Tuesday, August 19, 2008

What I've Learned from "Where Are They Now?"

For the past several months, I've been writing a weekly column at the Scientific American website called "Where Are They Now?" This column profiles former Westinghouse Science Talent Search winners and finalists. For many years, the Westinghouse corporation brought 40 top high school scientists to Washington each year to honor them and have them meet each other. They also gave them significant scholarship money.

Since this has been going on since the 1940's, these former finalists are now in many different places in their careers. By looking at the careers of these people identified as high-potential young scientists, I've been trying to cover career issues in science, and also show how scientific progress is made.

At least that's the idea. It's been a fascinating few months of interviews. I've learned a few things that I think are relevant to the world of gifted education.

1. Top high school science has been professionalized.

One younger finalist apologized to me the other day when I asked how he'd come up with his project. Basically, he'd attended a summer science research program, and been assigned a mentor -- a research professor -- who'd come up with a good question for him to research. The professor knew there might be interesting results in that area and, not surprisingly, the young man got results.

He was somewhat sheepish that he hadn't come up with his own project topic, but the truth is, very few finalists after about 1975 came up with their own research topics, at least in chemistry, biology or physics (computer science is another story, which I'll get to below). Most have apprenticed themselves to a research professor in a big lab, and worked on a topic that the professor knows will be interesting. They're the ones who have to do the work, of course, but they didn't come up with the problem.

There's a simple reason for this. Even an extremely bright young person, who's taken AP chem, AP bio, etc., will probably not know enough about the chem or bio literature to know where are the best areas to look. Furthermore, they need lab equipment to work on the new problems in these fields, and their own high school labs won't have it. (This is not universally true -- Carol Fassbinder-Orth experimented on her own family's honeybees, and was named a finalist in the Intel Science Talent Search, Westinghouse's progeny).

By contrast, the older finalists I spoke with (from the 1950's) did, in general, come up with their own projects. They blew things up in their basements. They did work in their own high school labs. Their projects probably wouldn't get past a regional science fair now -- but they came up with these ideas themselves. Ronald Breslow, a National Medal of Science winner who was a finalist in 1948, told me that he has mixed feelings about the young people who now contact him, asking to work in his lab. "The plus side of the new system is that it gets a lot of kids into research," he told me. "The minus is that it removes the part we did that was most interesting: use our imaginations to dream up a project and figure out how to work it out."

But in a larger sense, science itself is changing in this way...

2. Scientific progress is often incremental

Just as the Westinghouse winners often work on small pieces of a puzzle that a professor has identified, science now works on this model of big labs cranking out incremental new ideas. Few papers are written by one person these days. There are few flashes of blinding insight like Newton with his apple (which may not have been quite so blinding as the legend says, anyway). Instead, you're sweeping a little more dust out of the corner.

One of the criticisms of the Westinghouse program is that it's identified precious few Nobel Prize winners. The Nobel is somewhat political, so that is what it is, but the truth is, the Westinghouse Science Talent Search didn't even identify that many future members of the National Academy of Sciences, which is somewhat more of a straightforward recognition of who is doing good work.

Yet everyone I've talked to has done something interesting and important. I would say that the science of breaking new ground is hard to figure out.

One thing that does work, though, is inventing a new technology. New technology, rather than new research on old technology, often enables data gathering somewhere that no one has ever gone. Some of my most interesting profile subjects (Leroy Hood, for instance, whose team invented the automated DNA sequencer) took this approach.

3. Computer science has probably been the most creative, wide-open field in the past 50 years

I've interviewed a few people who won Westinghouse awards for their computer science projects. Ray Kurzweil programmed a computer to write music. Terence Sanger (going up on the site this week, I believe) wrote a computer language to work on the SOL-20 microcomputer. These finalists almost all came up with their own projects and executed them from start to finish. I don't know much about computer programming, but it strikes me that it's been a bit more of a field where anyone can try something and see how it goes. Perhaps this is why there are so many high tech start-ups.

4. Judges can be wowed by real, serious social science research

One of the first finalists I interviewed, Laura Ascenzi-Moreno, did a survey of her peers regarding their relationships with their parents. She was named a finalist. Social science is still science, but over the years this kind of got lost in the professionalizing of high school science. And if social science isn't seen as real science, then no wonder literature and music and other such things are seen as less serious. That's one of the reasons I'm glad that several Davidson Fellowships go, every year, to young writers and composers in addition to lab scientists. It reminds us that it's possible to do serious work in what too many people deem fluffy fields.


Kevin said...

Social science is still very popular at elementary and middle-school science fairs, though a lot of it is rather low-quality work. Part of the problem is getting anyone seriously trained in the social sciences to judge at the local science fairs. It is easy to get engineers, computer scientists, physicists, and even biologists, but damn near impossible to get mathematicians and social scientists to volunteer to be judges. Differences in academic culture perhaps?

Angie said...
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