Science is boring

This is the final draft for my TEDx talk, “Creating a Culture of Science” almost two months ago at Malcolm Theatre, University of the Philippines Diliman. This talk, as much as it is a personal manifesto, is also a challenge that I sincerely hope readers will take on as their own.

Science is boring.

But I was always in love with science. When I was young, I would read a lot of books about space, dinosaurs, and animals. I consumed television shows like National Geographic and Sineskwela. I grew up in an environment where I learned to ask questions and find answers to them.

As I grew older, I learned that science wasn’t as attractive to many people as it was for me. I was simply fortunate to have been surrounded by people who shared my interests. And so I kept asking myself, “Why?” This has led me on a journey with science.

This journey began with a question my dormmate asked me one night in first year high school.

“If you were given a million pesos to improve science in the Philippines, how would you use it?”

It was a sudden question — I was expecting something more along the lines of, “Have you studied for the test tomorrow?” — and looking back, it wasn’t the most well-thought out question. That question sparked a conversation that continues until today.

I did not have a million pesos to spend, but simply the thought of being able to contribute to science education as a student marked the beginning of a pursuit that I am now privileged to share with you — a pursuit towards a culture of science in the Philippines.

What does this culture of science in the Philippines mean, anyway?

It envisions a Philippines where Filipinos are aware of the important role of science and technology in our daily lives. It’s not a world where everyone takes science as a profession, but where everyone values science, where our limitations can be exciting opportunities.

Today I am going to share three ways we create a culture of science — informal learning, chikahan, and science diplomacy. This is not meant to be a comprehensive plan on creating a culture of science, but a collection of proposals that we can think over, talk about, and eventually, act upon.

Informal Learning

Three years after that freshman year conversation about science education, I encountered informal learning. It was in an innovation class in senior year. In one of our projects, we were asked to conduct interviews in school to find out about what they know about informal learning. With their insights, we were going to design solutions to make informal learning better for our school community.

What is informal learning?

Informal learning is spontaneous. The learner calls the shots, and there is a lot of room to change direction and make the most out of sudden opportunities.

Listening to a TED talk is an example of informal learning. While you may have no control over what the speakers say, you are in an environment where you are even encouraged to challenge, question, and talk about these talks with your fellow audience members with no prior plan of how exactly to go about it.

How does it help with creating a culture of science?

Every time we see a post or video about science on our news feed or every time we engage in a conversation about science, we have the opportunity to create a culture of science through informal learning.

A few weeks ago, my friend and I concluded our first science communication class for Grade 10 students as part of their summer elective program. Most of our time was spent reading full length journal articles, discussing it in class, and writing about what we read. I was impressed by how the students took on the challenge of going through articles about topics with terms they had never encountered before. Normally, people would shy away at the sight, unless it’s for a research project or theses.

The point isn’t that journal articles are the be-all, end-all of knowledge, but that we must always challenge ourselves to go beyond the first impression. It’s easy to simply take in everything we read and watch as right or wrong depending on what we believe, but reality isn’t that simple. It’s much more exciting than that, and it all starts with questions. Questioning our preconceived notions, the standards, and the status quo.

This curiosity will drive us to look for opportunities to learn. Curiosity drives informal learning. Curiosity is also at the heart of scientific discoveries. Thanks to scientists unafraid to make mistakes and examine the anomalies, we have all these innovations and knowledge.

Where do we begin?

My personal suggestion is to start asking questions about what you’re passionate about — philosophers, building desktops, Kpop groups. It doesn’t have to be about science as a field. If you’re asking questions and making discoveries along the way, that’s science. Dare to ask.

Chikahan

When I got the homework on informal learning, I started by interviewing my dormmates. We ended up having a heated conversation about informal learning and science education, fueled by our senioritis, research subject, and the K to 12 Bill. Looking back, it was an unconscious continuation of that first conversation in freshman year. By the end of it we wanted to channel all our passion into science education, and founded Integrating Science in the Philippines or ISIP for short. ISIP has led me to a lot of informal learning opportunities, and it all began with chikahan.

What is chikahan?

Chikahan is the time you spend having conversation outside of planned schedule. In a meeting, it usually happens between the end of the meeting, and actually leaving the room. Just like informal learning, it’s spontaneous.

Chikahan is often associated with gossip and waste of time, but I realized it can be turned into an opportunity to create a culture of science.

How does it help with creating a culture of science?

Chikahan gives birth to ideas. The story of how ISIP came about perfectly illustrates this.

Chikahan builds relationships. I realized that when it comes to managing communities, the time we spend outside of meetings and events just talking about random stuff and getting to know each other is just as valuable as the time we do spend working.

Chikahan connects people and ideas. When we invited scientists over to panel for our science camp, I introduced them to each other since they came from different fields and they came quite early. They also talked about where they came from and the work they were doing. The chikahan time served as an opportunity for them to connect.

Where do we begin?

Chikahan is all about time, so making time is important. Of course, all this won’t be truly value-adding in an instant as well. The time we spend has to reach a critical point. The question is, “How much are we willing to spend?”

More than time, chikahan is also about people. In our science camp, we intentionally invite scientists to panel so that our high school participants can converse with them. In the same way we should find opportunities to meet people who can add value to our learning and pursuits, people we would want to make time for. Try meeting up with an expert in your field or a completely unfamiliar field. Who knows — they might be your future collaborator or mentor?

Science Diplomacy

Last December, I was connected by my friend to the University of Pennsylvania Science Diplomacy Group, a community of university students, most of whom are taking their PhDs and are also working on projects to promote science beyond scientific communities.

Science Diplomacy? I had never heard of it before. They were interested in ISIP and wanted to collaborate, inviting me to give a talk on science education in the Philippines. I seized the opportunity to meet with them, since I was going to spend the holidays with my dad in the States anyway.

What is science diplomacy?

Science Diplomacy is the use of science to advance collaboration among communities, institutions, and nations. Through science diplomacy, scientists actively immerse themselves in communities beyond their own.

How does it help with creating a culture of science?

Science diplomacy brings the government closer to science. Last March 21, PinoyScientists, an initiative led by astrophysicist and data scientist Dr Reina Reyes and journalist Shai Panela, coordinated with the Senate Committee on Science, Technology, and Engineering to organize the first Roundtable Discussion among scientists, stakeholders, and government. We talked about the Balik Scientist program and Magna Carta for Scientists, the installment of science and data experts in government agencies, the national space development program, and science education.

Science diplomacy brings industry closer to science. Exposure to the startup culture and community showed me how scientists and engineers are able to drive innovation through startups, bringing together their expertise and a passion for entrepreneurship.

Science diplomacy brings the public closer to science. The recent March of Science held in DC and in QC was an opportunity for the public to become more aware of the important role of science in our rapidly changing environment.

Science diplomacy is all about bringing people together, especially those outside of the scientific community, and this is where informal learning and chikahan culminates on a global level.

Where do we begin?

The Science Diplomacy Group in the University of Pennsylvania began with simple meetups and talks like the one I had with them, in order to widen their horizon and expose themselves to different perspectives. That’s where we can begin as well. Exposing ourselves to different perspectives and becoming informed, and armed with information and insight, taking a stand. It’s my dream as well that Philippine universities will also have a network of science diplomacy groups, where science advocates can let their voice be heard and students can be more informed.

Science is boring,

Because we don’t cultivate the culture for it to grow. It doesn’t have to be that way. Informal learning taught me that science is a way of thinking. Chikahan taught me that science is a way of communicating. Science Diplomacy taught me that science is a way of bringing people together. Together, these are the tools we can use to create a culture of science, and in order to use these tools, we need to be scientists. Scientists, not as a profession, but as a way of life. It’s not that hard. We can start in our comfort zones, on the screens of our phones.

The question I was asked in freshman year no longer haunts me. But what haunts me now are the questions “Are there enough Filipinos who are taking the challenge of thinking along the same lines? And if so, will all our efforts be enough?” As I continue my work in ISIP, I meet more and more people who are asking and answering similar questions.

Today is no different.

Today I pass on the question that marked the beginning of my journey with science.

Today, I ask you, “If you were given a million pesos to improve science in the Philippines, how would you use it?”