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How Will Tomorrow’s Scientists Learn?

I was recently invited to speak at science-related meetings on two consecutive days in different places in Europe. One was the official opening of a network of science centers in Vienna, linking decentralized activities in an interactive exhibition that tour Austria. The other was the Science Festival of Genoa, Italy, a young and hugely successful event with exhibitions and high-profile speakers throughout the ancient town.

What struck me on both occasions was the sustained, and evidently successful, attempt to reach out to the two target groups upon whom the future of science and technology will depend. The first group is teenagers, who are deeply interested in all the new technologies and gadgets that surround them. They have made these technologies an integral part of their lives, but their relationship to science has remained distant. The other target audience consists of younger children, whose openness and inborn curiosity have not yet been stifled by formal schooling.

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The success of Europe’s newly established science centers and festivals in reaching their potential audiences reflects their invention of a new way of teaching and learning. They have succeeded in setting up a largely informal learning environment, focusing mainly on truly interactive learning. By soliciting questions from children that have little place in the formal educational system, the audience is led to experience the research process – which often begins precisely by asking the right kind of question.

Although we will need more such informal learning environments in the future, politicians and the public have hardly noticed. Gone are the utopian dreams of the 1970’s, when there were visions of life-long learning and paid leaves of absence to pursue topics that might be useful for further professional advancement – or might also include the sheer luxury of studying ancient Greek or Assyrian art.

But the need for some kind of continuous learning has become even more obvious today, in a world driven by the forces of globalization. The relentless competition for talent and skills is being underscored daily by the increases in R&D investment in China and India, whose growing middle classes are only too keen to seek better educational opportunities for their children. Talent is now recognized as a scarce commodity that needs to be nurtured for a worldwide market of skills and competencies. “The battle for brainpower,” as The Economist recently put it, has begun.

It is fairly safe to predict that learning in a knowledge-intensive society will continue at a heightened pace, both at the workplace and outside of it. It will be facilitated through Web-based social software, through wikis, blogs, and similar developments as much as through new, “open source” business models.

These are informal structures, even if they have owners and access to them is regulated. The corporate world – indeed, the formal workplace more generally – can no longer be strictly separated from the informal world in which work and leisure have become blurred. Just as formal schooling needs to become better integrated with the informal learning environments to which our children are exposed in multiple ways, formal and informal learning must mesh in a life-long process.

Science and technology have an enormous stake in this development, and worldwide competition for the best brains is already acutely felt in European universities. This year’s Nobel Prizes highlighted once more that the research climate in the United States continues to be more conducive to scientific excellence compared to what Europe has to offer. Initiatives aimed at fostering scientific excellence in Europe, like one recently launched in Germany that officially defined three universities, all in the southern part of the country, as “excellent”(qualifying them for extra funding), seek to make universities more attractive and thus more competitive.

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While such efforts certainly point in the right direction, the research-friendliness and innovativeness of the wider societal environment – particularly practices of informal learning and opportunities to follow one’s curiosity – also matter. When, beginning in the nineteenth century, book publishing became not only a lucrative business, but also made books increasingly affordable to many more households, the sources of learning in society exploded. Indeed, the societal wealth created through the Industrial Revolution is partly due to this new diffusion of knowledge and skills.

Seeing the excitement that can be generated in young people through events like science festivals and networks of science centers gives rise to cautious optimism – provided we seize the diversity of opportunities that informal learning offers. Informal learning implies a messy, unruly, and potentially subversive process. But it also promises to nurture the creative ferment in which great science thrives.