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Young Scientists

Young scientistChildren are so bright these days. Allegedly. It seems that not a week goes by without some juvenile prodigy whizzkid, or child genius solving an engineering problem, revising some scientific data or inventing some world-saving gadget.

You probably saw the recent news about a 13-year old boy from Germany, taking part in a science festival, who corrected NASA calculations on the likely impact of asteroid Apophis, shortening the odds of a killer collision with Earth. Agence France Press reported it as follows:

NASA had previously estimated the chances at only 1 in 45,000 but told its sister organisation, the European Space Agency (ESA), that the young whizzkid had got it right.

Prior to that there was the case of the 17-year old Ottawa high school student who, while contributing to a science fair, apparently invented a way to identify and cure influenza. A team of ten students, won second prize for identifying genes that help plants thrive in salty soil, while third prize went to a 15-year-old in the same competition for her discovery of a human gene variation that may help in dealing with bipolar disorder. (More on science comp here).

Then there was the Manitoba student who received the first-ever Triple Crown for high school science with a project finding alternatives to chemotherapy in the fight against cancer, winning first-place finishes in biotech-industry sponsored national challenge. There’s the teen inventor who came up with a new way to make biodegradable plastic bags.

And, of course, who could forget the 11-year old who invented a diabetic dress for her sister. Then there’s the six-year old who discovered rare pterosaur bones on the Isle of Wight. One student even won a major science fair prize for a project entitled: “Identification, Characterization, and DNA Sequencing of the Homo Sapiens and Mus Musculus COL20A1 Gene (Type XX Collagen) with Bioinformatics and Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR)”, which makes squeezing an egg into a bottle seem a little trivial to say the least.

Schoolboy boffin beating cancer, cracking computer codes, finding life on Mars? You got it!

The list goes on. There are so many teenage geniuses out there.

Now, is it just me being a cynical old hack with an insider’s view of the media and public relations industries, or does this strike anyone else as odd? All these instances of child prodigies in science, have seemingly achieved what international research teams with industry and academic funding cannot seem to, all for the sake of a science fair or with some direct link to another organisation seeking publicity. Indeed, many of these junior scientific discoveries get reported widely across all media and internationally too. And, therein lies the rub.

While I don’t wish to disrepect the efforts and achievements of any of the students taking part in science fairs and working hard to put together a great project, I wonder just how many of these so-called breakthroughs ever come to anything more than a framed certificate and a nice fat payout from the industry sponsor. Of course, one might level the same criticism at countless science projects being undertaken by adults on a professional basis the world over.

Meanwhile, Jessica Shepherd writing in The Guardian reports that science exams really are more difficult than the arts and humanities exams, and researchers at the UK’s Durham University have the data to prove it. Apparently, there were “substantial differences in the average grades achieved by the same or comparable candidates.”

But, according to the Royal Society of Chemistry, “There is now clear evidence of an alarming gap between the high-quality teaching and curriculum material presently available for science lessons in schools in the UK , and the corresponding simplistic questions being set in national examinations for 14 year-olds.” RSC spokesman Brian Emsley gave me several examples of just how tough the science questions can be at this age, for example:

  • Why is copper used for wires in a circuit?
    (a) Copper does not stick to a magnet
    (b) Copper is a brown metal
    (c) Copper is a good conductor of electricity
    (d) Copper if a good conductor of heat

  • Some stars are bigger than the Sun but they look smaller. Why do they
    look smaller than the Sun?

    (a) They are brighter than the sun
    (b) They are further away than the Sun
    (c) They are the same colour as the sun
    (d) They are nearer the Sun

  • What is hot melted rock called when it is UNDERGROUND?
    (a) Sand
    (b) Magma
    (c) Lava
    (d) Mud

  • In very cold weather, why is a mixture of salt and sand is spread on roads (choose two options from a-c and i-iii
    (a) Salt makes the roads white
    (b) Salt makes water freeze
    (c) Salt makes ice melt
    (i) Sand dissolves in water
    (ii) Sand increases friction between car tyres and the road
    (ii) Sand makes water freeze

One final question Emsley showed me, reminded me of a silly anecdote about vermin and compost heaps and asked: What powers a solar-powered mole-scarer?

“Vast sums of money are being spent by government, industry and other educational bodies to enhance the excitement and delivery of STEM subjects, covering science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” according to the RSC, “but this is being negated by examiners who are reinforcing low expectations, and setting the standards that the weaker schools teach to.”

So, one the one hand, we have a global public relations system marketing high school students as geniuses because they use some big words in a science fair project and yet, there is a major disparity between what these children are learning at school and how they are being tested. So, who are the geniuses here? Answer (a), (b), or (c).

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