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September 29, 2023

We have all succeeded in the two hardest things we have ever learned to do. We started with no prior knowledge, with no formal tuition, no exams, no scheme of work and no regular testing. When we failed, which we did frequently, we just tried harder. Learning was fun. We watched others succeed and we tried to do the same. We were smiled at, cheered on and encouraged. We became competitive: perhaps we realised there may be a reward if we were successful. And, we were all successful. Huge congratulations to us all that we can now walk and talk.

The journey involved countless attempts and failures. We stumbled and babbled unintelligibly, before eventually finding our footing and uttering our first words. We made our first scientific discoveries: gravity as our unwanted food found its way from highchair to floor and sound when we didn’t get our own way. We were endlessly curious. Once we mastered speech one of our most frequent words was “Why?” Every small insect was greeted with wonder. Our fingers explored, sometimes to the detriment of the insect. Our fingers became messy but our parents cared more than we did. We were creative with our learning.

If the qualities of a good scientist are curiosity, creativity, persistence and problem solving, evidently we were born as scientists, so when does it all go wrong? Why is there a shortage of scientists? Why is science considered “hard” when we are older? Science is innately inclusive: whatever our backgrounds, our early years were spent as little scientists, wondering and learning about our world. It is only society and cultural expectations that change this. To quote David Attenborough, “People say to me, ‘How did you first become interested in animals?’, and I look at them and I say: ‘Was there a time when you were not interested in animals?’ It’s the first sort of pleasure, delight and joy you get as a child”.

There is one thing we can thank Covid for, and that is that scientists became centre-stage. We realised they are ordinary people doing their ordinary jobs but having a massive impact. We learned that scientists don’t just work at lab benches. They work in the community, in labs, hospitals, industry and outdoors. In Bioinformatics, Biotechnology, Cytology, Epidemiology, Immunology, Genomics, Microbiology, Pharmacology and Virology.

Everybody became an armchair virologist discussing the pros and cons of mRNA vaccines. I had hoped that conversations about science would now be normalised, but we soon returned to our old ways. Why is it more socially acceptable to chat about celebrities rather than science, brands rather than biology, fashion rather than physics or cooking rather than chemistry, though these two are, of course, the same. Try enthusing about Echinoderms and you soon get odd looks; I speak from experience.

So let’s stop using the phrase, “It’s not rocket science” to describe something that is not immensely hard and beyond our understanding. Let’s not treat Science just as the three school subjects of Biology, Chemistry and Physics, but simply as what it is: explanations of our everyday experiences. Instead of replying to our children’s questions with “I was never good at Science”, which somehow condones that this is an acceptable way to be, let’s say, “Let’s find out – together”.

Let’s keep the fun in learning Science. From Years 10-13 we inevitably have the constraints of the GCSE and A Level specifications but, before that, at home and through our extra-curricular activities, fun and enthusiasm must be our priorities. Through our clubs, for example Vet Club, Science Club and 3D Printer Club, our students and staff enjoy learning together. I am learning, alongside our students, which plants grow quickly for our charity fund-raising plant sales, how to troubleshoot our 3D Printer when it produces a misshapen blob rather than our planned photographic lithophane and how to grow a little pineapple from discarded kitchen scraps.

So, if you are curious and enjoy having fun, come along on Saturday 7th October to the St. Francis’ College Festival of Science. Children of all ages are more than welcome, whatever decade you fit into. And, if you delight in enthusing about Echinoderms, debating Diatoms or mulling over Molluscs, I look forward to speaking with you. Perhaps there may be a day when children say, “It’s only rocket science”.