It's a great question to ask young people: What do you think? It empowers them and engages their minds, even if in some cases their initial answer is a shrugged, " I don't know." In the realm of science—where, as you've probably heard, American students rank only 17th in the world on achievement tests—an equally important question comes up: How do you think?
A visit to the Maine State Science Fair last weekend gave Pamelia and me a glimpse into the minds of high school students who are learning how to think like scientists. For each of the 190 projects entered, the student behind it had to pose a question, offer a hypothesis to answer the question, devise a method to test the hypothesis, perform the test, analyze the data, draw a conclusion and then identify possible causes for error in the testing. Such rational thinking based on observable evidence could someday help these teenagers extend the frontier of human knowledge or bring more reason into the U.S. political debate. At the very least, it might help them avoid bad dating choices.
Each student had to defend his or her project before a panel of judges. We sat in as a young woman explained how she had determined that red worms break down food matter in compost more effectively than nightcrawlers do. The next student had used a survey to assess when and why girls start using makeup. She acknowledged that her results might have been skewed because some of the survey-takers had rushed through the questionnaire, discussing what answers to give as they speed-lunched together in the cafeteria.
Here were a few more of the projects:
Best Way to Wash Your Hands (conclusion; "My experiment showed that none of the methods that was used to wash the hands was effective; they all seemed to make the participants' hands contain more bacteria than was previously on them.")
Are Males More Likely to Pick Up Trash Than Females? (Answer: Trash is more likely to be picked up by a teacher.)
Net or Not? (Conclusion: Basketball free-throw shooters fare worse if the net is removed from the basket, but good shooters aren't affected as much as bad shooters.)
Human Lie Detector (Conclusion: Two-thirds of students can tell from body language and other clues when a fellow student is lying.)
Other projects covered scientifically heavier subjects such as generating energy from hydrogen, trapping particles of light (photons) in a vacuum chamber and determining whether "stressful" music such as heavy metal causes mice to perform worse when going through a maze. (Conclusion on that one: Yes. The mice did better when listening to classical music than when when taking in hard rock, but performed best when no music at all was distracting them. A lesson for homework-doers?)
The only sour note (or off-key guitar chord) was that the host, Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, the world-renowned research center that is Mount Desert Island's biggest employer, had to bail out the science fair this year when the event was struggling to find financial support. That doesn't speak well of America's commitment to the world of Einstein and Newton. The lab of course did a wonderful job—but then, the people at Jackson Lab understand better than most the need to develop a new generation of smart, rational, scientific thinkers.
Any Prize Winners?
While in high school, Natalie Portman, who earned this year's Best Actress Oscar, was a semifinalist in the Intel Science Talent Search, the most prestigious competition of its type. As The New York Times noted earlier this year, several other celebrities also have had strong science backgrounds, including actress Hedy Lamarr, who off camera was a rocket scientist and developed a torpedo-guidance system for use in World War II. Golfer Phil Mickelson and his wife, Amy, won a Geological Society of America President's Medal in 2008 for their efforts to promote science education—some of which is needed to understand the physics of Phil's amazing wedge shots.
My only science-fair memory is of earning an honorable mention red ribbon for some sort of water-cycle project in first grade at the Meadowbrook School in Tolland, Conn. My mechanical-whiz dad was the brain behind it. I think the judges figured out from the deftly wired and hose-rigged pump that this might not have been the work of someone who was still learning how to add. Anyway, how about you? Any science-fair adventures or misadventures you'd like to share?
Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit
If you don't know what that headline refers to, then you definitely aren't among the many (dozens? thousands? millions?) who say those three words for good luck when they wake up on the first day of the month. It's a kooky superstition—one I'd never heard of before I met Pamelia, whose mother passed it down from her ancestors in Britain, where the triple bunny chant originated for unknown reasons—but I like it. Think about how we use animals in our everyday language. Most of the references are negative. A person might be disparaged as a shark, a weasel, a rat, a dog, a wolf, a loon, a pig, a whale, a vulture, an ass, a worm, a turkey, a snake, a goat or a stool pigeon; as mule-headed, bull-headed, squirrelly, cuckoo or chicken. So why not show the animal kingdom a little love at least once a month? Maybe it will bring our fellow creatures a bit of luck. They need it more than we do.
Two Dogs Dining:
I know I've posted dog antics before, but hey, these canines have attained a new level in development—they've activated their restaurant-behavior gene. Check, please!
During a hike in Acadia National Park last weekend, Notebook team member Haley Harwood photographed this ambitious ant (below) dragging home a take-out dinner. Ants can lift 50 times their body weight—the human equivalent of roughly 5,000 to 10,000 pounds.
Answers to the Last Puzzlers:
1) The sprouts in the photo are fiddleheads, soon to unfurl into ferns.2) An electric train heads north at 80 miles per hour. The wind is blowing from the east at 20 mph. In what direction will the smoke from the engine point? No direction—electric trains don't produce smoke.
1) See photo above.
2) How much would sea levels rise if all of Antarctica's ice and snow melted?
a) 17 feet
b) 83 feet
c) 203 feet
Elijah McCoy, the Ontario-born, Michigan-raised inventor who held at least 57 patents and inspired the phrase "the real McCoy," would have been 167 on Monday. The son of Kentucky slaves who had escaped via the underground railroad, McCoy took a mechanical engineering apprenticeship at age 15, gained practical experience working on trains and then started inventing things. His device for delivering lubricating oil to machine bearings was so prized by engineers and machinists that they only wanted what they called "the real McCoy," not lesser lubricators.
Edwin Land, the Connecticut-born inventor of the Polaroid instant camera and many other items, would have been 102 on Saturday. The light-polarizing filter sheets he invented helped lead to 3-D glasses, among other things, and he helped the military develop night-vision glasses, the first smart bombs and the optics of the U-2 spy planes. Artistic and progressive, he made sure that Polaroid, the company he co-founded, hired many women scientists and was at the forefront of affirmative action.
Horace Mann, the Massachusetts-born politician and reformer who helped expand and improve public education in the U.S., would have been 215 on Wednesday. Mann, the product of a one-room schoolhouse, lengthened the school year from a few weeks to six months, set up training institutes for teachers and promoted a belief in free education for all social classes. The Mann household no doubt had interesting discussions of education when the extended family got together: Horace's wife, Mary, had two sisters, one of whom, Sophia, was married to writer Nathaniel Hawthorne and was a talented writer herself, and the other of whom, Elizabeth Peabody, was the founder of the first English-language kindergarten in America.