Advice from Alan Finkel: How to get our children excited about science

By Alan Finkel August 24, 2017
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Exposing our children to the ever-advancing tide of science will prepare them to take the future by storm, writes Alan Finkel.

IT’S THE PERENNIAL favourite question of science fiction, Hollywood, and daydreamers everywhere: what will the planet of tomorrow look like? Will it even be Earth as we know it?

There’s plenty of interest in the future of extra-terrestrial real estate. Think Martian colonies, the frozen oceans of Europa and the Earth-like planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system, some 40 light-years away. Or if we stick with terra firma, would we recognise it as such?

Science fiction legends – from Isaac Asimov to George Lucas – have envisioned massively different future-Earth scenarios. Ranging from sprawling natural estates tended by artificial intelligences to ethereal underwater cities or giant space stations, there’s little we would connect with today’s landscapes. But there’s one thing that all of these future civilisations hold in common: a reliance on the ever-advancing tide of science.

These are the thoughts that come to mind when I consider this year’s National Science Week and its theme of ‘Future Earth’. During the week of celebrations, students across Australia will be tasked with considering just what our planet might look like in the year 2025…and beyond. By then, children currently in Year 4 will be considering their university course applications. And children born in the same year as the Sydney Olympic Games – 2000 – will have finished their double degrees and started their first of many careers. These are the young scientists, politicians and engineers who will take us to the planet of the future. And, no pressure, but it’s up to us to equip them with the tools they need to get us there.

It’s hard though. We don’t know what Earth 2.0 will look like, so how can we prepare our children to take it by storm? It’s impossible to have the definitive answer, but I do have three strong recommendations.

First: kindle their interest in science. Science teaches thinking. Science teaches logic, problem-solving, double-checking of conclusions. Most important of all, science teaches young people to have an open mind and always seek a better way to do things.

Second: give them a solid foundation in basic scientific principles. We don’t teach our children to read by memorising a single book. Instead, we teach them the alphabet; that 26-character foundation will give them a word for every situation. And it works! The Oxford English Dictionary estimates there are at least 250,000 words in the English language. Similarly, an emphasis on the fundamentals of science will give our children the tools to adapt to any future challenge, including those we cannot possibly imagine today.

The vice chancellor of England’s University of Sheffield, physicist Sir Keith Burnett, summed it up after conversing with one of his alumni earlier this year: “So, I asked this decidedly cool tech innovator what we should be teaching our students now. His answer might surprise: ‘avoid the fashionable and the contemporary’, he said. The thing that had persisted in his career was the mathematics he had been taught at the Hicks Building [which houses the university’s School of Mathematics and Statistics] in Sheffield. It was hard work that lasted, not the unpredictable novelty of the latest app or an intoxication with the magic of a new product.”

Of course, that’s not to say we can’t take advantage of the learning opportunities new technologies and discoveries can grant us. It’s like studying Shakespeare: an excellent way to build knowledge, but only after we’ve mastered Dr Seuss. We need to get the basics down first.

Third: set the bar high, and coach our children to clear it. I maintain that one of the cruellest things we can do to children is set our expectations low. If we do that, how can we expect them to grow? Tomorrow’s scientists won’t sprout fully formed. They grow from today’s Year 4 students, when opportunities are given, interests are nurtured and their potentials are encouraged. To deliver our best tomorrow, we need to invest today.

Dr Alan Finkel AO, engineer, neuroscientist, entrepreneur and Australia’s Chief Scientist,
is passionate about communicating the wonders of science.