Will Europe ever be able to compete with Silicon Valley? The answer lies not only in our universities and research parks but also in our primary and secondary schools. And there the facts are worrisome. Since the beginning of the century, a number of surveys have confirmed what many people had already observed: not enough European youngsters are interested in science and engineering. In 2008, a report to the UK’s Nuffield Foundation noted that all too often science education is focused on the minority who are already interested in science careers rather than on a broader set who might potentially be drawn in. In addition, traditional teaching tends to be based on narrow 19th and 20th century approaches – like memorising periodic tables or Newton’s laws – rather than on providing entry into the interdisciplinary science that is all around us in the 21st century: climate change, neuroscience or molecular genetics. Girls, in particular, are known to respond to science that is contextual, not abstract. Acutely aware of the problem, Europe’s major universities are doing their share to stimulate interest in science. Switzerland’s EPFL has put its weight behind scientific adventures that capture the popular imagination, like Alinghi and Solar Impulse, while reaching out to schools with workshops for teachers and open houses for pupils. Many universities invite children to visit their campuses and even conduct small-scale research on campus. In general, universities stress that schools should teach less pure content and focus on stimulating curiosity and the hunger for discovery.
In this issue, Technologist makes a small contribution by laying to rest the image of the scientist as some kind of lab-trapped nerd. As our “extreme scientists” show, science is an adventure that can take you 5 kilometers underwater or 400 kilometers into space, to the hottest places on earth or the coldest. It is a lifetime of discovery and intellectual fulfilment – a guarantee against boredom. If this message can get across to today’s youth, Europe will have many successors to the Galileos, Keplers and Newtons who built 0909the foundations of modern science.
By Henry Muller