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Science is Cool: Why Students Should Get out of the Library and into the Lab

Posted on the 29 September 2012 by Periscope @periscopepost
Get thee to a lab. Get thee to a lab. Photo credit: Shutterstock

As an anxious 22-year-old who recently completed a Masters degree with arguably little-to-no real life value, my every second thought these days goes something along the lines of “WHAT THE HELL AM I GOING TO WITH MY LIFE?”

I am a through-and-through arts and humanities girl. I love literature, history, philosophy current affairs, culture – all that soft round the edges stuff that gazillions of other young graduates are into, and which have a rather finite value for the world in general or my CV in particular (especially as I am more or less incapable of actually producing literature or culture or anything really – I am merely an interested bystander). Since submitting all of my quite-interesting-but-pretty-pointless essays it has been dawning on me that I may have taken the wrong path in life and that maybe, just maybe I might have had more fun in a lab than a library.

For a long time I was pretty dismissive of science, technology, maths and anything else that involved logic or rules rather than subjectivity and flowery sentences. I would say vaguely snobbish things like “Chemistry’s fine, I guess, but I can’t see the appeal myself”. Looking back I think I was intimidated by the idea that people might be studying something that could actually be useful. Of course history and philosophy have their uses, but they still seem a bit flimsy next to cancer research or the development of green fuels.

I hid these fears by hanging onto the foolish teenage assumption that science was for losers. This stereotype is so effective that just a few months ago I was shocked to see that a close friend – a fellow history student in fact – had “liked” a Facebook group brazenly entitled “I love science!” I was actually taken aback that someone I liked, who dressed well, liked “cool” things and had good social skills would publically announce such an allegiance. Embarrassing, I know, but it did motivate me to begin to reassess my perceptions.

Back at school the dichotomy between the sciences and “essay subjects” couldn’t have been clearer. I was never a popular student, I was too awkward and hardworking for that, but I certainly wasn’t at the bottom of the table; the science and maths enthusiasts were stuck down there. During my GCSEs I was a good all-rounder, but I can’t even remember the moment that I decided I would be on Team Humanities for the sake of my social life. I think it seemed so self-evident that it was a no brainer; liking science and having any sort of credibility were mutually exclusive.

The way science is taught in many schools does little to help challenge this attitude. Even confused and hormone-riddled teenagers understand that subjects, like history and English, where you can have a bit of a debate and express yourself are more interesting than lessons that invariably involve learning dull facts and numbers from textbooks. Obviously maths and the sciences require a good foundation in theories and equations, but if teachers could bring these facts and figures to life they might begin to engage and motivate their pupils. And don’t even get me started on the necessity to specifically attract girls to these areas: despite being a staunch tomboy for much of my youth, the idea of actually liking science was too unfeminine a trait for me to even consider. But the thing is, science explores, and sometimes even answers, the biggest and most fascinating questions we have: Where do we come from? What’s out there? How do we work? How can we make the future better? If pupils could be shown the incredible potential of science, then the textbooks and theories might begin to seem a lot more exciting.

Since my epiphany I’ve begun to watch programmes like Horizon, which once upon a time I would have dismissed out of hand. The other night I watched a brilliant episode about telescopes – bear with me – and it really hit home just how brilliant science could be. Watching a witty and incredibly intelligent young woman (who, incidentally, looked more than a bit like Anne Hathaway) discuss her work on The James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s replacement for Hubble, I was struck by how awesome it must be to be involved in something so incredibly important. As she excitedly told us, the astronomers on this project don’t know what they might find once the telescope is in orbit; anything could be out there, including other life forms. Science doesn’t get much cooler. To work on such a prestigious project obviously requires a huge intellect along with years of dedication and hard work. But if only we could get more young people to associate work like that with their own science lessons, more of them might take a different path and discover the joys of science.


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