Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Scientists in the making -- democracy or plutocracy?

Ken and I are just back from a morning judging high school life science projects, something we've done for years.  It's always fun, and always interesting -- but the same issue always arises.

Elementary school science project; Wikimedia
It's great to see what kinds of questions high school students choose to explore, from extremely timely and relevant to just interesting for their own sake.  One year someone did an excellent job producing biofuel from algae, explaining the fossil fuel problem and how he thinks it can be solved.  Someone else investigated white nose syndrome in bats for two years in a row -- among many other interesting projects. 

The teacher who has managed the whole event for many years told us this morning that a student who presented at this competition one year went on to be a national winner.  The guy had wondered what happens to the rubber that gets abraded off tires, and its effect on plants along the sides of highways.  He'd heard the question bandied about on Car Talk, where no one knew the answer, so he decided to answer it himself.

Original vs set-up science projects
This was a student who crossed The Great Divide.  There are always kids who think up their own project, and either get some help from their science teacher at school and use equipment in a school lab or set things up in their own basement with the proverbial, innovative use of baling wire, a piece of garden hose, and cardboard boxes, so to speak.  These are always fun presentations to see, even if the question is a bit naive or the results not earth-shattering.  These are self-motivated, thinking students working with a high school level of knowledge and technology.  But they must gaze across that Divide when it comes to competition for recognition.

On the other side of the Divide are the kids whose parents are academics, scientists running their own labs, or who know scientists running their own labs, or kids who are interested enough in science and motivated enough to find an internship in an academic or commercial lab where they work after school or during the summer. These students may or may not be as self-driven as the DYIers, or it may be that their ambitious parents are driving them, or both. Their projects are always much more professionally done, with state-of-the-art equipment and fancier analyses.  They know how to work the literature, follow complex directions, use the write jargon and so on, and sometimes they actually seem to understand what they are doing both in terms of the question and the procedures. But you always have to wonder how much of it they thought of and carried out themselves. 

Some of this you can figure out during the question and answer period. Often, but not always, the student's knowledge about the area is deep but not terribly wide -- which of course is understandable for a high school student.  Sometimes the enthusiasm is deeper than the knowledge.  Almost always he or she is clearly a cog in a wheel in a bigger machine. The student may have cribbed (which doesn't mean plagiarized!) technical descriptions from journal articles, or may know lots of terms and equipment procedures but not have really thought out the problem very deeply, and in most cases the problem was handed to them by the lab director, a post-doc, or their parents.

The projects these students do are sometimes on the level of advanced graduate students or post-docs -- like one this morning.  They may address important questions.  They may lead to the student being a co-author on a publication in a major journal.  The student may have learned everything but even if not, s/he learned a lot.  In some ways this is very good and a contribution to the future science talent.

But this is a mixed story from various points of view, in terms of science infrastructure.

Will those who get into major universities be the ones with the best ideas in the future?
It seems unfair to judge those who did their project themselves from start to finish against those who had so much help.  Should there be two distinct categories, a two-tiered system?  Basement science vs. laboratory science?  Well, that's unfair, too, because it may create an elite and a second-class set of students and in fact basement science isn't necessarily inferior even if it is less technologically elaborate, and basement scientists don't necessarily understand their project less well than the students who work in major laboratories with their parents' or others' help. To wit, the rubber on the road prize winner of a few years ago.

Are those who do the basement work more likely to become like Bill Gates, and the privileged students more likely to be cogs in the science industry wheel?  Even if that were so, is the army of those doing routine, if exotically technological science less important to society, even if they are the ones who got an insider's leg up?

This raises the issue of the point of a science fair.  It's to reward and encourage kids who excel in science, yes, but it's also to  encourage a love of science and to teach kids that they, too, can be a scientist, starting in their basement, today. 

And the teachers?
There is another important issue.  It is that there is a dearth of really capable science teachers who can stimulate and advise students at a serious level.  Even if society were to deal somehow with the disadvantage of basement science, more knowledgeable and better-trained teachers could play a pivotal role in success.

If we had more, better science teachers, then students whose father or mother doesn't work at Penn or Roche Pharmaceuticals could still have a sound K-12 knowledge and compete for slots in prestige universities.  Of course, part of what's afoot here is competition among parents to give their children an edge, and this is part of our non-egalitarian society.  What is relevant is whether being more egalitarian would lead to better scientists, or just scientists from less privileged homes.  That is a hard question to answer.  But it does seem safe to argue that more, better trained teachers would lead to more, better trained students, regardless of privilege levels, and more students doing high-level thinking about science as they enter college.


Hollis said...

Really great discussion, especially re importance of teachers for kids from non-science families and communities (e.g. my own experience). I completely agree.

Anne Buchanan said...

Thanks, Hollis. We deny that we've got a class system in the States, but the evidence is all around us.