How to transmit a taste for science?

How can plants contribute to depolluting nature? This question, which would leave many adults perplexed, is, this afternoon, the subject of an experiment carried out by about fifteen children aged 7 to 11, gathered in a room of the neighborhood center on the Monmousseau plateau, area popular ofIvry-sur-Seine (Val de Marne). Barbara di Silvestri, 26, co-facilitates the workshop. She states in a strong but calm voice, to cover a certain hubbub: “You have been distributed two glass jars, one filled with water and coffee – this one playing the same role as the earth -, the ‘other vacuum. You also have in front of you a paper towel sheet. With this sheet, you are going to make a bridge which will extract the water from the coffee by transferring it from one pot to another. Understand?

Taste for experimentation

Neither one nor two, the children start. Vivienne, 10, thinks she has found the solution. Under the watchful eye of her little brother Éric, she has covered the full pot with the paper towel and tries to pass the water from one container to another. “This is not what Barbara explained to them but it can also work this way, notes Léo-Paul Grellier, coordinator of the Little Resourceful Île-de-France, the association that organizes this one-week course to transmit a taste for science. The important thing is to allow them to experiment, even if it doesn’t work. They have the right to be wrong.”

The program concocted by Les petits débrouillards Île-de-France aimed to raise children’s awareness of biodiversity in the urban environment. “My favorite was our outing to the Menagerie of the Jardin des Plantes. I saw rabbits and pandas!” marvels Aaron, 11. “We explained to them the dangers weighing on the different species, questioned the principle of the zoo and showed them the beauty of the different forms that can take life”, summarizes Léo-Paul Grellier.

Back to the transfer exercise. The children more or less managed the manipulation. “This is how trees drink water through their roots. This is called capillarity, a complicated word that you don’t have to remember, explains the other host. Plants also play a role in this way filtering. They make it possible to decontaminate the waters and the land of what are called heavy metals, such as lead or mercury.” To end the session, the children make bird feeders. They are given half an orange or tangerine peel which they pierce with a toothpick to which they attach a string. The animators will place there what will serve as food for the sparrows and crows: seeds and mealworms mixed with margarine. “You can take it home with it, and hang it on your balcony or your window,” Barbara suggests.

Playful learning

Experimenting at the risk of making mistakes, revealing the fun nature of science… This is the spirit of the Les petits débrouillards network, which has been working for nearly thirty years in schools and leisure centers to raise young people’s awareness of experimental scientific methods. These are, in fact, little used in school curricula… a reason for the dislike of the French for science? Some would add to this the lesser appetite of teachers for these subjects: in elementary school they themselves are more often from literary than scientific backgrounds. Better equipping them is the objective of the Hands-on Foundation, born in 1996 at the instigation of Georges Charpak, Nobel Prize in Physics. “We encourage teachers to favor a less theoretical approach – for example, saying “water boils at 100 degrees” – and more inductive: asking students to follow the evolution of the temperature, note it on a board… to reach the same conclusion”, explains David Jasmin, its director.

But for a school teacher, time is short when it is necessary to transmit a multitude of knowledge. “The famous triptych “reading-writing-counting” has been exaggerated. If we add to it today secularism, harassment, moral and civic education, we see that everything becomes important… with the exception of the sciences “, laments David Jasmin. This excess of priorities and profiles of teachers who are not always at ease with these subjects lead to an indisputable observation: the thirty-seven hours a year devoted, in the elementary programs, to physics, chemistry and the sciences of life and land partly fall by the wayside.

Mathematics, which remains a major selection criterion in secondary school, still puts off the majority of students, as international rankings regularly show. The many medals fields (2) awarded to French people – including the latest, Hugo Duminil-Copin (read our meeting below) – are the flattering laurels of classes in rather bad shape. Because the results are alarming. France has further lost ground in recent years. The evaluations of CM1 students, in the last Timss survey (1) of 2019, show our country in second to last position out of thirty-two nations tested.

The Minister of National Education, Pap Ndiaye, wanted to show that he had taken the measure of the problem by reintroducing, from the start of the 2023 school year, a compulsory hour and a half in this subject for first-grade high school students who do not have not chosen a specialty. Consequence of students’ disaffection for math: fewer teachers are trained in this discipline, the number of hours lost in college and high school increases because of the shortage of teachers… and the level drops. A regrettable vicious circle.

Changing the image of math and making it accessible to the general public, that is the ambition of the Poincaré House which will open next summer in the 5th arrondissement of Paris. A museum for everyone, from fourth graders. On 900 m2, it will present calculating machines, documentary films, practical experience spaces… “We will find for example a soccer ball, a simple object from which we can go quite far in geometry, explains Sylvie Benzoni, mathematician and director of theHenri-Poincaré Institute, initiator of the project. What does it entail to make it out of leather? What shapes are used: hexagons, pentagons? We will also explain the hidden side of a bank card, namely the cryptography which makes it possible to secure exchanges between the bank and the customer.

General culture

Long after the Palace of discoveryinaugurated in 1937, and the Science and Industry museum (1986), mathematics will finally have its museum. Not to mention the places of scientific exhibitions that have emerged in recent decades in many cities in France, such as theScience area in Rennes (Ille-et-Vilaine) and the Confluence Museum in Lyon (Rhone). “But if we look at the total number of museums devoted to science, we realize that this key area of ​​culture is reduced to the bare minimum,” laments Sylvie Benzoni.

And yet, the sciences, when shared with passion, can make sparks. Evidenced by the audience success, for nearly twenty years, of the program This is not rocket science, on France 3, which peaked at up to 30% market share. Its star presenter, Jamy Gourmaud, hosts today Jamy’s world on the same channel. Four or five popular programs a year, lasting two hours, this time in prime time. “I campaign for science to be integrated into general culture. I am not particularly addressing children but a lay audience. I want to interest people who will never make a career in science, who may never know solve an equation but who will let themselves be captivated by Galileo, Pasteur, Einstein, by our fabulous scientific heritage.”

Alongside his TV shows, Jamy Gourmaud has his own YouTube channel, Epicurious. Like other successful scientific influencers such as mathematicians Yvan Monka or Mickaël Launay, he measures the impact of his short online videos on the general public. “They reach many people who have turned away from other media and work by word of mouth. We must take these new educational approaches seriously”, insists the journalist. As on television, the best recipe remains “pleasure, above all! When he understands a phenomenon, the researcher has the feeling of lifting the veil which separates him from the truth. It’s exciting, fulfilling. This pleasure- there, it must be shared with as many people as possible”, continues our popularizer.

Enlightened citizen

If science can provide pleasure, it also makes it possible to become an enlightened citizen. The philosopher Elena Pasquinelli testifies: “Climate scientists are appalled to note that the general public does not know how to read a graph on the increase in temperatures or does not know that these data have been collected over a very long period of time and not over ten or a hundred However, how can we really understand global warming without a scientific culture? On questions of health, food or the climate, most people are reduced to the following alternative: either sign a blank check to those in power and knowledgeable people, or to maintain a distrust of principle. To remedy this would allow each citizen to make his decisions in conscience.” The questioning of the surrounding world, at the source of any scientific approach, also opens up new horizons. A person awakened since his tender childhood to the curiosities of nature will marvel even more at its beauties. “A walk in the forest is richer for an individual aware of the life sciences: he will notice a number of organisms, species, phenomena already known and will identify new elements that will continue to question him. a virtuous circle”, notes the philosopher. Or how science can open up to contemplation.

(1) Timss (Trends in Mathematics and Science Study) is an international comparative study that measures the level of academic knowledge of pupils in CM1 and 4th grade in mathematics and science.
(2) Equivalent to the Nobel Prize in mathematics.

Passport to employment

In a study published in November 2022, the CNRS revealed that mathematics alone concerns, directly or indirectly, 3.3 million jobs in France, or 13% of employees. Beyond mathematics, if we add the needs in digital technology, robotics, ecological transition, energy, agronomy, health… very many sectors require scientific skills. In addition to vacancies in highly skilled engineering trades, job offers in technical and craft trades are legion: forest managers, computer technicians, carpenters, carpenters, welders, plumbers… Science does not require not only intellectual skills but also manual ones.

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How to transmit a taste for science?

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