21st Century Science

I argue that this is a wonderful time for young people to consider science as a discipline and as a career choice. We are witnessing a period when some major new areas are beginning to mature and will create rewarding working careers as well as intellectual excitement. At the same time, to tackle the major challenges of the 21st century – climate change, food security, and energy security to name a few – we need fresh and innovative thinking.

In IT, areas such as 3D printing, the Internet of Things and Big Data offer significant potential. Stem cells, new materials such as graphene, biotech, nanotechnology, low carbon technologies and personalised medicine are just some of the possibilities that will provide rewarding jobs and important social value.

Meanwhile, the old disciplines Biology, Physics, Chemistry are blurring and creating fascinating interdisciplinary areas such as computational biology and bioinformatics. Does the school science curriculum and how it is taught reflect the needs of the world that is to be?

Modern science is increasingly large in scale. CERN, where the WWW was born and the Higgs boson found, has 2500 staff but up to 13,000 people tele-working there at any time. The data and computational scale is difficult to grasp.

One interesting approach to tackling the scale problem can be found at Galaxy Zoo, see www.galaxyzoo.org There are not enough astronomers on the planet to classify the galaxies we are discovering on a daily basis. If you are interested in astronomy you can join in and help, pro-am science! The site can be used by schools. It is quite possible that a child might see a galaxy that no-one in human history has seen before. In its first year of existence (2007) 150,000 people helped classify 50 million new galaxies. Examples of this ‘crowd sourcing of science’ can also be found in field biology.

Could we design large scale experiments in a school setting that enable every child to learn science and at the same time contribute to its development? From a purely motivational element, for many people learning to be a scientist is more interesting than learning science. My suggestions would be around health, biology and environment as a starter. Imagine an annual experiment with one million contributions from children working with professional scientists.

Of course many contemporary scientific and technological developments have serious ethical issues which society needs to consider; areas such as fracking and GMOs are already controversial, and The Internet of Things has many privacy and security issues. We cannot now separate out science and technology learning from the societal context. One aspect of the “big data” world is the ability to visualise abstract concepts. The suggestion that schools should show the film “Interstellar” because of its visualisation of complex concepts is something that I would support.

As a child of the 60s, the first man on the moon and the film 2001 sparked my interest in science as much as anything I learned at school, and I had great science teachers. If you could see Wi-Fi, what would it look like? Google the question and find out if you haven’t seen it. It is quite beautiful, to me at least.

Finally, for the nation’s science teachers in secondary schools: why shouldn’t they be practising scientists too, linking school labs around the world to some of the cutting edge university science departments, and places like CERN? Wouldn’t that be transformational!

Chris Yapp is a NET Leading Thinker. He has 30 years experience in the IT industry, with over 20 years interest in IT and Learning. He writes, blogs and consults around technology futures and their social and economic impacts. He wrote and co-edited “Personalizing Learning in the 21st Century”. He is a patron of NACE.


One thought on “21st Century Science

  1. Agreed. But unfortunately the market led priorities now dominating UK universities make it extremely difficult for talented individuals to sustain a secure career in university based research – this is going to stifle future innovation and the private sector needs it.


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