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MIXING IT

The world is now noisy, dirty, and crowded. The garden of Eden is long gone. Mind you, our distant ancestors, who lived in that Eden, were generally hungry, scared, ill or (with alarming ease) dead. There are many more of us now. Our environment is now neither natural, nor idyllic. But mostly it's more secure, less scary, and we live longer. Why?

Well, just consider my morning, or yours. Getting up in a room nicely heated by the complex, precisely controlled oxidation of fossil hydrocarbons. Staving off hunger with some grasses, fruits and coffee seeds which have been genetically, well, highly encouraged (if not yet quite Modified). Then driving to work, oxidising yet more hydrocarbons to propel an ingenious metal device on wheels along a very long strip of engineered bitumen and gravel. I'm now writing this on a small metal box which, somewhere in its microscopic insides, manipulates zeros and ones faster than the whole of NASA could do when it sent men to the moon. Science keeps the six billion of us on this planet alive. True, our use of it is storing up problems. It helps us add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, and make germs grow more deadly. But we shall need more science, not less, to cope with those problems. Particularly when there will be nine billion or more of us to keep alive before the century's out, with temperatures and sea level rising, and plagues brewing. So why is science currently so troubled?

Firstly, it's grown huge, and the amount of knowledge out there, literally, passes human understanding. You only have to walk past the rows and rows of science books and journals in a library to appreciate this. In undergoing this inflation it has, of course, split into many branches: physics, biology, chemistry and so on. As the data has piled up, each of these has split again: in my own subject, geology, it's getting harder for those working on volcanoes, say, to communicate with those working on dinosaurs, which of course poses a problem if one wants to study the effect that volcanic eruptions had on dinosaur populations. Science has, as a corollary, grown more 'difficult' and so more detached from the population at large, whose lives depend in many ways on it, but who don't understand it and, increasingly, don't trust it. And a further consequence is that the number of young people studying science is dropping, seemingly, like a stone. What to do?

I'm involved in one attempt to square this particular circle, the brainchild of Derek Raine, a physicist at the University of Leicester. It's ambitious, risky, cutting-Gordian-knot, flying-by-wire sort of stuff - but it might just work. I started off as a draftee ("I'd like you to be the departmental rep for this project"), and sceptic. Now, if not a zealous convert (I'm a scientist, remember, and so a paid-up sceptic), I'm sufficiently excited by the possibilities to hang in with it to the end or, as Buzz Lightyear would put it, to infinity ....and beyond. It is a new degree, planned but not yet started (first intake: autumn 2004). It's called i-Science. The 'i-' can mean interdisciplinary, or integrated or perhaps innovative (which I'm less keen on, for all sciences are innovative: if one isn't, it dies, just as a shark suffocates if unable to swim). It's the integration that's the tricky bit. 

You can't just take the easy option, and pick a module from each of the sciences. You can get away with this approach, with some success, in combined or joint honours degrees: maths and physics, say, or geography with geology. But not here; one module of each of the seven disciplines involved (physics, chemistry, biology, geography, archaeology, maths and geology) per term would add up to chaos. So, it's been necessary to design new, multidisciplinary modules. Done traditionally, by lectures-and-practicals, there's the danger of producing a lot of dilute school-level science, rather than digging deep. So, the approach decided on was Problem-Based Learning, or PBL. That is, designing complex, multi-stage, multi-discipline problems involving groups of students working co-operatively, chasing several strands of the problem simultaneously, and then together producing a workable denouement, while simultaneously absorbing the basic precepts of the component disciplines.

Now, this may sound like the wide-eyed optimism of modern educational theory, which I would normally run a mile in tight shoes to avoid. But, as a geology lecturer, I know that by far the most effective teaching I do is when I take students into the field, drop them into complex real-world geological problems on some windswept mountainside, and then let them resolve these problems for themselves, while being on hand to guide them where necessary. It's intensive, time-consuming stuff, but when it works (which is a lot of the time), motivation, enthusiasm and learning all go exponential. Can the essence of this approach be transplanted into campus-based, cross-disciplinary teaching?

Well, so far, so good. One major hurdle - and it's a huge one - is to transmute woolly concepts into workable teaching materials. For harassed academics (is there any other sort, these days?) simply don't have the time to do this sort of thing these days (particularly in the work-intensive PBL mode), especially if doesn't help their own department to survive as directly as does, say, the writing of grant proposals. The Philosopher's Stone here was to employ a small number of bright, enthusiastic post-graduate students to flesh out the ideas and produce the goods. This has worked better than I dreamed it would. The enthusiasm of the post-grads for what they were doing was palpable: a considerable subset of them told me that they wished that such a degree had been around when they started. We now have teaching materials where we had none before, with splendidly evocative themes: reconstructing Stonehenge, regulating the atmosphere, revealing the invisible, and so on, all in time for the first cohort of students. 

What kind of school-leavers will we attract? Many of those already keen on science have worked out which particular science they want to do. So, the hope is to expand the pool of students going into science, by persuading the not-yet-committed. What future will our first i-Science graduates have when they emerge, blinking, into the sunlit world of paid employment? They might perhaps, being able to communicate with a variety of scientists of different stripe, be more likely to manage science rather than do it. They should be ideally trained for science teaching, or the media. Can a subset develop one enthusiasm and go on to become specialist scientists in one discipline? I don't know, but I hope so. It would make an interesting change from starting narrow and subsequently adding breadth, as has lately become the norm.

There are other hurdles. Persuading for instance, the ever-more-conservative student applicants, in this age of top-up fees, to opt for a new and unknown quantity. Persuading the component departmental reps to stay involved, and to keep contributing to the evolving programme. Well, diplomacy and sheer persistence are needed here, which Derek Raine, and Tania Ruiz, the i-Science manager, have in abundance. The work all needs fitting somehow into the insanely busy-busy world of academe. So we meet every Thursday lunchtime, when most business gets done, bringing sandwiches and lured by free cups of tea.

There is a considerable upside. It's in making a university act like a university, which is a rare thing these days. Simply rubbing shoulders with chemists, physicists, archaeologists, geographers, mathematicians and biologists on a regular basis means, inevitably, that we get round to talking science. That's now become formalized. Every month, our Thursday working i-Science lunch turns into an i-Research lunch, when the Delphic oracles, or the greenhouse effect, or the science of mud get jointly mulled over. Perhaps some of those big grants will be sparked off, after all. And I would love to see, a few years down the line, an i-Science post-graduate programme, with cross-departmental PhD studies.

Where is it all going? None of us knows. The blue touchpaper has been lit, and standing safely back is out of the question, as is, probably, relighting it if it fizzles out. It's potentially one of the most fruitful things to impact on science teaching in recent years. It would be great for it to spread beyond Leicester, and so become mainstream, and not to remain as some strange local cult (so if you're interested, please get in touch with DR or TR). I'm not about to give up the day job: geology's just too much fun, But I'd really like this to succeed, not least because the small flame of rationality that is science is going to need all the help it can get, if humanity really is going to have a bumpy ride through the twenty-first century. Quo vadis, indeed. 

Jan Zalasiewicz, Department of Geology
This article first appeared on the The Guardian website

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