I Am Scientist

What does it mean to be a scientist? I have been contemplating this question a lot over the last few weeks, particularly since I posted about what it feels like being an autistic academic (the wrong kind of academic). If I’m not really an academic by most people’s traditional standards, then at least I am still a scientist. I think.

“Alexa, what is a scientist?”.

Thankfully, the UK Science Council has provided a definition of a scientist for us here:

A scientist is someone who systematically gathers and uses research and evidence, to make hypotheses and test them, to gain and share understanding and knowledge.

There is some further definition that provides context of methods and disciplines within which the scientist works. There is also a separate definition of a science technician that is distinct from the main classification of a scientist but that recognises the immense skill and expertise needed in a technical role.

I’m putting a disclaimer in here that I am a devoted supporter of The Scientific Method and its purpose in generating new knowledge and understanding. But can we do better with our definitions of what comprises a scientist? Do we really need to have a separate definition for those who do the “technical work”. And what about everyone else who works in the realm of science but doesn’t conduct research?

One problem with the above definition is that for the most part, being a scientific researcher almost always requires a university degree. And a PhD if you want to lead a research program and be the person who makes the decisions around what actually gets researched to begin with. You want to be a scientist when you grow up? You probably need a PhD. Its easy to see how inaccessible this career path feels to most of the population. So how can we start making science more accessible to the younger generations?

In December 2023, the Education for 11–16 Year Olds Committee, appointed by the House of Lords, published a report outlining the urgent need to reform secondary school provision in the UK. The main findings suggested that school is too focused on the acquisition of academic knowledge in a core set of subjects and learning facts for traditional style exams. The report suggested that reform should focus on providing a broader overview of subjects, more varied learning experience than just learning facts for exams, and more real life context to learning.

“Schools must be given greater flexibility to offer the subjects and qualifications that would best serve their pupils, based on a balanced curriculum including the study of creative, technical and vocational subjects”

I have children at both primary and secondary school, one that attends alternative provision. From my experiences as a parent I see that, likely due to issues around covid and the general lack of time and resources of staff and schools, science can be taught as a very dry subject in schools. And it shouldn’t be taught that way. In my opinion, this is like teaching art through reading books and looking at pictures. Science is not just a set of facts to be memorised and it should be taught in the main using practical experiments and a range of learning methods.

In 2020, I delivered a session at an event aimed at discussing digital transformation in higher education. One of the big take home points from my talk was that we need to include more creativity in science education. My talk was awesome – the participants (unbeknown to me at the time, some of them were very senior leaders in academic organisations) had fun playing Minecraft on iPads and experiencing more of what I think learning should be about. Remembering and understanding knowledge because you enjoyed the experience and learning new skills because you were taught them in a safe, comfortable, accessible, fun and relevant environment.

For a number of years pre-covid, I used Minecraft as a learning environment for hosting environmental field trips. The idea was that we have few opportunities to leave the classroom and go into the field, so Minecraft could be used a safe and easy way of wandering around “outside” and testing out a students skills before the real thing, whilst generating some data to analyse as a practice run. The alternative option was to give the students a sheet of data and a PowerPoint presentation explaining the relevance.

I look at this situation and think it is easy to see the benefits of using Minecraft. But honestly, alongside the academics who were supportive (and there were a good few hence my talk at an important event) many of my academic peers were very cynical and snobbish about my Minecraft work because it wasn’t very “academic”.  To counter this, I did a robust study where I went into different Minecraft environments and gathered tonnes of ecological field data, which I then analysed to demonstrate how it could be used as a suitable replacement tool for field work. So I have a piece of work that was conducted using proper scientific robustness, was innovative as nobody was doing this at the time, and could have been a great contribution to both education and scientific discussions on accessibility of field trips. The data is still there, unpublished due to my struggles around writing publications and somebody from another university published similar work years later. Feeling like you have lots to offer, but not being able to contribute due to accessibility, is frustrating on a personal level. But it is tragic on a societal level.

So I now have two main questions for us (scientists and educators) to consider:

Firstly, how do we make science more accessible by using digital tools and practical experiences to capture learners imagination and interest during their earlier studies at school?

And Secondly, how do we then recreate that accessibility within the science industry itself? Because even if we generate interest in science at an early age, barriers to becoming a bona fide “scientist” still exist (re: the PhD issue).

I’m finishing off with my favourite Temple Grandin Quote:

I am different, not less (Temple Grandin)

I am a scientist, and always will be, without the need to fit into black and white definitions. I love learning about our amazing world, how it works and how we impact upon it, and I love sharing this knowledge with anyone who will listen. And that’s good enough for me.

Crochet for this week is a work in progress and is going to be a long, long long ….. project in many ways. You may guess what it is…. its a bit niche but one I’ve been wanting to make for ages. Once finished, it is destined to be a whole blog post in itself.

A long tube of crochet made up of different sized stripes of wool coloured red, blue, green and yellow. The picture shows the tube alongside four balls of wool and a crochet hook.
A long way from the end…

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