Tag Archives: Loris Gets Soppy About Science.

On Being Curious

Curiosity is a trait we tend to associate with children (and dead cats). Most of us want our kids to be active learners, to take an interest in the world around them, and to ask questions (to a certain extent, before we get a “BUT WHY” headache and pap them off onto the nearest available parent/grandparent/computer game/tv show/shiny thing).

In adults, the trait of curiosity tends to take a back seat. We often accept answers we are given with little or no questioning, and “that’s just the way it is” can be seen as a satisfactory explanation for all sorts of phenomena. Information is something to be absorbed when required, not explored for the fun of it. After all, grown-ups have enough to worry about (work/family/finances/housing/bills/food/childcare/ holidays/work/repeat) than to take precious time out of their exhausting day to question and wonder about what exactly is going on in the world around them.

Just to illustrate this point, here are some Google image results (Genuine first page of results, and they are better than I could ever have hoped):

"Curious Child"

“Curious Child”

curious adults

“Curious Adult”

I think we should give more time and appreciation to being curious. It is a wonderful trait to have. If you can look at a flowerbed in a park and see not just pretty petals but an ecosystem, the insects and birds that are manipulated by the petals to aid their own pollination, the season in which those particular flowers come into bloom, and the creatures that live in the soil beneath them, your brain will be engaged for longer. When you walk past a Chihuahua (other tiny dogs are available), notice not just how adorable it is, but that this toattie wee pup has evolved directly from wolves, in a line of selectively bred species which only came into existence in the last few thousand years. How long ago did it become its own breed? Which of its traits have been selected for? ARE ITS EYES BIGGER THAN ITS BRAIN??

Since my childhood my mother has always asked me, with varying degrees of exhaustion and sincere marvel, “doesn’t your mind ever stop?” No, it doesn’t, ma’. And I like it that way. I love to learn, and I value knowledge and understanding above many other things. I am never bored because I know I can never know everything, there are always new things to absorb and discover. Even as I write this, I am sitting outside and there is a plane flying overhead. Even though I have studied how aeroplanes fly in a fair amount of detail (mostly as a strategy to get over my fear of flying), I will never take for granted how amazing it is that every day we send thousands of people thousands of feet into the sky in a mechanical rocket-bird and in 99% of cases, nothing goes wrong. How does that happen? What speed does a plane have to be going before it falls out of the sky? I see two planes in the same section of the sky – how far apart are they in reality? How close can planes get before it’s considered a danger?

It’s ok to be curious. I’d argue that it’s better than ok – that it’s part of a recipe for a healthy and happy mind. Being skeptical needn’t mean being pessimistic, and questioning everything needn’t be pedantic. We have so much information at our disposal nowadays that we have forgotten how to figure things out for ourselves. Don’t get me wrong – there’s absolutely nothing wrong with using Wikipedia to answer a burning question – it’s a resource I’d be lost without – but we often forget to ask the question in the first place. We know all the information is accessible, so we take it for granted without actually finding it.

Embrace your inner child. Look at things a little closer, allow yourself to wonder just a little bit deeper. It might make you happier, it might not, but it works for me.

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An open letter to all the kids I work with

I am an outreach science communicator. My full-time job is to pack a van full of science shows and exhibits and set off to schools all over Scotland, from the borders to the highlands and islands. I love my job, and one of my favourite aspects of it is interacting with the kids during the exhibit sessions or after a show, who can be anywhere between 5 and 16 years old. We ask teachers to fill out feedback forms in order to justify and secure our funding and to assure we are hitting all the right spots as far as the curriculum is concerned, but for me direct face-to-face interaction with the pupils themselves is the best measure of our impact, and I don’t care if it’s difficult to measure quantitatively or that it does not cut it with the funders. The children and young people I work with are the reason I do the job I do, and this is an open letter to them.

Dear Primary School pupils,

You guys are brilliant. I will never stop envying your energy, enthusiasm and endless curiosity about the world, and I think all adults could learn a lot from you.  You lot are all little scientists already and I hope you continue to enjoy the subject all the way through your lives, even if you don’t want to be a scientist, because it is all of you who will be the doctors, vets, astronauts, and teachers of the future! Thank you for all your questions which always challenge me, make me think and often make me smile (“Why is poo brown?” is a favourite). Never stop asking “why?” and “what if…?”, no matter how crazy it drives your teachers and parents.

Dear High School pupils,

I love talking one-to-one to you guys, not only because I can talk to you like adults and we usually have really good conversations, but also because you are not afraid to tell me the truth and ask really thought-provoking questions that often I do not know the answer to (admittedly I hate that almost all of you tower waaay over me). I’d like to take this opportunity to remind you that you are not stupid. I hear this all the time from you guys, and it is a downright lie. (See also: “I caaaan’t!”, my other pet hate. You can.) You know who you are, the ones who say you enjoy the show or workshop but when I ask you how you feel about science at school, your reply is often “oh I’m not good at it, I’m not that clever!” Anyway, you don’t necessarily need to be uber-intelligent to be good at science (this seems to be a common misconception). The most important thing is to never stop questioning everything around you – remember when you were little and you would ask “why?” constantly? Try to get back into that habit. But now that you’re older, try working the answer out for yourself, either on your own or by carrying out research! You guys literally have a world of knowledge at your fingertips, the internet. You can find out absolutely anything you want to – be your own teacher. I learn from all of you as much as you (hopefully!) learn from me, so thank you for being so receptive and interested in the world around you.

Lauren

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Confessions of a psychology graduate

As is not uncommon in Scotland, I went to university when I was just 17 years old. I always knew I wanted to go to uni, although I was only the second person in my whole family to make the leap into higher education. I have always loved learning and school and therefore it just seemed like the natural thing to do. However this meant that I had to make a pretty huge decision between the tender ages of 15 and 16: Which degree program I wanted to embark on for four years of my life. There was no question about it (after a brief period of flirting with the idea of journalism): I was going to study psychology.

At the time this was a very easy decision to make and it has only been fairly recently that I have begun to reflect on why I made this decision and did not even consider another subject – in particular, given my obvious passion and enthusiasm for biology etc, why did I not chose to study a “real” science?

The answer is, if someone could go back in time, find the 15-16 year old Loris (probably sitting in her computing class giggling hysterically at hilarious cartoon videos on Weebls-stuff – hey, these were the days before Youtube, kids!) and tell her that she should consider studying biology at university, I’m almost certain she would have laughed in your face.

It’s not that I didn’t like science – in fact, when we were choosing our standard grade subjects (Scottish equivalent of the English GCSEs or whatever they are these days) I was adamant that I wanted to pick up both chemistry and biology, which my guidance teacher advised against because it was “tricky to take two sciences” (he asked me to consider taking an arts subject instead, however if he had spoken to either my art or craft and design teacher and/or ever taken a look at any of the monstrosities I had produced in these classes I’m sure he would have retracted that statement). But I got my own way and studied both biology and chemistry. It’s sad to say that I adored both of these subjects until I was formally taught them in school.

My chemistry teacher looked like a mad scientist, but not in an eccentric and endearing way. He was short with the most unruly beard I have ever seen, was never without a ragged tank top covered by a lab coat and had a very obvious dislike of high school-age children. He mumbled when he spoke so you couldn’t hear a damn thing he said, and when he tried to emphasise his point by writing it on the blackboard at the front of the class, his writing was so manic and unintelligible that it just made things more confusing and you wouldn’t dare ask a question because it just seemed to frustrate him, making everything a bit more agitated. I enjoyed the demos we got to do in class, but I left every day with absolutely no idea of the science behind them and the relevance of any of them.

Biology was a little different; my teacher was a patient elderly woman who explained things quite well. I loved learning about plants and animals and cells and ecology, but when it came to assessment time I failed miserably every time. I felt like I understood the lessons and my homework was always fine, but when it came to class tests I was just not getting the grades. I was in my biology class at lunch times leading up to exams and worked my ass off to eventually got a top grade in the exam, but it was a real struggle. I realise now that perhaps I found this so difficult because the questions we were asked were so aloof and out of context. To revise we were all told to do lots of past papers which I did, and they helped – but only because you got to know the sorts of questions that would come up. They did nothing to enhance my actual understanding of biology or science itself, I was just repeating stuff I had memorised.

I don’t recall if I made this analysis at the time or not, but I now realise that to me, psychology was “like science but easier”. But I absolutely adored my degree. I barely missed any of my lectures and classes over four years and found the university system of assignment much easier to handle than the school arrangement I was so used to but had grown to hate. Suddenly I could write essays and give an opinion and criticise without being “right” or “wrong”. I was fascinated (and often horrified) by the history of psychological research, and my degree subject became more than my studies, it became part of my identity, and on my graduation day I was proud to hold a BSc in psychology.

It was only after I graduated that I began to reflect on my chosen degree. People began asking what I wanted to do now. Most assumed I was going to be a psychologist (which I had decided against strongly within two weeks of my first semester), then seemed genuinely confused and almost sympathetic when I told them this was certainly not going to be the case (presumably they thought I had just wasted four years of my life). I grew tired of the number of times I heard something along the lines of “Oh you’ve got a psychology degree? Well you’ve got your work cut out with this one!” “Psychology? Oooh we better watch ourselves around you, you’ll be reading our minds!” “You know psychology? Do you, like, constantly analyse everything then?” Suddenly I felt very fed up of the psych stigma.

After returning to university to complete an MSc in evolution and behaviour and deciding that science communication was the field I wanted to get involved with, I was reminded even more of how stigmatised a psychology degree can be. Even now, upon learning that I want to be a science communicator, people say “oh so what is your first degree in?” When I tell them it is psychology, they often respond with a look of near-confusion, at which point I feel the need to add in “…And I have a master’s degree in evolution and behaviour” as if this somehow verifies that I Know Some Science.

I’m certainly not expecting psychology to be viewed on a par with physics or chemistry, and I know that the field has had its controversies and downright absurdities. But it feels to me like it’s always viewed as an easy degree, or something you take if you didn’t get the grades to do something else, or if you went to university for the craic. But I chose to study psychology, despite never wanting to be a psychologist, I loved my degree, I worked my ass of for it, yet… Now, if I could have my time again, I’d at the very least do a joint honours degree with biology, because I feel it would give me more credibility. One of the reasons I am so passionate about science communication is probably because I wish science had been communicated properly to me when I was making such a huge decision. It may not have changed my mind about studying psychology (it almost definitely would not have, I was a stubborn child) but at least it would have made me aware of what studying science entails and the opportunities a science degree can give you later in life.

I don’t know, maybe this is my problem. Are there any psychology graduates out there who feel almost apologetic about their degree, even if they love psychology? If so, please do let me know, maybe we can start a movement or support group or something.

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