Jiva Technology

Carl Sagan and the study of Science

As well as being a gifted scientist in his own right, Carl Sagan was a brilliant and enthusiastic communicator of scientific ideas, perhaps best know to to several generations for his book and TV series, Cosmos.

Sagan also had an almost uncanny way of delivering pithy one-liners that got to the core of an issue, particularly around the way we teach science in our schools and universities. Sagan famously observed, “every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist … then we beat it out of them”

His love of science and the scientific method shone through his work and it was an obvious source of frustration that in the course of “teaching science” we crushed the natural curiosity that’s a pre-requisite for science in the first place. It’s almost a case study in what’s wrong with our education systems.

The prioritisation of exam success leads to the prioritisation of learning what’s needed to pass. Inevitably that reduces science to the passing of a stock of knowledge from the science teacher to the science student.

Exams are a poor vehicle for allowing students to be curious about the world. Of course, if you’re learning a discipline, understanding the basic language that’s involved and building a solid base from which to work are important, but so is the imperative to keep alive a sense of wonder and the creativity and curiosity that is vital to science research.

There are two dangers inherent in the current approach. The first is that for the majority, science becomes something to be avoided; that all the natural joy involved is sucked out of it. At a time when the climate crisis is central to our continued existence, we want the broader population to be both engaged and interested. But there’s an equally important issue for those who stay in science and go on to become researchers and science leaders. If success in science in the early years is predicated on your ability to absorb what others teach, are we getting the brightest and best researchers into research?

Science and scientific advancement has never been more important; it is literally about the only way out of the climate crisis we’ve created for ourselves, we need new ideas across a range of scientific disciplines and we need them fast. That means we need to find a way to maintain the excitement and curiosity that scientific endeavour naturally spur. Its fascinating to see that EdX is launching a virtual lab environment, LabXchange. The ability to perform virtual experiments removes concerns about cost and safety, but retains the excitement of discovery. It could form the basis of a different style of science education.

Let’s hope that Sagan’s dream comes true and we stop beating it our of the next generation of natural-born scientists.

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