Science is something worth talking about, isn’t that right TED?

20 Aug 2009

Despite the drop in second level maths and science grades and the rising dropout rate for third level science and technology course, there is a growing celebration for knowledge and science to be found amongst independent events such as TEDx and Ignite.

According to the State Examination Commission, in 2006 the average mark for the Junior Cert written science exam was a disappointing 55pc.

The number of students getting As in Leaving Cert physics dropped by several percent between 2005 and 2008, while the number receiving Cs increased. Only 16pc of Leaving Cert students took honours maths this year, down on the 2008 figures.

If you look at the knock-on effects at third level, it gets worse: the average dropout/ failure rate across all seven universities here for science and technology courses in the past year was 20pc.

That is, out of every five students entering a third-level course in science and technology, one did not make it through to second year.

There is no easy answer to reversing these waning numbers and, looking to other countries, including the UK, it is obvious that this is part of a larger global phenomenon, and one that also impacts on other non-science subjects taught in the classroom to a lesser extent.

While education taskforces are assembled, and grants and resources are poured into prioritising careers in science and technology, some people have been working quietly in the background to build a passion for science from the ground up, seeing the scientific endeavour as an artistic and society-driven pursuit much like music, entertainment and the arts.

In fact, this is happening here in Ireland right under our noses. Since the opening of the Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) in February 2008, the number of public events and exhibitions keen to mix science, art and society has been growing, and the mission to render the pursuit of scientific and technological advancement sexy is well under way.

One such event was TEDx Dublin, held in the Science Gallery in June. TEDx is an independent offshoot of the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference, a gathering of likeminded enthusiastic individuals who are making it hip to be square.

With the tagline ‘Ideas Worth Spreading’, the global phenomenon of TED is easy to explain when you realise that it is simply a bunch of enthusiastic people demystifying academia.

The Dublin event attracted global brainpower, including Microsoft engineer Blaise Aguera y Arcas, the guy behind the company’s Photosynth imaging technology.

While this may seem somewhat niche, Dr Aaron Quigley, lecturer at the School of Computer Science and Informatics at University College Dublin, and organiser of Ireland’s first ever TEDx event, points out that, with little or no advertising, the event was booked out within minutes of its announcement.

And it is not just about the hour that people sit there and listen to lecture; it is about the people you meet while you’re there.

“The impressive thing about any event like this was that out of the 100 people at TEDx Dublin there was the potential for up to 10,000 connections to be made,” says Quigley.

“This is a phenomenal opportunity from just one event and that’s where the sparks come from. This feeds into another important aspect of TED – the interdisciplinary opportunities where people from different backgrounds get a chance to meet and be inspired by new areas of science or research.

“No one is selling anything, no one is trying to hustle for business, no one is trying to get funding; that’s what is nice about it. It all comes from the desire to communicate your expertise.”

Quigley says that this is not just for academics. In fact, most of the TEDx Dublin attendees were curious individuals simply interested in science and technology. Another event building on ‘geek culture’ is the Ignite event happening on 24th September, also taking place in the Science Gallery.

Ignite is another global phenomenon, sponsored by O’Reilly Media, that is essentially styled as a geek social event, says organiser Conor Houghton, who is a lecturer in mathematics and mathematical neuroscience at TCD.

“The idea is to give a talk whereby you can communicate ideas or research you are working on without the need for specialist details. Anyone can take part and they are given five minutes to take with 15 seconds per slide you present.

“Whether it is a scientific concept or even a business idea or art, the idea is to make the expert or specialist as interesting and accessible as possible,” explains Houghton.

Events like TEDx and Ignite are both new and old. While Quigley points out that consuming and appreciating science and technology as you would a painting or a sculpture, is a growing trend, Houghton also sees it as a return to old values.

“If you think about it, the Mechanics Institute, set up in the 19th century, was for people to come together to learn about the cutting-edge technology of the day, which would have been steam engines.

“In the Seventies, there were computer clubs for people with an interest in making computers from chips and capacitors.

“Maybe the form of the event has changed because of the different way people approach information. The Science Gallery has succeeded very well in providing a focus for events of this sort,” says Houghton.

By Marie Boran

Pictured above: Microsoft’s Blaise Aguera y Arcas ignites a passion for technology at TED