Below is a conversation between myself and an aerospace industry friend in response to the Space Shuttle Endeavour carrying the first LEGO sets ever launched into space:
Her: I’m all for science outreach and education but I really have to question the value of building lego models in space. #Justsaying
Me: I’m assuming Lego paid for that trip and associated coverage. There’s your answer. It may not help, but it can’t hurt.
Her: I would say it hurts because it trivialises the science. The problem is that the view of science aboard ISS is bad.
Me: That gets back to the age old question about which of concealing & exposing complexity is better approach for science promotion
Her: I guess I believe trying to pretend science ed is all about fun and games is good to a very low level. It won’t produce scientists.
Me: Not necessarily. High school sports is pitched as fun & games but still produces hardworking, outstanding athletes. The truly talented will engage the subject seriously. The rest will become fans. Better than no fans & less developed talent
I’ll expand on my high school sports analogy. At that level, it is fun and games for most players. However, a small talented and motivated subset of them move on to play at the college level, and an even smaller and more talented and motivated subset of those become professional athletes. Rather than trivializing sports, involvement in grade school athletics makes lifelong fans of most of its participants while still minting professionals in the field.
The same can be said of efforts to promote science among the next generation by making it fun. A small talented and motivated subset of them move on to become science majors, and an even smaller and more talented and motivated subset of those become professional scientists.
A common mistake when discussing this issue is lumping the science promotion with science education. The two are very, very different. This is illustrated by the previous sports analogy. Participants who want to become professionals are taught by coaching staff how to play the sport on a much more complicated level than casual players. For example, when Peyton Manning takes the field for the Colts as their quarterback, he’s not just “playing” a game. He’s doing his job as a professional. He’s putting into action countless hours of studying game footage, plays, scenarios, practice and physical training that casual players and fans don’t go through and are often unaware of. To claim that science education is diluted by science promotion is akin to claiming Manning’s preparation is diluted because many people played football for fun in grade school. The two arenas are completely unrelated.
Or at least they should be. There is the very real danger of educators making the same lumping error above and watering down course material to attract more students. But that’s their mistake and doesn’t change the fundamental difference between promotion and education.
Promotion does have other benefits: it produces fans of the subject matter just as grade school sports produces fans from casual players. Given the huge technical challenges humanity faces and the fact that governments are staffed mostly with non-scientists, it’s very important to have a populace that’s sufficiently interested in and aware of these issues to follow the lead of credentialed, professional experts. And that’s what putting LEGO sets in space does.
*Due to this person’s account being private, I’ve refrained from identiying them or embedding the tweets in question