Grandparent Science Rides to the Rescue

Guest blogger Neil Downie writes for Broad Conversation on the power Grandparents have to influence the younger generation to take an interest in science.

Grandparents may have within their grasp the power to prevent a gathering catastrophe in the progress of science and technology. It came to me in a flash at a meeting where I was demonstrating a set of whizz-bang science demonstrations like the Vacuum Bazooka to a mixed audience. From questions and reactions it became clear that many older members of the audience had a real feel for the behaviour of materials, a deep insight into physics and chemistry. And equally clear that even the top geeks amongst youngsters at the meeting didn’t have that kind of feel for stuff.

But the combination of their knowledge and skills, their possession of time, garden sheds and grandsons – and granddaughters – could produce a renaissance in science and technology education.

We still live in an age of unprecedented discoveries and developments across science and technology. An apparently inexhaustible supply of ingenuity has given us antibiotics and jet planes, space travel and satellites, computers and medical imaging, mobile phones and sat navs, DNA sequencing for medicine and forensics, and so on.

But this vastly successful technological gravy train may be about to derail. The signs of the impending disaster are beginning to build:

Practical demonstrations and hands-on science experiments have almost disappeared from some of our schools. Kids who actually make ‘stuff’ of their own design – like the crazy constructions in Meccano to balsa-wood aereplanes or home-made electronics they used to – have disappeared too. Mum used to help with projects on the kitchen table – but she is out at work. Parents today just don’t seem to get the time for help or encouragement.

Every year I interview more candidates for engineering jobs who lack the consumate practical skills that previous generations had. My nuclear fissional friends in nuclear power and at Aldermaston discovered recently that most of their top geeks are poised to retire – with no-one to replace them – and have started a recruitment campaign.

Scientific American magazine, once the Colossus of the science magazine world, has long since given up its Amateur Scientist column which once inspired schoolkids.

And the BBC a decade ago abandoned its flagship TV program logging weekly the mostly upward progress of science and technology and replaced it with a series of worthy but less successful and satisfactory replacements. (Note to Auntie Beeb: I’m the man to bring Tomorrow’s World back from the dead – I‘ve never flown a Spitfire like Raymond Baxter but I am one of the Few who have helped discover a fundamental particle – the gluon, and I’m an expert at jinxing demonstrations).

So how can we keep the Progress Express on the rails ? My latest book ‘The Ultimate Book of Saturday Science’ will start this process rolling. Inside it is a big bunch of projects to try, from the simplest quickest things like the Carrot Cannon – all you need is some plumbing tube, carrots and a stick – to sophisticated amateur science projects. Grandparents will be able to use construction methods that they saw or tried themselves as children in places, and will be familiar – as their grandchildren won’t be – with how to handle materials like balsa or metalwork. Some of those grandkids will be able to bring their own updates, of course, perhaps in electronics or digital video.

It is a new truth universally acknowledged, that a grandparent in possession of a garden shed must be in want of a science project to do with grandsons and granddaughters. That shed needs some equipment, of course – wood, wires, tools and so forth. Add time which parents often don’t have, a Meccano set and a generous dash of ingenuity, and you have the recipe for a whole host of entertaining activity which will might blossom in the long term into deep practical knowledge and love of science and engineering in a new generation.

Neil’s book, ‘The Ultimate Book of Saturday Science’, is available at, and costs £19.95. Visit Blackwell’s Oxford Science Department, where this book is £3 off!

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