Tag Archives: pre-scientists

Do creative children become creative scientists?

Skimming through the lists of new articles in my RSS reader today, my eyes stopped at one paper in particular. The title, “Genesis of Creativity“, would not have seemed out of place in a psychology text (indeed, there are whole journals devoted to creativity research), but this journal was ACS Nano. I clicked through, thinking that the article was perhaps about the discovery of creativity-inducing nanowires.

In fact, the article was something much less far-fetched but still quite interesting. It was a perspective by James Tour, a chemist at Rice University and recipient of the 2012 ACS Nano Lectureship Award. On the occasion of this honor, Tour felt compelled to think back on the greatest successes from his research career and trace them back to their sources. He starts by recognizing the students and postdocs who did the labwork, of course, but he doesn’t stop there. He profiles three exceptionally creative problem solvers from his lab and asks the question: If the greatest discoveries in nanoscience have come from these brilliant minds, where did the brilliant minds come from?
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Science fair advice from a judge’s perspective

This Wednesday, I was a judge for the San Francisco Bay Area Science Fair. Seventh through twelfth grade students submitted original research projects in field including physical science, biological science, environmental science and behavioral science.

I didn’t know what to expect when I showed up in the morning to get my judging assignment. I had no idea what the quality of the projects would be like or how far from my field of expertise I would be assigned. I was just excited to be around young people who weren’t as frustrated with science as the grad students and post-docs that I interact with every day.

As it turned out, though, I didn’t get to interact with the students at all! I was so disappointed. I was to select the recipient of a special award in materials science while all of the students were gone for the morning. This plan minimized the possibility that I would be charmed into giving the award for a less worthy project. But it also meant that I didn’t get the chance to dispence my wisdom to any aspiring scientists, so I will offer it up in this space.
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Science, the interdisciplinary catch-all for learning

Three years ago, I volunteered for a few months at a local shelter, helping elementary-aged children with their homework. Usually their work consisted of basic arithmetic, reading, and lots of worksheets. One afternoon, with twenty minutes left in our one-on-one session before his dinner time, the seven-year-old boy with whom I was working exclaimed, in a very whiney tone, “But whyyyy? I don’t want to read a stupid book.” Of course, as a volunteer I was in no position to go bending rules, so I countered in stern but friendly fashion, “Because this will be fun.” We walked into the house library, where I encouraged him to make his own selection. He chose a book on sharks.

Fifteen minutes later it was all I could do to stop helping him sound out the names of obscure shark species and instead to wash his hands for dinner. He was rather displeased with me for ending our shark-full reading session, which he was quick to let his mother know. “She won’t let me read more about the sharks! They have babies in mermaids’ purses and their skin is made of scales. I don’t want dinner; I want to read about the sharks!” That evening, when I left the shelter, I was quite happy with the day’s session. I even went home and Googled more images of shark eggs (for a cool video go here).

I have always been a firm believer that every child is born loving science. It’s simply our natural state of existence, as sentient and curious humans, to wonder about our world. Plus, there is not a four-year-old on this planet who doesn’t enjoy chasing pigeons or a seven-year-old who isn’t mesmerized by the colony movement of foraging ants. Hands down, of every subject on which we educate young minds here in the United States, science is the most accessible, the most relevant, and the most exciting.
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Letters to a pre-scientist, part 3

This is a continuing series. In part 1, I describe the pen pal project and my initial letter to Jason, a 6th grade student in eastern North Carolina. Part 2 contains Jason’s first response.

It was almost inevitable. My correspondence with Jason went the way of most pen pal relationships; I stopped writing back. I wrote to Jason mid-December, and I was excited for weeks afterwards, anticipating his reply. But by the time his letter came, things were busy in lab, and my to-do list was growing by the minute. Still, I thought about writing back to him almost every morning and again in the evening as I packed up to go home.

I did write back eventually, and afterwards, I wondered why I had postponed something so simple and enjoyable. Was I really too busy to jot down a quick note and drop it in the mailbox? Did I not care enough to take 5 minutes out of my day to make a small impact in someone else’s life?

In fact, I think I cared too much. I didn’t want to write something quick and mindless; I wanted to make the most of whatever small impact I could make. In the end, I spent much longer than 5 minutes deciding what to write and printing out photos, and I was satisfied that I’d given the project my genuine effort.
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