For the fourth time, I served as a judge for behavioral and social sciences in our local science fair. Again, I met an array of talented and motivated teenagers. They were intelligent (of course), actively curious about the world around them, willing to step out from the crowd and put themselves in the scales to be judged. They asked interesting questions and pursued the answers wherever the data took them. But they were, after all, children. Some of them assumed far too easily that an experiment that does not validate the hypothesis is therefore a failure. They never heard of Karl Popper. That failing is not theirs, but of their mentors – or the lack of them.
|Middle school (junior high) presentation|
on noise levels in the school building
I am pleased and proud to have argued for the first place winner in senior high school behavioral and social sciences. (See all of the Awards here.) One of the judges said that when he challenged her on a point of mathematics, she did not have the answer. I responded with some history: last year, she asked every one of the mathematics and science teachers in her high school for help with statistics and she got no replies to her emails. So, she went to the university; and some UT doctoral candidates tutored her in statistics. So, too, this year, did she seek and find outside help in order to extend and expand her work in statistical methods. Personally, I was the one who was challenged. I got an A-minus in my undergraduate class in statistics. After reading her abstract this year, I downloaded several tutorials: she knew more than I did.
We expect a lot from kids. The German word for “teenager” is Halbstark: half-strong. That speaks to the core of the problem in a way that the Latin “adolescent” (becoming adult) does not. My daughter had a mole on her wrist; and she would show me how it moved around as she grew. For them, life is an intense process. We judge them as if they were adults. As a geometer would say, it is obvious by inspection that they are not. Yet, objectively, nothing less is fair to them in the intellectual pursuit of science.
“If you all were graded on a 100-point scale, 91 would be failing.” As often as I said it, I could see that it did not sink in, not this year, not in the previous years. This year, I asked one panicked entrant if any other display was clearly head and shoulders better than hers. The person with the neighboring display chimed in: “The right answer is ‘No.’”
It is not just kids at science fairs. I enter and I judge museum quality exhibits at numismatic conventions. (“Four out of five? How dare they!”) In the West Wing episodes that bridge the first and second seasons, President Jed Bartlett says that decisions are made by those who show up. In this context, the future of science, engineering, and technology belongs to – and will be claimed by – those who enter the competitive field of scientific research.
The best of them do it alone; but they all deserve mentoring. That 9-point gap between first and last could easily be closed by a working technician, engineer, or scientist who made the time to volunteer with a school starting in August or September. It is not a matter of showing them how, but of asking science-talented pupils those tough questions early on.
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