Prof Leo Tan on our shores and bringing science to the masses

Living classroom: Labrador shore

Living Classroom: Students on Labrador shore.

Understanding science will help people realise its impact on their lives
Leo W.H. Tan, Straits Times 13 Sep 08;

I TAUGHT biology when I began my scientific career, and I had a favourite living laboratory, a 300m stretch of seemingly barren beach called Labrador.

Every freshman in my class made a compulsory field visit.

Their typical first reaction was: 'Why did you bring us here? There is no marine life to observe.'

Using the 'learning science through inquiry' method, I'd take them on a journey of discovery about the wonders of nature and, three hours later, they would be asking if they could stay longer.

They had discovered the rocks were alive with algae, snails, barnacles, anemones, corals, crabs and a host of other creatures, and realised how rich the biodiversity was.

One striking impression they took away was not to make assumptions about anything until they tested out their hypotheses.

I would like to believe that first encounter had a stimulating influence on many generations of my students, including several now in key positions in academia and research, the school system and corporations.

Singapore prides itself on having a science and technology-based economy.

Everyone encounters science and technology in daily life.

I wonder though how many are actually aware of, and understand, the scientific content, principles or benefits that relate to their lives.

Only when people see how a light bulb is linked to power generation and climate change, or how losing a beach means the loss of biodiversity and bioactive products such as potential anti-cancer drugs from marine species, can they appreciate how science improves their economic, social, environmental and cultural well-being.

In a globalised, knowledge-based economy that is increasingly dependent on knowledge creation and innovation rather than merely on the goods and services of an industrial age, it is necessary to develop a science-literate society that is adaptable to change and able to make informed decisions.

This is where science communication can play a critical role.

Newtonian science was about scientific discovery and knowledge for its own sake, but after the deployment of atomic power as a weapon of destruction in the last world war, science must now be answerable to the public.

The public should exercise its right to be informed not only of the benefits of science but also about possible downsides and areas of concern.

There are so many interesting and contemporary issues to keep the public engaged - climate change and global warming; genetic engineering and stem cell research; health and disease; biodiversity and conservation; biotechnology and nanotechnology.

Unfortunately for many scientists, communicating their work to the layman does not come naturally, most notably because of their propensity to talk and write in jargon.

There is also a reticence to write or talk to the media, which undeniably is the major vehicle for stimulating public debate and shaping public opinion on scientific issues.

There are two other influential groups of professionals who need to communicate science - the teacher and the health professional.

The former has to engage students in thinking critically about how science works and why it matters to society. Students have to be excited about science as a possible career choice and not merely as a study option.

The latter has to communicate effectively on health and related issues and in a timely manner. The 2003 Sars outbreak, for example, demonstrated the vital importance of reaching out to the masses.

The National University of Singapore, in partnership with the Australian National University, is introducing a joint Master of Science degree programme in science communication.

The participation of the Science Centre Singapore in this programme, with its hands-on approach to learning, enhances the value of the degree. Both theory and practical aspects will be emphasised.

School teachers, in particular, will find this programme relevant as it helps them upgrade communication skills and scientific content knowledge, so they can engage students in creative ways as well as being confident of supervising them in project work.

In the 1980s, as director of the Singapore Science Centre, I had to seek funding to bring the famous Royal Institution of Great Britain's lecture and demonstration series to Singapore.

I was introduced to the head of a well-known chemical corporation, and he agreed without hesitation to sponsor the series. As an A-level student in London, he had attended a Royal Institution lecture given by a Nobel laureate in chemistry, Professor George Porter. He was so awed by the simplicity of the explanations that he decided to become a scientist. He went on to do a PhD in chemistry, joined the industry and rose to top management.

An effective science communicator had influenced his career.

Prof Porter was the director of the Royal Institution and a reputable researcher. He chose to communicate science not only to his peers but to the public too, and schoolchildren in particular.

As a result of the three-year sponsorship here, thousands of our students benefited from the lecture series.

The story does not end there.

A disciple of Prof Porter, Professor David Phillips, now an Emeritus Professor at Imperial College, London, had similarly influenced one of my students through his science communication lectures. That young man recently obtained his PhD from an Ivy League institution.

It is time this discipline took its rightful place in our society.

As for Labrador Beach, there is one clear benefit from introducing it to the students.

Some were instrumental in quietly proposing over three decades its conservation, and this became reality in 2001 when Labrador became a nature reserve.

Here was a tangible result of communicating science to my students.

They and other Singaporeans saw the value of keeping a living heritage that mattered to them.

The writer is president of the Singapore National Academy of Science and immediate past director of the National Institute of Education. He also chairs the advisory board for NUS-SCS Science Communication Programmes.

More about Prof Leo Tan and his influence on the shores and shore volunteers on the wild shores of singapore blog.

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