10 November 2016

S5M-02418 Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education and Training Strategy

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani): The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-02418, in the name of Shirley-Anne Somerville, on the Scottish Government’s consultation on a strategy for science, technology, engineering and mathematics education and training.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

You asked about block-chain, Presiding Officer. It would take rather longer than five minutes to explain, but I will say that one commercial product that you may be familiar with that depends on block-chain technology is the electronic currency called bitcoin. I will leave that with you, Presiding Officer.

Ross Thomson—unfortunately he has left, but he can read this speech later—said that the Scots invented the steam engine. They did not—a guy called Hero, who was a Greek philosopher and thinker, invented the steam turbine in 100 AD. It is thought that he was building on ideas from 200 years before that. We Scots invented most things, but we can concede on one or two.

Richard Feynman has been mentioned: he was a terrific communicator and teacher. As a member of the commission that investigated the Challenger space shuttle disaster, he was gagged and not allowed to speak, but at the press conference, he was able to show what had happened without saying a single word. I have talked about that before—members can read about it in some of my old speeches.

I want briefly to pick up on the role of gender. When I started in computers in the 1960s, about 50 per cent of people who were working in programming were female. The reason was that working in computers was an unknown profession that was not sexy and did not draw people. Furthermore, the great heroes of computing are mostly female. Ada Lovelace, the only legitimate child of Lord Byron, was Charles Babbage’s computer programmer for his analytical engine, which was a mechanical computer. She developed the first algorithm for computer programming, and algorithms are how we develop computer programmes today. Rear Admiral Grace Hopper was the person who created the way in which we now develop computer programmes, in particular using COBOL—common business-oriented language. She is also responsible for the term “computer bug”, which she used when a bug—an American word for moth—got trapped in the electromechanical contacts of a computer. Anyone who goes to the Smithsonian Institution can see the bug that Grace Hopper sellotaped into a laboratory notebook in 1944. The differentiation between male and female engagement in computing is a comparatively modern thing and I have no explanation for why it has happened.

I want to talk about education, but not in the way that it is being talked about now. I am an autodidact, which means that the gaps in my knowledge are entirely my fault and nobody else’s. I did have inspirational teachers, including Doc Inglis—a bluff Lancastrian who took my first-year class around the school searching for infinity. We looked in the dustbins and behind the blackboard. The point is that I remember that to this day—that is what inspiring teachers do. When I was in sixth year, he came and did his tax return with us, either to show us how little money he got paid for putting up with us or to show us that there is a practical application for being numerate.

People say that they are uncomfortable with numbers. Whenever people say that to me, I ask, “Do you think you could give me an 11-digit number?”, and they say, “Oh, no! Certainly not.” Then I ask, “Well—does this number mean anything to you? It’s zero, one, three, one, three, four, eight, five thousand.” People in the Scottish Parliament will, I hope, say “Oh, yes. I know that number. It’s the number for the Parliament switchboard.” Everybody has a basic ability to engage with numbers, but it is subconscious and we do not realise that we have it.

The key thing that is perhaps omitted from any numeracy strategy is ensuring that parents and families can create a number-friendly environment at the outset of children’s lives, which can make a difference to their attitudes to numbers at a later stage in their lives. There are science games that we can play, for example. My four-year-old goddaughter and I dissolved salt crystals because she had seen a rock crystal and asked what a crystal was, and I said “Here’s a crystal.” We dissolved it in water, then we put that in a pan, boiled it off and got the salt back. She went away and briefed her nursery class on that piece of science.

When she next comes to see me, we are going to do a couple of things. We will use a mixture of alum and vinegar to write a message on the white of a hard-boiled egg through the shell. The message can be read only when the shell is peeled off, and we will discuss why that matters. Next, because young children are always somewhat scatological, we will use human urine to write a message on a piece of paper; it will disappear but then reappear when we heat the bit of paper.

There are lots of things that we can engage kids with that will make a real difference to their attitude to numbers and to science, and equip them with a questioning mind. At the end of the day, I am not bothered about what knowledge anybody has; if they have a questioning mind, they are going to get knowledge themselves about what matters to them. That is what will ultimately make them successful in life. All the business about teaching STEM subjects to support the economy and so on is entirely secondary. I want to see successful, happy and engaged people in STEM subjects. If we, individually and as parents and families, help with that, we will make substantial progress. I hope that that is ultimately reflected in the strategy that we end up with.


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