SciCon 2010 — well worth it

By Anna Sandiford 05/07/2010

I have just returned on a bumpy flight from Nelson following my stint at SciCon 2010, the the biennial conference of the New Zealand Association of Science Educators (NZASE). The theme of SciCon 2010 is ‘Journey to Discovery’ and there are plenty of interesting speakers and workshops (it runs until this Wednesday, 7 July).

Having never attended a scientific educators conference before, I had no idea what to expect and being the opening speaker at a conference means you have no way to gauge what the audience is expecting or what they like to hear.

Knowing that forensic science is taught in many intermediate schools these days, my keynote speech was about the CSI effect and how the spark of interest that has been developed in children around the world, including New Zealand, offers educators an unmissable opportunity to attract students into science.  It also gave me the opportunity to put to rest some of those myths that programs like CSI have created.

For example, it is not possible to determine year and location of manufacture of a shoe using a sole pattern deposited at a crime scene. Even if it were, we wouldn’t be able to do it in New Zealand because there is no national footwear sole pattern database, even though the States has had one since the 1930s and the UK has had one for over 20 years and probably considerably longer (I understand it’s a cost-related issue – a reasonable excuse, do you think?).

It was also a surprise to some that the information gathered by CSIs can equally be used to exclude someone from an investigation as it can to prove their guilt – the science tells a story based on fact. Investigations should be geared by what the information is saying, not focussing the information towards the suspect.

It’s important to remember as well that there are thousands of students the world over wanting to become forensic scientists but it’s highly competitive and there are less jobs than there were. Cuts in casework and evidence submission to laboratories is being driven by cuts in police budgets (that includes NZ); lab budgets are being reduced in an effort to reduce costs. Sometime, somewhere along the line, the justice system is going to fail someone. I just hope that mistakes or lack of analysis get picked up before it’s too late.

I also ran a workshop on Alcohol and Adolescents and how the knowledge I have as a professional Expert Witness specialising in alcohol cases can be used by educators to help adolescents deal with issues around alcohol consumption. It was extremely eye-opening for all concerned, including me, and I think we all learnt from it.  I hope some new collaborations will come of it all.

I found the whole experience very rewarding. Science education has come a long way since I was at school and there is now a whole range of exciting experiments that can be used to demonstrate key aspects of science inexpensively but very effectively.  I hope the people who heard me speak got something from my presentations – the feedback was certainly plentiful and all positive. Which is good, because I was shockingly bad at the pub quiz  – sorry….