Sunday, 1 February 2015

Never Work with Animals or Children?

There’s a wealth of anecdotal ‘evidence’ regarding the unfathomable depth of truth to the adage that one ought never to work with animals or children (e.g. this old ‘classic’). Whilst animals have never figured in any public engagement or outreach event I have been a part of – well, not yet anyway – children most certainly have. I’m therefore focused in this post entirely on the latter. Although it’s an arbitrary cut-off, and ignoring any niceties associated with terminology, I ought to declare at this point that my working assumption is that ‘children’ migrate into ‘young people’ at some stage in the region of their early teens. Children can be ‘scary’, even intimidating; they are intrinsically unpredictable in their relative naïvety. Thereby hangs the issue: ‘random’ things may occur and these can lead one into a downward slide fed by loss of understanding or control. However, in my experience there’s an up-side to this naïve, enthusiastic unpredictability. In fact, looked at from this alternate vantage point, it’s positively inspiring – and certainly energising – to open oneself to their perspective.

In a former post (here) I included a photograph of one of my grandsons striking a pose outside the Turner Contemporary gallery’s commissioned installation Dwelling by Krijn de Koning (see here for details of the artwork/show). One of the observations I have made in recent months, through them and others, is that children can and do genuinely enjoy visiting a good gallery or museum if they’re allowed to. In this particular instance, we’d visited the gallery at the eldest grandson’s direct request: he’d been there on a school trip, loved it, and now wanted to go back because I’d casually announced there was a new show (see here). Three adults and two children piled into a car for an anticipated brief visit to the gallery. We stayed longer than expected. Not only did all five of us have our imaginations captivated by Jeremey Deller’s English Magic, we also got to lay unselfconsciously on the floor to view Atmosphere by ceramics artist Edmund de Waal (here) – children have an ability to release adults to do such things. Even after ‘exhausting’ these exhibitions indoors there was still Krijn de Koning’s Dwelling to explore outside. I’d never played hide-and-seek in an artist’s installation before, but I did that afternoon. Perfect. Turner Contemporary confirmed in me my love for the place and for what it achieves through its staff – they also cemented in two young boys’ minds a concept of art which does not exclude fun. However, the primary point of this particular blog site is to allow me to describe life as a scientist: we’ll move on to consider children in this context in due course ...
Turner Contemporary, though a personal favourite, is of course far from being unique in its welcoming attitude towards children. In my own city and environs I can name several examples, including the idiosyncratic Powell-Cotton museum: a mock pith helmet, clip-board and friendly staff can turn a seven-year-old into a virtual explorer.
I’m not entirely sure when the evident change-of-heart descended on so many – though far from all – of our museums and galleries. What I can recount is my own observation through three generations: I have just shared some positive things about my grandsons’ experience, but I could also track back in time through my son, and of course to me. Let’s start with a story from last Summer. I had the scary pleasure of acting as a ‘responsible adult’ in a two-coach party of Year 5 primary school pupils as they travelled to the Science Museum in London on a day-trip organised by my talented teacher son. We had great fun, eat our lunch on the floor under the wings of classic aircraft and toured the museum in small groups, ‘following our noses’, and had a wonderful time in their hands-on exploratorium. Leaving to one side the perennial fascination with buying trinkets in the shop and my occasional surprise at what did and did not take their fancy amongst the exhibits, there were two noticeable things. The first of these was the outright success of a pair of talks by museum staff: highly interactive and entertaining, and for the most part accessible to the pupils (as far as I could discern). They’d obviously put some thought and effort into this. The other wonderful thing was the atmosphere of relaxed exploration that one senses in the museum: a place where boisterous 10-year olds could skim the broad landscapes of science, engineering and technology without being hemmed in and excessively ‘steered’. What came out of this were some quite animated discussions – that must be a good thing I think.

There’s nothing quite like seeing oneself on the big screen – even if it’s in an infra-red image.
 In passing, I recall giving an informal in-class talk on bioactive glass (one of my research areas; see here, here  and here) to a Year 8 secondary school class a couple of years ago. I had no slides and no show-and-tell with me (- indeed, only a few minutes to prepare at all: I was there to talk to Year 12-13 students a little later in the day). I chatted for 10 or 15 minutes about using 
Klingon skulls
these materials to regenerate bone and then the teacher opened it up for questions. The point is that their questions came at a fast rate, and were still coming as the bell went to signal the end of the lesson, and they were uninhibited in what they asked. I still remember with a smile being asked if these materials could be used to grow a Klingon skull and if so, how would one go about it. Wonderful. Not only had this person ‘got it’ in terms of bioactive materials, but the concepts had been assimilated without duress. When does this phase end? The older students I spoke to that same day were much more guarded, trying to avoid appearing silly I suppose – but perhaps missing out because of it. That having been said, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with them as well – but in a rather different, ‘grown up’ way.

If we skip back half a generation to the late ’90s, I accompanied another early-secondary school trip to the Science Museum: this time with my son and his peers. On this occasion, the teachers had taken a somewhat more ‘traditional’ approach to the day. Almost as soon as we arrived we were taken to a large room with tables and chairs in order to eat our packed lunches and each handed a long questionnaire. I could understand the reasoning: it would, for the diligent at least, ensure a focused march around the museum and some measurable ‘outputs’, but I still question the genuine educational value of such exercises. However, I have a confession to make at this point – and since the school is now closing down I don’t suppose anyone will be hugely upset by it: I cheated; well, sort of. On the basis of seminar-style discussion, my group dealt with the questionnaire over our sandwiches and then I accompanied them around the museum to the bits they wanted to see. I was amazed at their energy; they wanted to see so many things, and had several positively heated debates en route. We ended up on a space-travel simulator as a reward for their day of enthusiastic enquiry before piling back onto our coach. I realise that this may have been possible only because I could ‘fill in the gaps’ for them out of my own education, training and experience, but it was so much more fun and rewarding – certainly for me, and apparently also for them. Apart from anything else, and despite the evidence already present of a desire to draw younger people in, the place had not yet developed much by way of truly accessible displays; having someone of whom to ask questions was, arguably, vital.

My own early visits to the same place were as a slightly older teenager in the company of three school friends; this would have been in the mid/late ’60s. School trips were, on the whole, less ambitious then and visiting London’s principal museums had to wait until our parents thought it safe to allow the four of us to use the train/underground. The museums, the Science Museum included, were distinctly more ‘stuffy’ at that stage and one had to be prepared to ‘put the work in’ to glean knowledge or understanding. Having said that, for a studious (nerdy?) group like ours, the place was, even then, a great place to explore and for self-paced learning. However, returning to the present day, I can’t wait to accompany my grandsons to the Science Museum (or any of its Kensington neighbours for that matter): there’s such a rich child-accessible atmosphere in such places now that I’d hope to be able to stand well back and allow them to find the spot where they want to dig deeper of their own accord.

To return to the topic in hand, albeit in a round-about way: public engagement with science in the context of younger children. I had the honour to be invited to present a Christmas Lecture on my pet topic of glass at the University of Kent this year in the rather splendid Gulbenkian Theatre
I’d love to be able to compare these with the long-standing and prestigious Christmas Lecture series at the Royal Institution (here) but they’re in a different league. I was to give the lecture twice, and was told to expect close to 100 people for each of the morning and afternoon sessions, and that they would mostly be Year 12/13 school students. How wrong can a set of predictions be … maybe a couple of dozen people attended each session, and whilst there were some adults present the majority of those present were younger than 10 years old and almost exclusively home-schooled. (Apparently, as I discovered when chatting to a few of the accompanying adults afterwards, my talk usefully constituted a sort of ‘field trip’ for their charges.) So, having turned up with a set of slides and a suitcase full of artefacts to go with them, I had to try as best I could to adapt. I’m not sure I succeeded terribly well, but it did flag up for me an area of weakness in what I can offer as public engagement talks. Ad hoc general science-based events with younger children seem to have worked well thus far, but a subject-specific talk is evidently a very different thing. 

However, on a brighter note, another recent interaction with primary school children, which was great fun, has highlighted the scope for a possible new career direction! I was invited, with my wife, to be a ‘mystery reader’ for separate Year 4 and 5 classes and duly set myself the goal to find a story with a bit of science woven through it: a task which proved harder than it sounds. Finally, after an extended ‘Twitter campaign’, I was sent a suggestion for a series of books which seemed like they might work in the sense that the story-lines were reasonably age-appropriate and there were science-related plot elements sprinkled throughout. The author, Lucy Hawking, has written the series of books (here) with her well-known father Prof. Stephen Hawking; I bought copies of three of them as a present to the school and read the first few chapters of one of them to each of my two classes of children. The books are good, but there is scope for much more for a 9-11 year old audience it seems to me. Now, I can cope with the science, my wife is a talented painter and my grandsons (and son, and his partner) can advise on age-relevant matters of quality. So, all that’s needed now is a bit of time, some good ideas, a publisher, …

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