If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants

The Guardian carried an article Wed 20th Feb 2019 entitled “Young climate strikers can win their fight. We must all help.” written by George Monbiot. Manifesto Youth Climate Strikers…

This is a first for me in writing to a national newspaper, but I felt compelled because of the work I do in schools, colleges and universities. For the last 10 years I have had the pleasure delivering STEM, enterprise and employability workshops to schools, colleges and universities with Surrey SATRO, Young Enterprise and Let’s Learn Energy.

The Question/Challenge Posed by the Original Article

You [George Monbiot] asked in your article for ‘veterans…to offer advice and help” to the young strikers to help them achieve real results in the fight back against Climate Change.

I hope these points and research below begin a dialogue where education plays its central role. I feel I qualify as a veteran in age and hopefully in experience too 😊


Climate Change and Sustainability in Education

Climate Change and Sustainability are not taught as main stream subjects in most schools, colleges and universities. This Spring and Summer Let’s Learn Energy in partnership with the education charity Surrey SATRO, is delivering Sustainability and Climate Change workshops to around 1,000 young people aged from 9 to 17 years.

Even in these enlightened schools I know Climate Change is a difficult subject to tackle, yet young people need to be apprised of the facts and arguments for and against so that they can form their own opinions and find their own ways forward.

The complicated framework of government, teachers’ organisations, academy chains, free schools, state schools, independent schools, examining bodies and regulators must now display leadership and vision. Young people need the topics of Climate Change and Sustainability centre stage in cross curriculum topics, so that they can be engaged right the way through their education pathway.

Primary Pupils ‘Turned Off’ Science at an Early Age

Science teaching is patchy in English primary schools. In a YouGov poll for the CBI back in 2015 33% of primary schools surveyed were not providing the recommended two hours of teaching per week. And I have heard several times that schools are opting to run a ‘Science Week’ which gets the ‘average’ hours up, and this is used to make up the shortfall of science in the normal week.

There are several complex reasons for science being squeezed. Among the leading ones as I see it are that most teachers in Primary education come from an arts background, and the externally marked SATS tests do not include Science.

Combine this with the severe funding crisis in schools with spend per pupil down 8% in real terms, and overstretched staff and budgets and we have the recipe for focusing on the DfE and OFSTED priorities, which don’t include Climate Change and Sustainability as main stream subjects or topics in other work.

It is time to invest in science education right the way through the educational pathway of our young people. This needs to be from Year 1 in Primary school.

In 2018 I delivered a technology/robotics workshop to thirty 11-year olds preparing to move to secondary school. One pupil had heard of the topic ‘Chemistry’, three had heard of ‘Biology’ and none had heard of ‘Physics’. They were well versed in Maths and English, presumably for the SATS tests, but were let down by having no knowledge of the technology driven world upon which they depend. How can they make valid decisions about their education interests in Secondary school when they have no knowledge of the subject and the choices it offers them?

Bias to Arts and Service Industries in Education and Careers

By the time young people transition from Primary to Secondary and then onto Higher Education they are naturally focussing on the topics that have been prioritised, and that their social and family background supports. This makes it more likely to nudge them towards the arts and services than sciences, as there is also a general lack of ‘science capital’ in families in England.

This particularly effects girls where there tends to be a self-sustaining lack of female role models in the sciences and technical trade bodies. My daughter recently passed her Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) and I was amazed to note that only 12% of Chartered Surveyors in the UK are female, yet the workforce in property is probably closer to 50/50. This is just one industry but consider this; property is an area where huge positive impact on Climate Change impact can be made.

The Scientific Process, Research and Informed Choices

“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” – Isaac Newton, 1675

What beautiful, and meaningful words from one of the giants of science. Yet how many of our young people even know who Newton is and what these words truly mean?

Wikipedia defines the phrase as meaning “discovering truth by building on previous discoveries”. In other words, this is the Scientific Process as defined in the National Curriculum for all ages from primary school entry up to GCSE.

I would argue that the ‘Baby Boomer’ generation of the 60’s has tended to focus on their individual ‘rights’ and ‘beliefs’ at the expense of respect for community, knowledge and truth as discovered by science. Expert seems to have become a dirty word. The irony is that society has never been more dependent on experts and technology, but we don’t respect the scientific process and the individuals working in it that make it possible.

If this new generation of Climate Change activists is to ‘change the world’ we must teach them what we seem to have forgotten. They need to learn the rigours and philosophy behind the scientific process. Then they can apply it to the challenges that lie ahead of them.

It feels counter-intuitive, but the scientific process is a philosophy that will serve them way beyond academic study in STEM subjects. They need an enquiring mindset that takes nothing for granted and can present their passion for truth it in all forms of expression.

Just think of Tom Stoppard’s stage play ‘Hapgood’ about quantum physics, or Ron Howard’s classic film ‘A Beautiful Mind’ about game theory starring Russell Crowe. There’s Tom Lehrer’s song ‘The Elements’ which is funny and melodic at the same time. These works and many more prove that it is possible to teach, intrigue, challenge and entertain in STEM topics cross curriculum and in many media, as we are discovering through Let’s Learn Energy together with Surrey SATRO.

This generation of Climate Change activists need to learn the science and practice the arguments for and against so that they can reclaim and reapply the narrative that Isaac Newton gave us all “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”

Key Sources and Further Reading