As a science-y spouse of a secondary school biology teacher, I’ve judged my share of science fairs. I have routinely struggled with the judging criteria. In one case, my wife rewrote the judging rubric being used to focus on how well the student implemented the scientific method, not superficial elements. I often struggled with being asked to give points for “importance” or “novel research”. These are high school/middle school science fairs. You want curiosity. And screw “novel”. Reproducibility and retesting are part of science too. I would leave glowing notes complimenting students even though the judging criteria wouldn’t let me give them top scores because, for example, parts of their board presentation were hand written.
The previous paragraph was an incoherent ramble. For a very coherent discussion of Science Fair issues, especially reinforcing privilege and excluding disadvantaged students, you need to read Erin Salter’s “Science fairs: rewarding talent or privilege?” at PLoS’s Sci-Ed blog.
The nominal purpose of science fairs is to promote student-led inquiry and give kids hands-on experience with the scientific method. Much of our science education centers on the “product” of science – established laws, facts, and theories…Student-led projects (like those done for the science fair) are one way to incorporate open-ended inquiry into education.
However, the rewards system of the science fair is flawed. There is no equity of access to lab facilities and equipment or access to scientific mentors, meaning some students are disadvantaged from the start…the students who win these science fairs will often be the ones with the best access. – Erin Salter
So says E.O. Wilson in the Wall Street Journal.
But don’t just read the headline – be sure to catch the nuance in Wilson’s piece. He’s saying don’t let fear of math drive you from science, because you don’t need straight A’s through four semesters of calculus to be a good scientist.
I don’t quite agree with Wilson when he says you can always find a mathematician as a collaborator to handle the math you need. A mathematically illiterate biologist working with a biologically illiterate mathematician is usually not a fruitful combination. But good scientists pick up the necessary mental toolkit as it’s needed, including mathematical and statistical knowledge (as long as they’re willing to put some serious effort into gaining that knowledge, as opposed to, say, figuring out how to mindlessly apply t-tests).
Sean Eddy calls this approach “ante-disciplinary science”: Continue reading
From Rob Phillips’ list of publications on his lab website:
A First Exposure to Statistical Mechanics for Life Scientists. (with Hernan G. Garcia, Jane’ Kondev, Nigel Orme and Julie A. Theriot), Rejected by Am. J. Phys., 2007. [online full text]
The paper itself is a great read, with some important ideas for anyone who thinks about how to incorporate more quantitative/physical concepts into our program of biology education. It also tells you that stat mech is almost effortless once you understand the Boltzmann distribution: Continue reading
My 2006 PhD was clearly timed to perfection:
“U.S. pushes for more scientists but the jobs aren’t there”:
A glut of new biomedical scientists that entered the field when the economy was healthier. From 1998 to 2003, the budget of the National Institutes of Health doubled to $30 billion per year. That boost — much of which flows to universities — drew in new, young scientists. The number of new PhDs in the medical and life sciences boomed, nearly doubling from 2003 to 2007, according to the NSF.
But that boom is about to go bust, because an equal number of permanent jobs failed to follow. One big factor: Since 2004, federal research spending across all agencies has stagnated relative to inflation, according to an analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Although the injection of $10 billion in federal stimulus funds to the NIH from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 “created or retained” 50,000 science jobs, according to the NIH, that money is running dry, putting those positions at risk.
The lack of permanent jobs leaves many PhD scientists doing routine laboratory work in low-wage positions known as “post-docs,” or postdoctoral fellowships. Post-docs used to last a year or two, but now it’s not unusual to find scientists toiling away for six, seven, even 10 years.
Note the particular accuracy of that quote – post-docs are left doing “routine laboratory work”, as opposed to the oft-made but mistaken claim that a seven year post-doc is about training and gaining new skills that wouldn’t be obtained in any other setting.
This was my experience – “Learning Biology by Recreating and Extending Mathematical Models”:
Although biological systems generate beautiful patterns that unfold in space and time, most students are taught biology as static lists of names. Names of species, anatomical structures, cellular structures, and molecules dominate, and sometimes overwhelm, the curriculum and the student. Cookbook labs may demonstrate advanced techniques but have a foregone conclusion. Not surprisingly, students often conclude that biology is boring.