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Big Bang’s Sheldon – a new breed of hero

How does one go about inspiring the next generation to choose to study science and technology subjects.

Well if The Observer is anything to go by, you just write a hit sitcom. The Big Bang Theory, currently being shown on E4, features the geeky escapades of a group of nerdy physicists. According to the Observer this has been (at least partly) responsible for a dramatic upsurge in people wishing to study the subject at University.

It’s a slightly fun peg on which to hang a serious story, but its a question many STEM subjects are wrestling with.

I have mentioned it before but I have been involved in a project to get more kids interested in technology and engineering, so the story is timely. It coincided with an item this week  on Slashdot, asking whether the maker movement was inspiring kids to be nerds. You can read the entire thread here.

There’s a mixed response, but the main thrust (massive over simplification alert) is that kids who are interested in electronics, science and technology will want to take that interest further, for other kids science and technology is not exciting or glamorous so they’ll ignore it and carry on regardless of what the maker movement does.

I disagree.

I think three factors help encourage and inspire kids to take on challenging subjects like these: visibility, access and great teaching.

Let’s take another look at Physics. Yes, there’s the Big Bang Theory, but there’s a glut of quality science TV at the moment.  Brian Cox is now delivering relevant, interesting science programming to mainstream audiences, what’s more he is making it seem relevant, making the subject seem interesting.

Science is a regular topic among comedians. Robin Ince, Chris Addision, Dara O’Brian they talk about this as part of their stand-up. Science and technology is becoming part of popular culture in a way it just was not five or ten years ago.

Visibility makes children aware of the options. It makes them see the possible.

Next up is access. Allowing children (or adults) to come into contact with passionate, enthusiastic people – advocates of science and technology is important too. Never underestimate the part that a great mentor or role model can play. I’ve written before about the importance of science centres, of facilities like MakeSpace.

On a holiday to Wales, I took my daughter to Techniquest. The impact on her was astounding. She made connections between the things she likes to watch – Doctor who and Star wars – with the everyday applications of science and technology which a text-book would struggle to convey.

The Science Museum in London does the same job. To repeat a point I’ve made before these facilities need to be in every town, in every city. Not just in the big conurbations. A great exhibition or museum can be hugely inspirational. I think back to my recent visit to the Power of Making – I just wish I’d seen it when I was ten.

Finally above and beyond everything is access to great teaching. Nothing kindles an interest more than someone who can really hep you get to grips with a subject, who can help you overcome challenges, give you insight and above all inspire.

We live in an age where remote teaching, distributed education is a reality. I’ve been writing (or boring you all) with my experiences of AI Class . But it’s a case in point. Great teaching, available to anyone.  I urge you again to listen to the digital planet episode on education, its powerful stuff, it highlights the impact free, open access can have.

We need to do more to broaden this reach.  This might sound like an impassioned plea for kids to ditch plans to study film, or read history. It’s not. I love those things too. Good rounded individuals have lots of interests. What I want is to just make youngsters aware of the opportunities, aware of the fun and excitement of making things, crafting things, learning how things work. If they want to out and do other things, great, but a I want them to have the opportunity to be inspired, to ask big questions and not to be dismissed, but to be encouraged.

So can the maker movement inspire kids? Absolutely. And a sitcom set around a 3D printer can’t hurt either…


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