Uncertainty is Not Terminal….

…it applies to life and it applies to tackling science. It was the phrase picked out by one tweeter from the speech I gave at the University of Exeter a couple of weeks ago when receiving, with some nervousness, an honorary ScD. It was a phrase I used to describe the fact that many of them, as new graduates, might be heading off into a future of great uncertainty, without a job and probably with substantial debts weighing down on them. But the fact that they didn’t necessarily know what the future meant now, didn’t mean that the future was therefore bleak. I was trying to reassure them that even successful people had often been uncertain about both short and long term goals, and almost invariably things would have turned out differently for them from their aspirations at some, possibly many, points along the way. But, the lack of definite knowledge about how things would pan out shouldn’t paralyse any of the new graduates them with fear; in other words the future still was, at least potentially, their oyster. I have no idea whether that was how they interpreted that phrase, but with luck something of the spirit was conveyed to them at least.

However, when it comes to tackling scientific research, it seems to me that ‘uncertainty is not terminal’ is just as applicable and a phrase worth bearing in mind. Moreover, anyone who doesn’t feel comfortable coping with uncertainty is almost certainly going to have a hard time of coping with research. That transition between being fed ‘facts’ to digest and regurgitate for exams and going off and chasing the unknown is a key transition point in the development of a young researcher. If it doesn’t happen, then there will be a problem.

Liking – or at least being prepared to live with – uncertainty is perhaps just another way of saying one is insatiably curious. And that of course is the hallmark of a scientist (although not uniquely so; a recent conversation with a portrait artist indicated that she too believed curiosity was intrinsic to her discipline because she always needed to be experimenting and observing in order to capture her subject accurately. Sounds a very familiar skillset to a scientist). If you don’t want to explore the unknown, and if you can’t do it with confidence, then a scientific research career may not be the right thing for you.

But scientists have to start somewhere, and that somewhere is inevitably going to be at a tender age. One of the most important things to ensure, as the Primary School National Curriculum Review proceeds, is that we do not squeeze out space in the curriculum to allow the natural curiosity in the young to be developed.  As the draft curriculum stands, there are encouraging signs that this is recognized, with an emphasis given to the idea of ‘working scientifically’ as something to be centrally embodied in the early years programme of work, this to include:

    • Observing closely using simple equipment
    • Performing simple tests
    • Identifying and classifying
    • Recording findings in various formats.

These are good basic skills that are so central to later development, and yet can be done in straightforward ways with minimum equipment: the school  grounds provide ample opportunity to carry out basic explorations on what would once have been called nature studies, but now probably rejoices in the name of bug (or creepy-crawly)-counting. Of course this could also be done using plant studies, but somehow children seem more attracted to things that can squirm and squelch. It can also be done comparing objects that sink or float; or considering which materials break under a given load or dissolve in water. There are so many simple experiments to be done which a teacher can devise, as long as they also have the confidence to set such things up and then handle excited children’s queries.

Confidence is key.  One of the current problems in primary schools is how few teachers have scientific qualifications (not necessarily a degree, as there are subject knowledge enhancement courses which can be taken to provide the necessary background knowledge for those without a scientific degree). As yet, there is no formal definition of a primary school science specialist, though there is a push to produce such a definition. However, looking simply at the percentage of those who go into primary school teaching with a STEM degree as a crude estimate, it turns out to be only a dismal ~ 3% of those going into teacher training, according to data from the Royal Society. The concern is that if teachers themselves aren’t comfortable with enquiry of an open-ended sort, they may turn children off science very early on. This problem will then perpetuate through the system, providing (as has been the case for many years) an inadequate supply of the teachers of tomorrow who have a STEM background creating a vicious circle.

So, having an overall education system that facilitates, indeed encourages, curiosity, inquiry and careful observation all the way through school is vital for the health of science. The curious thing is that even for those students who have been fired up, chosen to pursue science at degree level and beyond, uncertainty in their experiments can still seem very scary. I have seen this both with undergraduates attempting final year projects and once, rather unnervingly (for me, never mind for them), with a PhD student, who came to me with excellent credentials. However, when they’d got past the first few months of learning the techniques and methodologies, they seemed floored. How could they construct a set of experiments without knowing for sure what answer they should be expecting? This particular student felt unable to design any experiment because the answer was not a foregone conclusion. This was a problem I absolutely had not seen coming: a bright student who simply couldn’t cope with the unknown, but was smart and capable of seeing their way through tricky paper problems of the kind found in exam papers. Nevertheless, with hard work on both our sides, this student satisfactorily got through their PhD, and then stayed in science, but working for a scientific consultancy where, I assume, they found the questions asked much less open-ended.

So, for this year’s batch of fresh graduates from any discipline facing an uncertain job market and career prospects, as well as the scientists setting out on their own voyages of discovery, I would say again that simply because you can’t stare into a crystal ball and know for sure what’s coming next is no reason to be paralysed by fear.

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9 Responses to Uncertainty is Not Terminal….

  1. Fabio Noviello says:

    An encouraging post. Regarding education, I miht add that the best-case scenario is the one whereintellectual curiosity is fostered at home even before children go to school.

  2. Laurence Cox says:

    You say that one of the chief problems in primary schools is how few teachers have scientific qualifications, but I would suggest that the solution is not more teachers with STEM degrees (or rather, that may be a long-term solution, but will not have much effect in the short-term), but for teachers to make better use of STEM ambassadors.

    Being a STEM ambassador in London, I see regular requests from schools in the capital for STEM ambassadors to go into schools: most schools (based on my knowledge of the schools in my own Borough) do not use STEM ambassadors at all; some use them for their transferrable skills – such as acting as interviewers in mock interviews for work experience placements; some ask the STEM ambassador to talk about their career in science or engineering; a few integrate the STEM ambassador into the curriculum. One example of the last group is a school that wanted people with a knowlege of sports science, nutrition or biomechanics to come into the school as part of their Olympic Games-linked teaching. It is this sort of school that gets the best out of STEM ambassadors, and is an example of the sort of best practice that could and should be promulgated more widely.

    For primary schools, astronomy is one of the easiest sciences after nature study (as we called it in my day) to introduce to young children.

  3. Uncertainty is not terminal. It promotes and prompts self learning if an individual is geared towards overcoming a mental impasse. Biological reflex like action can be obtained when an individual learns how to continually physically work on something or mentally overcome a physical standstill. This can be engendered, for example, when avoidably feeling a stone block slipping underfoot on an elevated path and carrying on walking with no discernable change of trajectory, other than a quick step forward. Repetitious physical effectuation of any kind including reading and writing invokes second nature inducing neuroplasticity ingraining into the mind producing brain, itself a physical part of the body. So the self correcting and advancing ability of the human body including the brain is well equiped in stance to deal with uncertainties.

    From childhood to adulthood the human propensity to overcome mental deadlocks will be augmented from aspects of their learnt relative worldly mindedness or specialist field. It is obvious that the sooner a child is taught to work for itself how to resolve circumstantial or aimed for situations it will fare better. Productive learnt behaviour proactively gives a better quality of life. Instilling a scaffold of conceptual frameworks to fall back on from an early age creates a composed self reliant individual that can competantly socially reciprocate. Spawn from an educational body specialised to perpetuate the society that hosts it with better adaptability to sustain that same society.

    Adding to the above I tweeted Athene on how we also need science specialists involved in televised childrens programs like CBBC and cbeebies if we don’t have them already. She tweeted back that she did not know and to ask here if anyone did.

    Does anyone know?

  4. cromercrox says:

    That transition between being fed ‘facts’ to digest and regurgitate for exams and going off and chasing the unknown is a key transition point in the development of a young researcher

    Excellent! (Cheers from rooftops.)

    somehow children seem more attracted to things that can squirm and squelch

    I did my first experiment when I was about five. Had I written it up it would have been called something like ‘Tolerance of Total Immersion by Small Garden Invertebrates’.

    However, looking simply at the percentage of those who go into primary school teaching with a STEM degree as a crude estimate, it turns out to be only a dismal ~ 3% of those going into teacher training, according to data from the Royal Society

    There is a shortage of people with a STEM background in secondary as well as primary education. An impediment has been the difficulty of attracting to teaching experienced (read ‘well paid’) people to a job whose financial rewards are small, at least to begin with. To be sure, teachers aren’t mtivated by money. However, many of the desired people have school-aged children, mortgages to pay and so on. Mr Gove’s scheme to get new recruits immediately into classrooms might ease that problem a little.

    Laurence – how do you get to be a STEM ambassador?

  5. cromercrox says:

    Laurence – I have discovered STEMNET, have decided to join, and maybe become a STEM Ambassador. This means I could put my science and communication knowledge to use without taking the drastic step of switching careers. Thanks so much for the tip!

  6. Laurence
    First of all congratulations for stimulating at least one new person to become a STEM Ambassador. I agree they have a powerful contribution to make but the examples you give do fit more squarely into secondary school teaching than primary, and the points I was trying to make were with regard to primary teaching. The worry for me is that teachers who lack confidence in their own science skills will not inspire the young. In secondary schools that can still be worry due to the lack of physics specialists in particular, but the government is at least trying to address that problem.

    • cromercrox says:

      I’ve now signed up to be a STEM Ambassador and am now awaiting The Call from my local centre, which is UEA in Norwich. Having ‘come out’, as it were, I’ve received encouraging noises from friends who, unknown to me, are STEM ambassadors. As for primary education – well, that probably requires orders of magnitude more skill than teaching secondary. I have been called in to primary schools, twice, to give talks, one about dinosaurs, another time about fossils. The second went especially well as I could bring in examples from my own fossil collection for the children to pass round. But it was knackering.

  7. Not only is uncertainty not terminal, it’s positively stimulating. Times of uncertainty open up possibilities that weren’t there before. It’s when life is certain, life is planned and organised that it becomes tiresome. Graduates should look forward in times of uncertainty and use their initiative and imagination to see a different future.

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