Want more children to study science? Look to Colin Pillinger for inspiration | Martha Gill

The endearing enthusiasm of such scientists is the best way to encourage interest, not misjudged government initiatives

Everyone is trying to get young people into science these days. "Rising numbers of people are taking maths and physics A-levels – but it is still very low," education and childcare minister Liz Truss said yesterday, as she launched Your Life, the government's campaign to encourage more young people to study science."Too many teenagers, especially girls, don't realise that maths and physics get you everywhere."

But campaigns like this are everywhere too, and they haven't achieved all that much yet. Over the past five years jobs in science communications have exploded, and every institution that is even the least bit involved with science has an outreach programme. Meanwhile, students forget the Krebs cycle and wander out of lessons on static electricity in search of something better to do (but look, the teacher is demonstrating it with balloons and jumpers! Red balloons! They make your hair stand on end!) Baffling, really, when so many people are trying to make it exciting for them. And a shame. After all, as Wendy Sadler said, speaking at the British Council's Science Communication Conference last week: "Everyone … should have the chance to experience the wonder and excitement of science." Why aren't students as wonder-struck and excited as all these science communicators seem to be?

Well, the trouble may be that the campaigns are often rather sterile, and when they're not sterile they are a little happy-clappy. They either bang on about the "wonders of science" (sorry, Sadler) or try too hard to get down to the kids' level.

Take this vastly embarrassing attempt by the European commission last year to make science relevant to young women. The commission intended, as it said indignantly afterwards, to "speak their language" and to produce something fun and catchy. But what it made was a video about a group of aspiring lab-coat models in sub-MTV Technicolor (at one point, one of them gets dangerously close to performing a pole dance on a Bunsen burner).

So what's the best way to interest people in science? The trick, of course, is not to try to make science "relevant" to whatever the kids are doing these days. It's not to make science shiny and modern and a little like an advert for iPods. And as the Twitter tributes roll in today, it looks like one man had it nailed.

Planetary scientist Colin Pillinger died yesterday. He is most famous for losing a spacecraft – Beagle 2 – on Mars (although, as he once told the Guardian, his team were carefully schooled in "not rushing out of the door screaming, 'I've lost my spacecraft!'") The mission failed, but Pillinger lost neither his enthusiasm for space missions, nor his enthusiasm for talking about them. As Tim Radford wrote earlier today: "Pillinger had a gift for being serious and droll, laconic and enthusiastic all at the same time."

There was something a bit DIY, a bit madcap about Pillinger's science, which is perhaps what made it so appealing. His plans for Beagle 2 were hugely ambitious but endearingly homemade – drawn out on a beermat, modelled in cardboard and put together in a garage.

His methods smacked of chemistry sets and making rockets out of cola bottles in your garden. He was the face of science on a shoestring – accessible and exciting – which may explain the reaction to his death today.

"Sad to read the passing of Colin Pillinger – remember him for inspiring my son and I in the early 00s with the Beagle Mars Lander" reads one tribute. "I'll never forgot watching him on TV as a teenager," writes another admirer, now a doctor and space educator, "his enthusiasm for space exploration was v. inspiring". And a third: "Taking students to meet Colin Pillinger in 2007 was the 1st time I witnessed the +ve impact 1 scientist could have on a kid's ambitions."

Want to get young people interested in science, do we? Perhaps we need more scientists like Pillinger.


Martha Gill

The GuardianTramp

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