Friday, January 15, 2010

Fostering a Culture of Science Appreciation

In my earlier post I noted the failure of political leadership in Canada when it comes to a vision of science. What is science for? And what constitutes "well ordered science"? These questions do not crop up in the political arena very often, nor are they given serious reflection and debate by political theorists interested in justice.

As I suggested in my previous post, the fact that there is little leadership on science policy reflects a number of deeper problems within our culture. As academics we should aspire to equip our students with the skill-set that will best position them for meeting the challenges that lay ahead. Students in the humanities and social sciences, students who will go on to take up positions in government, the media, education, law, etc. ought to come away with an appreciate of the importance of science, as well as the complexities that face sound science policy.

The current political leadership, or rather lack thereof, on science is thus the expected outcome of a system of higher education that stifles interdisciplinary engagement and creates little (if any) incentives for fostering greater dialogue and understanding between the natural and social sciences.

But the responsibility of fostering a culture that celebrates the accomplishments of science, and dares the next generation to think in bold and innovative ways, also falls to us as parents. Our children need to be raised with an appreciation of the importance of knowledge, innovation and technology. And they need to understand that this knowledge has the potential to do great good, as well as harm.

Last night I had two of my children engage in a fun, creative thought experiment to help foster a "science-ethos" within our family. I asked them to come up with the idea for a new invention. I set them three tasks:

(1) come up with a name for your invention
(2) describe how it would work
(3) explain how it would improve our lives.

The two images above are the end-products of their deliberations. One invention is the "appearing cup", which is a cup that can be controlled via magnets on a table to help bring a drink to someone who can't walk over and pick it up. Furthermore, a mechanical arm would be fixed to the wall so that the cup could move to each room in the house and bring whatever drink a person might need.

The second invention was "life-saving medicine", which my other son described as a new medicine that can help people, young or old, who are sick and might die. And in his picture he has arrows pointing to the chemicals the scientists make and put in a "mixer" before giving them to the patient.

A simple exercise like the invention game (keeping with my favourite theme of late-- play!) can help a family discuss, and celebrate, science in a fun and engaging way. It is an activity that parents should also get involved with as well. Have all the members of your family play the "invention play" one Sunday afternoon. To come up with the idea of an invention you need to first think of a problem that it would be nice to have solved. In my case my two children think it is a problem that some people can't walk over to get a drink when they want to, and that some people get sick and die.

Framing things so the focus is on solutions (rather than just problems) can help foster a sense of optimism and positive-thinking in everyone. It can also provide the kids, parents and grandparents with unique insights into different generational aspirations. It can help you see the world through your kid's eyes, and they through yours. This fosters a sense of solidarity. Playing the invention game together as a family helps a family develop their imaginative capacities, and promote innovative thinking about the possible futures that could await us. And it reinforces the belief that human ingenuity can make the world a better place.

If all families take the time to help cultivate an appreciation of science and knowledge then perhaps the next generation of political leaders will have more vision and leadership skills than the current generation.