On Sunday, July 8th, despite the beautiful weather, we gathered to discuss how to inspire future scientists.
Our two part presentation began with a recording of a panel discussion held at LogiCon in Edmonton with a number of 11 and 12 year old children, moderated by Skeptically Speaking host Desiree Schell. While these kids were not a representative sample of their peers, they did have a lot to say on how to get more kids interested in science.
The suggestion that resounded the most with the panel was the need to make science interactive and to tie the knowledge learned in school to real life. Many remarked that their best science teachers were those who let them explore and try experiments while the least inspiring were those who forced rote memorization.
In our discussion, it was noted that it was unfortunate that the three panellists were all boys and that these were likely quite privileged children. Regardless, there are at least three future shining lights of reason who can hopefully inspire more.
Next, we watched the latest TED talk from E.O. Wilson who spoke about his upcoming book Letters to a Young Scientist. Wilson gave several principles to inspire and guide future generations of aspiring scientists:
- It is far easier for scientists, including medical researchers, to require needed collaboration in mathematics and statistics than it is for mathematicians and statisticians to find scientists able to make use of their equations.
- For every scientist, whether researcher, technician, teacher, manager, or businessman, working at any level of mathematical competence, there exists a discipline in science or medicine for which that level is enough to achieve excellence.
- March away from the sound of the guns. (i.e. do something unique)
- In the attempt to make scientific discoveries, every problem is an opportunity, and the more difficult the problem, the greater will be the importance of its solution.
One concern I had with Wilson's talk was that it can be very difficult to strive off in your own direction as a scientist. To establish oneself as a scientist, in my experience and that of my peers, you have to somewhat play by the rules and get into a relatively prestigious school with a relatively respected supervisor. After that you need to excel to establish your own presence and earn the respect before you really turn to the more unique challenges. This isn't to say creativity is stifled, but running against the stream is more often likely to wash you away as a crank rather than reward your independent genius.
Others asked me about Wilson's take on mathematical abilities. Wilson noted that he didn't learn calculus until his 30s when he was already a professor at Harvard and was attending class with some of his students. My opinion was that for physics and engineering, a strong grasp of math is absolutely necessary, and like a language, is best learned when one is young and the brain is more plastic. This isn't to say that old dogs can't learn new tricks, but the challenge is definitely greater.