Education and Public Outreach (the new name for PUS)
Over the couple of years I have been involved with a fair bit of public outreach to do with astronomy. Some of this has involved planetarium shows in local primary schools, careers fairs and astronomy society talks among other things. Last Wednesday, along with two other astronomers, I went down to London for a PPARC town meeting on the subject of public outreach. It was an interesting day and we got to meet all sorts of people who are active in public outreach for either astronomy, planetary science or particle physics.
One thing many people mentioned was the sterotype of the scientist: a man, often past middle age, wearing thick glasses and a lab coat with a wild hair cut and smoking test tubes. This is often cited as a reason why many children do not chose science subjects in school. One problem is the way science is taught. The national curriculum does not help here, as is shown by this story on the BBC news today. A lot of science is taught from books (which is understandable as it is not practical for every school to have a mass spectrometer!) and experiments are often not carried out. When they are, it is often already known what the expected result will be before any data is collected and children can end up thinking that this is how science is done. They are not often taught the scientific method or to question things properly.
This comes just a week after another story which said that science was in danger of dying out in UK schools due to a shortage of physics teachers. When that story appeared in the papers last Monday it caused quite a bit of discussion in the tea room at the Observatory. The majority of opinions seemed to be that it would take an awful lot to convince people to teach science. Personally, I have a lot of admiration for teachers, I don't think it is a job that I could do. I'll stick to public outreach as long as I am allowed to do some research!