Harry Kroto

June 20, 2003

With access to inspirational science and maths teachers restricted, the internet could make quality instruction into a universal currency

The "developed" nations are easily recognised. They are the ones that have harnessed the innovative genius of scientists and engineers to provide sufficient food, shelter, clothing, medicine and other necessities of life.

In fact, they have been so effective that many people now have time to contemplate their navels, if they can see them.

A by-product of this progress has been the creation of a bunch of intellectuals (parasites who exude culture) and celebrities (parasites who exude no culture) who spend precious time slagging off science and science teaching. They must be rejoicing at their success as the numbers of science students and teachers drop catastrophically, mathematical incompetence becomes ever more ubiquitous, scientifically illiterate campaigns erupt daily and our science-based industries are forced to consider emigrating.

But the problem is not "where have all the science students gone?" It is "where have all the science teachers gone?" The Economist claimed recently that of those teaching A-level physics, 70 per cent had no degree in the subject and 30 per cent had no A level. In chemistry, it was 50 per cent without a relevant degree and 10 per cent without the A level. In biology, it was 40 per cent and 30 per cent.

Of course, there are many outstanding teachers without subject-specific qualifications and The Economist 's numbers are almost certainly wrong. But the situation is truly serious. Even when the science teachers are excellent, they have their hands full teaching post-16s and don't have time for 11 to 15-year-olds, who are at the age when they can be inspired by charismatic teachers.

Behind most successful women and men are great teachers who fired their imaginations and motivated them at crucial stages in their development. Films such as Dead Poets Society probe this issue (at least in the arts) in entertaining, thought-provoking and compelling ways. I had art and chemistry teachers with whom I empathised, and they shaped my main preoccupations today. My chemistry teachers had PhDs and one really impressed me with his ability to blow non-stop through a blowtorch without pausing to breathe. With a pencil, my art teacher could leave a deposit on a sheet that really was art.

I can imagine how apprehensive an inexperienced teacher might be preparing a first lesson for adolescents whose main priority is how to impress the opposite (or maybe not-so-opposite) sex. It would be daunting for me, even though I give scores of lectures all round the world each year. However, what can we do about it? Well, I have one suggestion, and let me use the provision of food as a metaphor. Obviously it would be great if we could all have food prepared by Jamie or Nigella. But, failing that, a TV dinner created according to a recipe devised by the best chefs would be preferable to seeing our children inadequately fed. The equivalent here would be prepackaged educational material created by the best educators to form a sound basis to help teachers to create stimulating lessons.

The creation of a decentralised, globally accessible internet resource offering outstanding audiovisual material is now possible, and the Vega Science Trust is experimenting with downloadable science modules for children. Learning packages on topics appropriate to any part of the world will soon become available. A teacher will be able to download relevant material, refine their understanding and shape the lesson to suit their pupils' needs. It will be the responsibility of learned societies to vet accuracy, help to refine material interactively, accredit particular websites and provide gateways to them.

I remember hearing a tale about someone who once found himself in a remote African village and heard raucous laughter emanating from one hut. Inside he found the occupants crowded round a TV set watching Benny Hill. It seems that the sight of the comedian chased by scantily clad maidens is a universal currency. I dream that the combination of inexpensive computer, data projector, printer and internet access will soon be as cheap as TV.

Then teachers everywhere will be able to distribute the universal currency of science using material created by the most imaginative, motivated and gifted teachers in the world. Let's hope that the underpaid teachers who truly care for society and work so hard to educate will overcome the machinations of Simon Jenkins and his overpaid science-hating ilk who are working equally hard to elevate the UK to leadership of the de-developing nations.

Harry Kroto is professor of chemistry at Sussex University and chairman of the Vega Science Trust ( www.vega.org.uk ). He won the 1996 Nobel prize for chemistry.

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