Two things were very clear at the recent Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles. First, a lot of very serious, very credible research is being done by high school students. And second, inspiration and guidance for scientific research ain't coming from the classroom.
Out of seven million qualifying research projects from around the globe, 1,783 students made it to the international event in mid-May. Project displays filled the L.A. Convention Center in a dozen rows, each the length of a football field.
Walk down one row, there were scores of projects dealing with electrical engineering. Another row, biochemistry. Another, computer science. Seventeen categories in all. And these are not cute projects about which toothpaste gets teeth whiter. These are years-long work in statistical analysis of cancer-promoting genes, remediation of environmental disasters, exploration of synthetic antibiotics, development of a faster test for kidney disease, optical computing, spine stabilization for children with scoliosis, and on and on.
But one floor above this brainfest was a conference room crammed with teachers who agreed it's virtually impossible to foster this sort of work in today's schools
"Inquiry is messy," said New Orleans teacher Warren Barnard, using the term educators use when talking about open-ended research. "Few parents are interested, and teachers run for the doors when you discuss science fair projects."
Why? Educators agree that research is a great thing. It stimulates young minds far more deeply than a strictly lecture-and-textbook-driven course. It pushes students to find solutions to real world problems or to make valuable contributions to serious scientific research. It may even inspire students to pursue college and professional work in the sciences.
Forget that! There's no time, teachers in L.A. and elsewhere agree, no bandwidth to spend time with individual students working on in-depth, years-long, groundbreaking research. Students who want to do serious science projects, it seems, are largely on their own.
Talking with students on the convention floor, it quickly became clear that they're working outside and ahead of their classrooms. The ideas - in many ways the most challenging part of developing high-level science projects - are coming from a variety of sources, but least often our schools. A student with a winning cellular and molecular biology project is home-schooled, and her dad is a NASA engineer. The top winner in the behavioral category has a chemist and a chemical engineer for parents. Her neurological project involved advanced "biomathematical" analysis of why different sounds affect moods. She came up with the idea, and the plan to develop it, not from her science class but from a family discussion. Another ISEF finalist studied thin chemical coatings that can detect viruses. Both parents are engineers.
"He's just always been interested in how things work," one parent said.
These students are seeking out college professors as mentors. They're persuading scientists to let them work in their labs after school and during the summers, learning about gene research and advanced mathematics, social science research on how people interact, and engineering work with robotics and lasers.
But educators said they're frustrated more can't be done. "Every kid is capable of being at ISEF given the proper support," Barnard said. Top-flight research work should not be exclusive to children with parents who have advanced degrees in physics or chemistry. The guidance needed should be made available to any bright, inquisitive student willing and able to explore, and learn.
Inquiry-based science for high school students has been discussed in the education literature for years, but never in a focused way and never well executed on a wide scale. The issues that prevent letting loose inquisitive young minds are three-fold, said educators both here and in LA: Lack of time to work with students on individual projects, the curricula being too regimented to allow for open-ended research projects, and lack of training for teachers on how to do this sort of scientific research.
For those of us who are parents, taxpayers and tuition-payers, a week at the annual Intel ISEF is eye opening. Inspiring and frustrating all at once. Viewing the displays, reading the research, talking with students and teachers, it becomes dramatically clear that If we really want to improve student performance in science, technology, engineering, math and social sciences, encouraging research is the way to get those results. With the right guidance, open-ended research is a sure-fire path to inspiring bright students to do great things.
But to make it happen
Parents will have to support stronger spending for science departments in both public and private schools in their communities.
School boards, both public and private, will have to support more flexible science curricula and in-service training on research strategies.
Universities that train educators must place greater emphasis on research training.
And high schools will have to expand capacity -- either by hiring more science teachers or using college interns -- to guide individual students in their research.
Developing stronger science and analytical skills among high school students does not seem like --pardon me -- rocket science. Parents should demand that serious academic research, particularly among students who don't have science-oriented families, be made a policy priority.
Having our schools full of ISEF-level research is absolutely an achievable goal. It will, however, take greater clarity among the nation's non-scientist parents that science fair projects and other research are worth the expense and the long hours of hard work. It will also take a commitment in American public and private schools to doing what it takes to get there.
Jim Lynn, a freelance writer, is a former Ledger-Enquirer reporter and editor. His daughter Ansley placed fourth in her category at this year's Intel ISEF. Lynn36867@aol.com. To learn more about the ISEF projects, see https://student.societyforscience.org/top-winners.