and confidently, lovingly, teach STEM. We all do it on our jobs without your training. You can do it, too, dear teacher.

Science literacy

Until we have more STEM in schools and teach it into the workforce our move to prosperity will be slow. Science is an evidence-based belief system, but our culture is riddled with obeah and superstition. English literacy is weak; finance literacy passing; math literacy gross; and science literacy, zilch. My doctor abroad did research on Caribbean people who suffer dehydration and get very ill. They do not drink water in winter as the difference between cold and wet eludes them: "Mi nuh luv wata wen time cowl" -- damn fool! Even if you are freezing your body needs water. Scientists were philosophers, top of the creative chain. They scoured the skies, made hypotheses, debunked theories, posited new ones. They found man did not fall off Earth's edge as the world is round? Wow!

Public understanding

We must infuse STEM in radio and TV shows: flip the Unda mi nose, mi bed, mi dress script and create new popular genres; family quiz, game show. Can film-makers, comedians make science sexy? Growth requires we understand science. The British mined media and Dr Who was a hit; Pub quiz on Tuesday; science comics, fairs, experiment kits, puzzles. Extra Mural used to have grass roots talks at Holy Cross, Coke, East Queen Street halls; is wisdom buried in uptown campuses? Do the masses matter? Take STEM to town squares, to the 'University of Rae Town'. Support the imminent science museum. Buy age-appropriate science toys when you travel. Where do folk get science answers? What makes a rainbow? Why does a boiled egg float? Why do you pass wind? Why does bath water form a spout when you pull the plug? We need an observatory in the Blue Mountains as early man studied the skies, stars, moon; kids need fun in science. When Bobby Pickersgill was at Transport he hosted the first airshow ever...amazing! Kids saw aircraft up close, airspace, ATC; science, engineering and technology of aviation at NMIA, SIA; astronauts, wing walkers, aerobatics; did it help career choice and love for aviation STEM? We need stimuli like this to elicit the STEM in music, sport, culture, and create the world's next innovator, inventor and entrepreneur. Do this, my people!

Innovation and enterpreneurship

Education feeds creativity. We innovate within the compass of the known. The more better. Ezekiel's wheel was a spacecraft, but they lacked vocabulary, later a car was a "horseless carriage". We use known concepts to explain future visions. We copy and call it innovation. Japan copied USA products for decades; "practice makes perfect"; they made them cheaper, better and innovation followed. We are mere consumers. The world does not need a new car but for cars to be safe, fuel-efficient, non-polluting, cheap. Don't make a car, invent a maintenance-free battery which lasts the life of the car at a fair price -- get rich! Be cutting edge! Tweak a component, add value! What about a mobile phone that uses body temperature to stick to a hand? I will buy one. Yes, we can!

Public policy

We need more science in the public space. Too many are science averse and perversely inclined to the mystical. Does God wonder why he gave us brains we do not use? If He was Toyota, he would recall us. We need a czar to lead a "Public understanding of STEM" campaign; a chair at UTech; contests, competitions for innovation we can use; firms must support mainstreaming STEM (TVET is "Technology in action", the "T" in STEM) in schools and villages; big-up STEM Academies with deep competency-based courses -- you know and can, do! Appoint Dayton Campbell a champion for STEM in Parliament to elicit the public interest science impact in state projects and enlighten the masses? We botched the conversation on Goat Islands -- a teachable moment lost! A monthly science talk or demo at the "University of Sam Sharpe Square" for the masses. Make it sexy, funny! Stay conscious, my friend!

Dr Franklin Johnston is a strategist, project manager and advises the minister of education. franklinjohnstontoo@gmail.com

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