“Just So Science” – How the Horizon was Crafted

By Elf Eldridge 29/04/2011 1


This is somewhat of a follow-on from my earlier post about the ideas that sprung from the Science and Innovation in Education Forum. I’ll do my best to explain each idea in the context that it was created, the issues it’s attempting to address, and physically how it will be achieved. That said I certainly don’t have answers for everything and comments/improvements/suggestions/abuse is more than welcome to help me (and my whanau) refine them. Here goes!

Te Ropu Awhina whanau
Te Ropu Awhina whanau

Firstly the importance of groups like Te Ropu Awhina cannot be understated. By simply doing  outreach experiments with a community rather than just kids, students or teachers they change the perceptions and inform people at the same time. Similarly, pushing students to excel at a tertiary level and providing the resources, pathways and contacts for them to do so goes a long way towards solving many of these problems. However, it IS an intensive system requiring a significant amount of work from a number of parties so this can only be potentially sustained by promoting the concept of whanau, reciprocity and community success.  Awhina could probably improve things slightly by discussing science’s role in the community with students at all levels though, so in the future I will present Awhina in a more economic (rather than philosophical) context. Also, just taking the time to talk to students about their dreams and what they enjoy is another (free!) thing we can all do to back up teachers who are stuck with 30+ kids in a classroom, particularly if it’s backed by information on how they can achieve those dreams.

Secondly, I’m going to remind people not to be scared of technology. By that I mean, if kids or students are interested in technology then actively encourage it – yes even if it involves them playing computer games or chatting through online forums. IT is a huge and growing industry, and a simple interest in this field can blossom into a full blown career for students with all sorts of talents, from graphic design to programming to communications. Introduce them to free online resources like Blender (free graphic design/animation software), Celestia (a universe exploration programme), Foldit (a protein folding game akin to Tetris) or iMovie (video editing software). This serves the purpose of both upskilling them for the modern world and encouraging them to INNOVATE as all of these resources allow for creation as well as exploration.

Thirdly, publicise how people learn/what motivates them. Much teaching (particularly at tertiary level) still relies on ancient, outdated techniques many of which have been shown to actively hamper learning. Two excellent short videos on learning and motivation that should be compulsory viewing for everyone explain the basic ideas and misconceptions are here and I’ll actively discuss them with students and teachers I talk to in the future. Furthermore we REALLY need to change the perceptions of IQ. I’ve met countless students who simply give up because they’re ‘not smart enough’ (usually due to someone important telling them they were stupid at some point). So we really need to talk more about the idea of an ‘intellectual muscle’ that grows through use, rather than someone being born with a fixed intelligence level (discussed here).

Encouraging innovation & entrepreneurship is another big need, but it’s also scary! My best bet in this regard is to foster a ‘nest’ environment for ideas, and a whanau does this well. In evolutionary biology one of the ideas behind the development of nesting as a behaviour was to provide young an environment to experiment in where failure was not met with death or dismemberment. As a species that puts an insane amount of effort into our offspring, we can take this message onboard and use a whanau environment as a testing ground for ideas before launching them directly into the cutthroat world of business.  A functional whanau should be able to provide the support and criticism to make this possible – it certainly works for myself in Te Ropu Awhina!
Conceptual Vertical Farm
Conceptual Vertical Farm

The question of heroes and inspiration is also a big one. We think we are short on STEM heroes, however we have them, they just don’t think of themselves as ‘heroes’. The bloggers here for instance (myself excluded of course) are largely excellent, influential scientists who have made something of themselves, are passionate and take pride in what they do! Who better to provide inspiration for upcoming scientists? I can’t help but think it would help to have an overarching project that the whole country could get in behind though (think American patriotism backing the space race in the 1950/60s), my two favourite picks at the moment are the development of a space elevator or the production of ‘vertical farms‘. The projects need to be big, flashy and have world shaking importance – even if they appear absurd, and a little healthy competition with a large, well-funded neighbour could go along way towards this (hint hint). And before thinking about the money and investment that this would require, reflect on New Zealander’s ‘No. 8 wire’ way of thinking in this context, remember success is not the ultimate goal here, inspiration and motivation is.

Finally, retaining (or attracting) students is not difficult if you know what they want and according to the NEMP report it’s: salary, status, variety and security. In terms of salary we cannot compete with foreign countries (with larger populations and GDPs at the moment), so don’t bother. The only thing we can do here is more whanau thinking, the idea of making a difference to your community/family can be just as tempting as a big pay packet for yourself. A science career has increasing status, so we needn’t worry about that too much but we can do a lot on the variety and security fronts. For PhD students publicising the fact that most NZ PhD students are expected to do a 3 month exchange with an overseas university is a big carrot to dangle infront of students that can’t afford to travel themselves! In fact just mentioning that PhD/Masters students are important to the New Zealand economy, means that NZ supervisors are often more accommodating than their foreign counterparts, particularly when it comes to travel, flexibility and innovation, and we are missing a great opportunity to attract students by not promoting this more. With this knowledge in hand I will be prompting NZ students to really dream about their future, to let their imaginations run wild and make them realize that NZ as a country wants to help them achieve those dreams.

Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope.” -Dr. Seuss

I’m in the process of collating advice and scholarship information at the MESA site, and I’m going to visit Honours and Masters classes to discuss this with the students. In MESA we’re also organising workshops from world leaders on specific technologies and skills, as well as on more ‘soft skills’ such as entrepreneurship and fostering innovation and collaboration (and on how to run workshops!). NZ provides an environment where one person can make a huge difference if they want to – and there’s not many places in the world that can boast that!

Whew – apologies for the long post. Congrats if you made it this far! These can almost all be summarised by simply talking to parents, students, teachers and communities and focusing on the benefits of New Zealand’s society rather than its shortcomings. I’m not quite naive enough to believe that this will solve everything – as there’s barely even any new ideas here (although I have a few on the boil), but by trial and error at I hope to find out which things work and which don’t at least.

Next post = scientific evidence for all my talking up of ‘Te Ropu Awhina’


One Response to ““Just So Science” – How the Horizon was Crafted”

  • FYI – if you want a quick intro to Te Ropu Awhina and what makes us different take a look at the ‘whanau’ presentation on my ‘Presentations’ page. A more indept analysis and discussion will be forthcoming!