Speaking to… Laura Youngson

“It’s really hard to engage kids in stem subjects. They immediately turn off to things like science and maths.”

Laura Youngson
Image credit: Lightyear Foundation

This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Laura Youngson

Laura Youngson is one of the founding members, or mothers, of the Lightyear Foundation, an organisation that takes science to communities that otherwise don’t interact with it.

After travelling to Ghana with a friend to work in a planetarium, Laura was inspired to set up the Lightyear Foundation, “we had a lot of science love to give.”

“We really believe that practical science and experimenting is the best way to learn.” They didn’t want to use the “Learning by wrote” technique.

What they have noticed in Ghana is something similar to what happens in the UK, “it’s really hard to engage kids in stem subjects. They immediately turn off to things like science and maths.” But by asking them questions and using playful experimentation, Laura and her colleagues can “start tapping into this curiosity that perhaps isnt naturally allowed to flourish.”

Why is this happening? Laura thinks its because we don’t allow people to play. It’s all about passing exams, both in the UK and Ghana. Computer coding is changing this. Children learn it at school and can then take their skills home to create games. This is more difficult with science, but Laura is determined to make this happen.

“If you can take science home, it can really make a difference.” This is especially true in places like Ghana. When you go home you don’t have electricity, or your sanitation isn’t up to the standard that it should be. “It’s really those fundamental challenges, that if you’ve got a bit of science education, and that curiosity and the practical experimenting side, perhaps you can solve these problems for yourself.”

Laura loves to see the work the Lightyear Foundation does trickle through to the community. “The dad had changed his attitude towards water filtration as a result of his son, his 12 year old son, learning about water filtration in class.” This crucial knowledge, that he wouldn’t get elsewhere is helping his community.

But as a caucasian working in african communities, does she experience any problems? There are many people who go in and take over. The Lightyear Foundation takes a more bottom-up approach: they go in and ask the communities what they want to learn, and then work with the local teachers to develop lessons and activities around those subjects. “What we’d love is for it to end up a very equal partnership.”

What’s they’ve seen is that there isn’t a lot of enthusiasm for science communication, for the older students to speak to the younger ones and tell them about all the cool things they have learned. “Its growing and starting, but actually the concept of as a student, that you could tell a kid in a school something about what you’re studying in an interesting way and that would be well received by the kid, that doesn’t exist yet.”

So Laura and her team want to improve the science communication community so people can share there love of science. “There is a lot of love out there, it’s just perhaps not so co-ordinated, and people perhaps don’t realise that this is something they can do.” Laura thinks that science communication isn’t a priority there. People have more important things to worry about.

What has Laura learned from her experiences in Ghana, considering they have very little but make it go very far is that in the UK we take things for granted. Life is to easy in the UK to accept everything. “It’s made me question more of the fundamentals that we have here, and really take an interest in how I engage with society.”

Laura thinks that there is so much to learn from the people there, and she would like to see more western science communicators go out there. “I think we’ve got such a a strong science communication community here in the UK, that it would be really interesting to harness that power and start sharing it out into places that wouldn’t traditionally be able to engage with our community because we engage mostly on the internet.”

You can follow Laura on Twitter at @dotyoungson