Thursday, December 23, 2010

Elementary School Scientists

What sort of science did you do in elementary school? It was pretty basic stuff, right? Units covering the very basic bits of biology and chemistry and physics. Basic cell biology, weather, simple machines, stuff like that. Not much in the way of actual lab 'experiments'; they didn't trust us to work with beakers and balances until seventh grade, and such things as hot plates and acids were completely out of the question until high school.

Doing an actual controlled experiment - that's never been done before - with live animals, and getting published in a legitimate scientific journal? Utterly out of the question.

Yet, that's what exactly what 25 elementary school students between ages 8 and 10 did in Britain. (BBC News article)

The children designed the experiment, asked the question, hypothesized results, and wrote the majority of the paper. The only things done by the teacher and an assisting scientist, Beau Lotto, were to supply trained bees and to transcribe the student writings.

And they did indeed get results. Although they didn't refer to previous scientific literature - which would have been above their reading abilities - and they hadn't been trained in the use of statistical analysis, they were exploring a hole in scientific knowledge. They found that bumblebees "can use a combination of colour and spatial relationships in deciding which colour of flower to forage from."

They determined that it was possible to train bees to follow a logical pattern in determining where to seek found. In this case, they taught bees to go to the center of an opposing circular pattern of colors - i.e, to go to the blue center of a yellow flower, or the yellow center of a blue flower. This is different from normal circumstances, in which bees are attracted to flowers of a certain color.

The full paper, published in Biology Letters, a publication of the prestigious Royal Society, can be read in full online here. If you've got half an hour to read and understand, it's an excellent read, and more accessible than many scientific papers.

The paper was peer-reviewed by several other scientists, who determined that despite the lack of references or statistical analyses, the paper was "cleverly and correctly designed and carried out with proper controls" and "[the students} hold their own among experiments carried out by highly trained specialists". High praise indeed.

Just as impressive as the results is the repercussions of the experiment. They were denied public funding for the experiment because it was believed that children could not run an experiment that would generate results, so the experiment was funded by Lotto's LottoLab group. But they did indeed get results; this should show us all that the importance of research is not by who runs it or their ages, but what we can learn from it.

The students, I imagine, have also been impacted. They have been taught that they can do real science at a young age, that there is littler than they cannot do. That alone is incredibly empowering, and I imagine that those 25 children will be largely ambitious and successful as adults. But they have also been taught that science is interesting, it is alive, that it is everwhere. That science is about asking questions and finding a way to test them. ("Ideas are tested by experiment") How many scientists and engineers will there be in that group of twenty-five, how many whose abilities for scientific thinking were unmasked by this?

After all, their "principal finding" had a second part, just as important as the first part: "We also discovered that science is cool and fun because you get to do stuff that no one has ever done before."

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