Essay on Education and Science

Education and Science in the Next Century

Education will be the challenge for the next century. It will need resources and imagination. It will have to explore new ways. Within that scheme science education is a central problem. Just because we may expect that science and technology will shape the future world or at least be strongly intergrowth with the life of people, their health, their jobs.

Science and technology are a special problem in pedagogy: they constantly move ahead. They produce new things which are directly used and need to be quickly understood and mastered to cope, for instance, with the needs of the job's market. But also science is expanding indefinitely: there is no limit, knowledge is always growing. It cannot be mastered by any encyclopaedic process. This situation is a clear burden on schools’ curricula. It creates a demand for continuous education, a process going on for life.

There is two extreme points in the science education problem. On one hand one needs to allow students to grasp the essential elementary principles. On the other hand, it is necessary to explain what science and industry are doing through their research enterprises and their new technologies and this supposes an efficient strategy to suggest the interest of complex and sophisticated theories and techniques. Efforts on both those two fronts are needed to win confidence and support from people for the industrial and scientific community in a democratic political framework.

Chemistry is a central science. It is used in every other discipline from earth science to biology. Yet it is notoriously considered as a difficult topic not so much liked in schools (with the notable exception of some enthusiasts). As a result, basic knowledge in chemistry is rather low. Moreover the chemical industry is considered dangerous by a part of the public opinion to the point, in some extreme views, to be perceived as an ugly sorceress offering a poisoned apple to an innocent child. Chemistry by itself is associated to a power good or bad, the power of performing transformations. There will be no efficient science education if an effort is not made to bring chemistry out of those folk tales archetypal images frequently reinforced by the somber plots of the "mad scientists" in movies or TV series. Chemistry needs to be shown in its reality as a practice and an action on matter which has historically improved the capacities of humanity and its well-being.

Education will change because new tools are already on the market. Especially the possibility offered by the Internet or Intranet networks of teaching at a distance and the access to large amounts of documentation including the latest results of basic research. But also the computer programs, the CD-Rom, the TV channels dedicated to learning, provide a broad array of new teaching methods which are proposed to classes or individuals.

Tools are not enough. One also needs a method. It seems that a strategy using a project-oriented pedagogy will be a solution to cope with the impressive dispersion of things which can be of interest and the necessity to provide an effective and useful learning. A choice of one exciting topic will allow the class to engage as deeply as possible in the exploration of the subject. In the process they will have to study new things, things which may be are not on the curriculum. Above all they will experience some pleasure out of the learning process, they will make their own discoveries. CEFIC has already supported a European contest for school projects oriented towards science topics. Those experiments have demonstrated the efficiency of the method which reinforces and creates social links between students and students and teachers, allows a good coverage of a problem in the exciting conditions of an inquiry and provides an opportunity for knowing how to present the results of a study on a variety of supports. A project-oriented pedagogy is an exercise in learning how to learn. In the future world it will be necessary to learn constantly new things, it is important to master at a very young age the skills needed to collect information and data, evaluate, organize, and present them.

Traditional teaching based on the curriculum, project oriented pedagogy, the growing number of people undertaking self-studies (especially in the fields of new technologies such as image processing), the need to provide continuous education for people already on the job market, all imply a need for accessible and pertinent education resources rooted in the modern world. Museums are important components of today urban scenery. They are temples for art or knowledge where people gather as a crowd shoulder to shoulder. They have a large number of visitors, they are places where things can be shown and demonstrated. As well as art museums, science museums are centres of attraction, public places crisscrossed by people, young and old, where modernity is displayed. They have libraries, theatres, conference rooms, exhibitions, web sites. There, people can physically meet, not at a distance. Science Museums are centres of resources which can be used for sheer pleasure but also as places where to collect information but not only, because they also allow to experiment face to face actual displays. For a science which depends strongly on bodily perceptions such as chemistry this is an important place to meet the public.

The CEFIC Science Museum project has the ambition to bring more chemistry in the European science museums. One needs fundamental displays and interactive experiments to demonstrate some of the basic principles of chemistry. One needs presentations which will show what chemistry can bring to society, new products or analysis and control of the quality of basic commodities such as water. One needs forums where the problems of environment or pollution or health can be discussed and explained, for instance through games. One needs to tell the history of chemistry, starring many heroes and pioneers. One needs to bring fresh news from the research front in chemistry. It is especially important to bring new technologies and new materials into the public eye by building around them a line of stories illustrated by displays. It will be interesting to tell the story of carbon for instance starting from the traditional graphite and diamond up to the new forms of this element, buckyballs or nanotubes, and their industrial applications.

Chemistry as a science offers a huge potential of surprising facts which can be easily popularized if a proper framework is provided. When some effort has been done to grasp a few elementary bases, a world of adventures is opened. Every element of the periodical classification can be the subject of an attractive story, and can be used in spectacular displays through its properties or through its applications in day to day life. The number of molecules, of metals, or of mineral salts, or of raw materials, with stories as good is infinite.

Modern instruments allow through the images they produce a Gulliver's travel into matter down to the atomic and molecular level. This is exploration of an unknown continent whose beauties are a constant source of surprises and marvels. One of the best chances of chemistry to gain some popularity is through the intimate images chemists produce of the material world. Meanwhile those images are also the working tools of the research and industry community. And this more and more because of the huge on-going developpement of the nanotechnologies where pieces of materials of the biological chemical and physical worlds are used as components to build efficient machines which are shaping the technologies we will use in the next century.

The effort being done by the European chemical industry to bring more chemistry in the Science Museums provide an opportunity for the public, for students and for teachers, to realize that chemistry is a frontier science which is at the center of the adventure playground of science and industry for the next century. It is expected that the resources provided will convince students and teachers to invest some educational effort in chemistry. This is where the action will be. It is not a boring old science, it mixes action, sound thinking, imagination, surprises and pleasure. This should be demonstrated by the Museums displays.