Bees, an inspirational 10 year old… and CP Snow!

On Wednesday evening, I attempted to rush up Exhibition Road in South Kensington, which is easier said than done; dodging map-clutching backpacked tourists and judging a route through the maze of road-works has become a refined skill.

The reason I was rushing? I was running slightly late to get to the Science Museum. That evening a group of the Science Communication students from Imperial had volunteered to help Dr Beau Lotto and his team run his lab from within the Science Museum during their highly popular ‘Lates’.

I thoroughly enjoyed my night; my role was to entice people into the lab and get them to get involved in the various fantastic experiments going on (anyone who knows me knows I do like to talk a little… ok  a lot!). The beauty of running the lab from the Science Museum is that a diverse range of people can have a go at the experiments, generating a substantial amount data for the researchers’ projects.

But there was one standout highlight of the evening for me. Let me set the scene…

On boards set upon art easels, pages of a scientific paper are enlarged to A3 size and proudly displayed. On benches facing the boards, a crowd of men and women are gathered. They are squeezed onto the benches, leaning on the back of them, and perched on the floor like children in a school assembly. Each of them are completely silent, drinks held half way to their mouths, memorized by the words of a researcher explaining how their research team designed an experiment to test whether bumblebees could use colour and/or spatial relations to find flowers to forage from.

Doesn’t sound too unusual for a Science Museum Late? Well, here’s the twist. The author who was talking was 10 year old Amy O’Toole.

The research team she spoke so eloquently about consisted of 25 primary school children from Blackawton Primary School whose paper had been published in the Royal Society’s Biology Letters. The publication of the paper was covered extensively in the press at the time but what tugged at my heartstrings, and made me slightly emotional on Wednesday evening, was her Dad’s reaction. “I’ve never seen her like this” he said shaking his head. “She never liked science before [the paper].”

The amazing aspect of the project was the way in which the children were guided through the design of the research. No technical language was used, instead they were enticed to ask questions and think their own way through the problem. The children designed, carried out, and wrote the paper for the research almost entirely by themselves.

It made me think about an essay I wrote on CP Snow’s Two Cultures last term. Snow believed that a dangerous gulf was opening between scientific and humanities disciplines; they kept to themselves and formed ‘two cultures’. One thing I noted about the Two Cultures was that it was quite superficial; Snow makes no attempts to delve into the finer details of the education system which he in part blames for the divide.

I argued in my essay that increased specialisation within the sciences, and the generation of more and more subsections in each discipline, inevitably leads to a choice of subjects having to be made when going through the education system. This (forced?) choice about the path of academic training often does separate literary and humanities subjects from the natural sciences. Importantly, however, it has been noted that the process which takes place in the pursuit for truth or knowledge is similar across all disciples. Latour and Woolgar noted in their analysis of researchers in the lab that “there are no significant differences between the search for knowledge that takes place in a laboratory and what happens, for example, in a law court.”

I believe that what Beau Lotto and the group involved in the Blackawton bee research did was identify this fact. There is no difference in the pursuit of knowledge, whether it be in a humanities subject or a science subject– it is just a matter of guiding people to think in a slightly different way to what they might be used to. Science isn’t inaccessible; it’s emotionless language and technical jargon might make it appear so at times, but anyone is capable of thinking ‘scientifically’ and understanding what is required of experimentation.

Hearing Amy’s Dad say that she never really liked science before reminded me of a tutoring job I once took. At my first session, a petulant 10 year old sat down in front of me and declared that she didn’t like science. She was studying the human body, so I decided that we were going to make an entire body! After raiding my craft drawer we successfully created muscles made of elastic bands, lungs made of balloons stuffed with bubble wrap and a heart complete with colour coded tubing into the lungs! She passed all her biology tests with flying colours, and when I told her I could no longer teach her, she cried.

I’m not suggesting everyone will love science if it is tailored to them, but I was reminded as I watched Amy unashamedly and passionately talking about her published scientific paper that the search for scientific fact is no different to any other quest for knowledge. People, and society, should stop trying to put people in discrete boxes – it might prevent people from thinking in a way that they could enjoy, perhaps even love!

3 thoughts on “Bees, an inspirational 10 year old… and CP Snow!

  1. Great post!

    What really excites me about what Beau did with the Blackawton children is – as you point out – theory construction. He didn’t just let the kids help out. He provided them with a framework to ask their *own questions*. This made the work relevant and meaningful, and not just “scientific”. This is creative! So it shatters Snow’s divide. In its own small way, I think the Blackawton bees paper is one of the most brilliant and subversive ideas in communication. True citizen science – empowerment, not just participation.

  2. I second Steve, this is a really good post Lizzie! I had the chance to sit in with the current crop of 17/18 year old students going through a similar program with Beau and while their way of thinking the questions through was a bit more advanced they seemed to really feel the same. That the education system they were in didn’t create an environment in which they felt they could ask questions or have any input into where things go. They didn’t blame their teachers; they recognised the constraints of the assessment structure the system currently has.

    While the science curriculum has come a long way in the last 20 or so years, the assessment structure is still stifling towards creativity and guided but original inquiry in science.

  3. I very much agree with you. Breaking barriers between sciences and art has been a personal crusade of mine. I blogged about the historical approaches to working together, regardless of chosen specialties here: http://jonwoodscience.blogspot.com/2011/02/natural-philosophy.html as I jointly teach an outreach session with an arts historian on the links between humanities and science. I really enjoyed reading your blog so this is to say thanksnfor making my day get off to a good start.

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