How To Deconstruct the Myth Of The Old Mad Scientist?

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The teaching of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) is a global trend. Actually, when you look at the educational policies throughout the world and the recommendations of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Education Organization, you can only acknowledge that the STEM are and need to be highly promoted. This paper is not about justifying if this trend is right or wrong but, as a product of the Humanities, I would say that Social sciences are as important for a society as the STEM. But like everything in life, balance is needed.

Having said that, I want you to ask yourself a question. When you picture a scientist in your mind, what do you see? Probably, a white man with glasses, crazy gray hair and wearing a deformed ugly long blouse.

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And if my guess is right, we can assume that a lot of people, children included, will picture the scientists just like that. Who wants to be looking like that? This myth around the crazy scientist who lives in his world, whom a few people can relate to, could be an important cause to the lack of interest among young people for scientific careers and to the fact that they are more inclined to choose “soft” sciences instead of “hard” sciences.

If I take the example of Senegal, the ratio between Humanities and STEM is about 70/30, which is not efficient for the economic development of the country. Since 2012, we are trying in Senegal to implement policies to encourage our students to embrace scientific curricula but the main issue we are facing is that the students who enter our Universities are about 18/19 year old, which means that they have already chosen a path. So, even if the policies are in place, even if we try our best, we can hardly transform a student who majored in French Literacy in High School into an Aeronautical Engineer. The same applies to a lot of African countries. So the question is what do we do to change that?

Yesterday, Florida International University where some of the Mandela Fellows are trained on Public administration, organized a visit to the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden (http://www.fairchildgarden.org). At first, I was wondering why on earth the visit of a garden (by the way we did visit a lot of gardens) – except for having a great time enjoying this site and maybe faint from dehydration – would help me in my line of work. I was wrong. This garden is not only about the contemplation of mother earth. This garden is actually all about promoting “hard” science education. Their educational program is very diverse and its main goal is to engage the whole community to embrace STEM through those 5 principles:

  1. “Basic scientific and environmental concepts must be introduced early and reinforced continuously throughout the education process;
  2. Inquiry based education helps students develop creativity and enthusiasm for discovery, key attributes of successful innovators. The idea is to help the students recognize and appreciate the importance of science in society while giving them the opportunity to work with mentors (e.g. advanced students and professional scientists) on research projects that are relevant on a local and global scale;
  3. Mentorship is crucial for engaging and encouraging students from demographic groups that are traditionally underrepresented in the sciences.
  4. Establishing a balance of competition and collaboration prepares students to work effectively within the scientific community.” (http://www.fairchildgarden.org/Portals/0/images/Education/2015/FTBG%20Education%20Philosophy%20%202014.pdf)

What does it mean in practical terms? It means that the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden is the playground for children and young students to be in contact with accomplished scientists. Those children and young adults get to see what those scientists are doing since a very young age, they are able to ask questions, to be mentored etc. There were no old mad scientists in the labs we visited, we just saw regular people doing what they love and wanting to share their passion with the world. As Mandela Fellows, – 25 of us, we were like bulls in a china shop – we were able to storm through those labs while people were working on great projects. The doors were open; the scientists were always ready to engage anyone and to share their research.

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For example, we met high school children working on extracting DNA from two species of Orchids. Those kids, who are not yet in College, were working with a Mentor and their name will be put on a peer-reviewed scientific paper. How cool is that? They were so excited to be there, to be able to do great stuff, to be trustworthy of using high tech equipment. It was refreshing to see that. They were so passionate by Science at a young age, and most of all, they were proud of themselves.

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I hope you were able to read all of that without being bored to death. But you can check the website of the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden to have more information about their educational programs. They go from science challenge for kids, collaborating with schools, training teachers in those schools, allowing children to use the garden facilities, to engaging high school children to important scientific projects.

Well one thing is now clear for me, I was pretty aware of it, but Science needs to be teach in a fun way since a very young age if we want its face to change, if we want to have more students in STEM in order to develop our countries. I will repeat myself, I am a product of Humanities so I still want English, History, Philosophy teachers or Anthropologist in the World, but I also want all students to really have the opportunity to chose their path. The only way to do that is to allow them to be curious and to try everything. So…one last sentence and I swear, I’m done…Our Governments need to understand that, they need to focus on traditional education but also to invest in facilities where their population could be in contact with knowledge in a fun but still serious way!

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This is the face of science we need to see, because this is the real one and only one that will have a real impact on the world.

Elsa DK

MWF 2015