Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Further memorandum submitted by Professor D H Saxon, University of Glasgow

  You asked about my sentence: "schemes from abroad have to be dumbed down for UK consumption." Here is my personal experience in this area. As chairman of the PPARC Public Understanding of Science Panel I was aware that there are first-rate Astronomical exhibitions and public facilities such as planetaria in the UK, but we wanted to provide something to tell people about Particle Physics. The idea of a travelling exhibition that could go to Science Centres and elsewhere was the result. There is an existing exhibition run by CERN that travels all over Europe and my first thought was to copy that and add some UK emphasis. CERN have been very supportive throughout in this venture.

  I had already hosted the previous version of the CERN exhibition in Glasgow in 1997 and formed the view that it is fine as a place to talk to schoolchildren and then let them explore it, but that without an interpreter it was rather heavy going for them. Visits by two UK Museums experts to see the present CERN exhibition in Stockholm and Naples gave the same advice. They would not have this in their Museum. It was too far above the heads of the public.

  The (British) co-ordinator of the present CERN exhibition tells me that it is a big success in many countries (Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Portugal, Spain, Italy and France.) He cites amongst his evidence questionnaire returns from visitors. It has been seen by 300,000 visitors and is in demand for future venues. Most visitors stay 30-60 minutes.

  We (PPARC) therefore commissioned a "prior knowledge" survey of people entering museums in the UK to assess levels of awareness and understanding of astronomy and particle physics. (I can supply a copy if desired—150 pages). We looked at concepts like: electron, quark, the big bang, galaxy, solar wind, star, particle accelerator. It is the outcome of this study which has informed our work.

  I attach for your information copies of the exhibition script to the CERN exhibition and the present state of work in progress on our UK derivative of it.[1] The UK exhibition is deliberately smaller to fit into more venues, but the reduction in conceptual level should also be clear. This document is confidential and is work in progress, so please treat it as such.

  The conclusions might be that the conceptual prior knowledge in the UK is weaker, or that UK audiences are less willing to put effort into understanding something new, or possibly that they are less tolerant of presentations that simply go over their heads. I don't know. There is some evidence (National Foundation for Educational Research) that English children at age 13 compare well with Western Europe in Science performance but lag behind the best in Maths. One can speculate that we fall behind in Science later due to early specialisation.

  That is my own personal knowledge of this question. It squares with other personal impressions such as the high level of scientific and mathematical fluency of foreign exchange students coming into my Department, but that is another story.

13 July 2000

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