Natural sciences, connection and education

I  am sometimes  asked  whether my knowledge of Biology detracts from my ability to appreciate simplicity and beauty in nature. The idea that a scientist deconstructs and tries to get into the nitty-gritty of how things work can sometimes be perceived as “emotionless” and “reductionist”. But I  disagree.

There is a quote by Richard Feynman, which communicates exactly how I would respond if I were nearly as eloquent as he. In essence, he says that his ability to, in his mind, deconstruct a flower down to its component parts: petals, leaves, stamens, seeds, cells, and the chemical and biological processes within – only adds to his appreciation of its beauty. To understand its place in nature, and its interconnectedness with the environment, the insects that pollinate it, and the complex evolutionary pathways that have led it to adapt and survive, only adds more dimensions to this beauty.

Science enriches the way we live and connect with the world around us.

As scientists, it can seem that we are trained to remove emotion from our work, and be objective. Objectivity is of course crucial to unbiased scientific inquiry, but we are human, and therefore cannot be completely objective. And if emotional connectedness is entirely removed, we can forget why we started exploring in the first place. To inspire creativity, innovation and retain our passion and enthusiasm, we must cultivate the positive aspects of our innate emotional attachment to the natural world.

This has far reaching implications for childhood development and education too. There is plenty of research to suggest that a connection to the natural world, and more time spent outside, is hugely beneficial for our emotional, physical and intellectual growth and wellbeing. Despite this, children are becoming less active outdoors due to (among many factors) technology, increasingly busy and working parents, overburdened teachers pushing to get through full curricula, as well as a culture of higher perceived risks in society. Evidence suggests more ‘screen time’ and less ‘green time’ has real impacts on children’s development of key character capabilities including empathy and creativity, as well as their ability to effectively learn (to read more on this, check out this recent report from Plymouth University).

A child learning about their world from infancy to adolescence is an exploratory and creative process. For many of us, that never really goes away – that innate sense of curiosity remains, driving innovation, exploration and a passion for life-long learning. As our lives get busier, more hectic, and computer-centric, however, we can begin to lose sight of this.

The importance of emotion and feelings of connectedness are recognised across a range of disciplines, from the Arts to Marketing, Healthcare to HR, Public Policy and Sport. Recent research into citizen science engagement has shown that participants are more likely to stay involved in projects that feed back to them the outcomes of their contributions – that is, emphasising their part in the bigger picture. This is entirely relevant to students of science too. It is important that children not only remember what they learn, but also become adept in how to learn and be comfortable with their way of doing it.  In early childhood, the confidence to question, adapt and to foster a connection with the natural and technological world around them allows developing humans to understand how they fit into it, complexity and all.

Increased exposure to natural settings and exploratory-based learning has been shown to increase cognitive abilities and focus in children. This increases their potential for self-directed learning, leading to increased performance in a range of academic subjects, as well as more socially important skills such as empathy, cooperation, networking, problem solving and resilience. Encouraging emotional connections in science can have real-world impacts by reinforcing values, and finding ways to engage with important issues facing the environment and humanity. Truly high impact science goes beyond our specialties and inspires broadly.

So when asked if my knowledge of Biology detracts from my ability to appreciate simplicity and beauty in nature, in my own (less eloquent than Feynman) terms – I can easily spend an hour on a 50 metre stretch of bushland gazing at the smallest plants, following the tiniest insects, and marveling at how an orchid came to look just like that wasp I can see buzzing around it. Science not only increases the wonder one feels when observing the world around them, but it also is a deeply creative and nourishing undertaking, encouraging you to constantly question, investigate, and solve problems in ways you may have never even thought of.

– By Dr Siobhan Dennison, Voyager team member and conservation geneticist