Reflections on an Undergraduate Science Education: Part Three

Proselytising. One does not tend to associate that word with science, I think, in part, because science prides itself in encouraging open enquiry (generally speaking – there will always be entrenched ideas which need overthrown and those who are not willing for the shovelling to be done). To be honest, there is a kind of apathy (oft too used) attached to the BSc; a kind of, ‘they will be graduating soon so it doesn’t matter’ approach to the academic establishment. And let us face it; it is very daunting being an eighteen year old first year student, confronted with big classes and a baffling hierarchy. It does get better as you move along: smaller classes, lecturers whom you can actually recognize (unfortunately the hierarchy remains, though you do begin to recognize the mysteries of its structure). Students themselves can be, shall we say, none the very enthusiastic; skipping lectures whilst navigating the social scene, or bemoaning the work to be done.

So there is blame on both sides. However, an important opportunity is missed if students are left to graduate without feeling – well, without feeling part of something, that something being, shall I dare say it?, the scientific community. To an undergraduate that world solely belongs to the graduate students and those with ‘Dr’ tagged to their name. Think about it: undergraduate BSc students are the best equipped to go out there and explain science to the public; there are a lot of them (relatively) graduating every year, and many of them go into a diverse range of fields. They have not become too bogged down yet in the branch of a branch of a branch aspect of science that they will encounter as a graduate student doing research who wants to enter academia, so the diversity of the science is still fresh in their minds. And even if you are pessimistic and predict that only about 10% of the science undergrads would be willing to devout their time proselytising, that is still a good number of people eager enough about science to explain it.

Now, I am not suggesting that an army of science graduates goes out with copies of, say, ‘The Selfish Gene’, or many other science books, in order to spread the word to the people. Instead, a fostering of understanding of science and research outside of the examination mill is required. Why not take a week off of the extremely long summer holiday and move it to, I don’t know, after the end of first semester examinations; during that week students can research a topic they are not familiar with and present what they find.

The point is to do something which helps encourage those who are enthusiastic about science, although may want a different career, in order to give them the space to go out and feel willing to talk about science. After completing three or four years, they are well equipped to explain science to curious family members, friends, or colleagues. Perhaps they may even start a blog. Sure, there will students who only want to be presented with their BSc degree and leave it at that. But we cannot allow the indifference of a few, or even a majority if that is the case, dictate how we should bring science to the masses.

We cannot complain about how pseudoscience seems to take hold of the scientifically illiterate when we ignore the very people who can, at least, take a part in combating this problem. It is easy for scientific research, and scientists, to be misconstrued by the media and the public who lack understanding, but it is far easier to allow things to stay as they are.

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