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Science Fairs Counter Science Illiteracy

The pandemic ignited public interest in science, introducing the phrase “doing my research.” But the persistence of the idea that science aims to “prove” anything reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of what scientists actually do.

What Science Is, and Isn’t

Scientists test hypotheses based on observations of the natural world, then deduce possible explanations, using experiments and further observations. We analyze data, draw tentative conclusions, then ask more questions. The scientific method is, as I’ve called it in my textbooks, a cycle of inquiry. Variations on the theme are spawned from creative thinking.

So when ideas and advice about responses to COVID changed, it wasn’t because science or scientists had been “wrong.” It’s that what we thought we knew changed as we learned more. Advice to not use, or use, masks is a good example. We needed to know the size of the droplets and their speed of transit and proximity to an inhaling nose, to predict parameters for infection transmission and hypothesize how we could best respond.

Science isn’t a static proof of anything. And it is dynamic.

The public could gain a good understanding of what science is, and is not, by observing the scientific method on display at science fairs.

I’ve judged science fairs, at all levels, for a long time, through pre-Internet posters done with magic markers and oaktag (whatever that was), to the zoom renditions of the past three years, to a fantastic in-person experience last weekend. Participants display the results of sometimes years-long projects, in posters and powerpoint presentations and demonstrations, that adhere to and elaborate on the steps of the scientific method. Sophistication of projects has paralleled the growth of information science, including wide availability of data ripe for comparison, interpretation, and further hypothesizing.

But it hasn’t all been wonderful.

Years ago I took a break after judging at a local elementary school. I saw the “losers” crying, or shaking in fear at the scary adults scrutinizing their projects. Oddly, sixth-graders proudly presented posters comparing household products. Had their teachers taken a seminar depicting scientists running tests to see whether Pine-Sol beat out Mr. Clean? Perhaps I had just stumbled upon one bad example. The elementary entrants at a regional science fair were more sophisticated. And the planners had sought support from the scientific and medical communities, enabling them to provide many more awards, so there were fewer disappointed kids. As judges we always tried to spread out the awards.

Science Fairs Evolve into Research Exhibitions

In 1994, in my area of New York state, came a paradigm shift. The University at Albany Science Research in the High School program began, enabling students to join research teams at local institutions and facilities. Each student finds a mentor, from anywhere in the world, to guide the project. Their teachers help, and sometimes ask local folks like my husband Larry and I to suggest mentors. Or be them.

So back then, Larry, an industrial chemist, approached NYS Master Teacher Gina Reals, who taught at our local high school, and helped the science research program get off the ground. It’s still going strong, Mrs. Reals still at the local helm.

The New York program grew. Diversity of student projects came to reflect local academia, clinical care, and industry, particularly biotech and nanotech.

Poughkeepsie students can do research at nearby IBM; Long Island students have Brookhaven National Labs. Students in my region do projects under mentors from Regeneron, Albany Medical College, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, The Neural Stem Cell Institute, the Albany Nanotech Complex, and others. Even though these opportunities are not evenly distributed across the state, many creative students elsewhere come up with their own projects.

High school research projects can be a few months, but many span three years. Students learn about the program as freshmen and hear from current seniors, exploring ideas over the summer before sophomore year. Then they narrow and focus on a specific question, read and perhaps interview scientists and find a mentor, and devise an experimental approach to test an hypothesis. Mentors can range from heads of scientific institutes to industrial researchers to local health care providers to nerds like Larry and me.

The trajectory of a multi-year project mirrors the graduate school experience towards a science PhD, which may explain why many of the projects I’ve judged have been at that level.

Three Categories of Projects

Over the years, I’ve seen projects fall into three categories.

#1. A student joins an existing research group and project at a medical center, government lab, or private facility, such as a biotech company. To what degree did the student design, implement, and interpret experimental findings? Or was the student assigned part of an ongoing project, following protocols and plugging in parameters, and if so, did they add their own twist? It’s usually pretty easy to tell the nature of participation by talking with the student. If a poster or powerpoint presentation is peppered with acronyms and abbreviations that the student can’t explain, then they had a little too much help.

#2 The project is a variation-on-a-well-worn-theme. It took me awhile to catch onto these. At the Greater Capital Region Science and Engineering Fair at RPI a few years ago, I spoke with an articulate young student who showed me her ecosystem in the microcosm of the bottom half of a plastic soda bottle. Brilliant! Not. Googling quickly turned up a long list of Pop Bottle Ecosystems – something a teacher would have known.

Ditto comparing databases. At the same RPI science fair, I was entranced by a team of junior division entrants who had compared sites of single-DNA-base variation among thousands of human genomes with geographic data and epidemiological data on infectious diseases, to sort out contributors to susceptibility. Brilliant! Again, not an original approach.

But students don’t have to invent the technology they implement to have a great project – we judge based on the idea and its execution, and especially the logic behind conclusions. Students know that conclusions aren’t the end game.

#3 My favorite projects evolve from students observing nature, asking questions, and figuring out clever ways to attempt to answer them. Because that’s what I still do. That’s how scientists think.

For example, I had a student in a graduate level bioethics program interested in access to genetic testing, based on her family history. She researched breast cancer statistics, and asked why so many people in some families develop the disease. She used databases to sort genetic from environmental influences.

At the elementary school level, I love projects that grow from a child’s observation of nature: measuring body parts of beetles collected from a backyard woods; testing concoctions that keep slugs from ruining a lettuce patch; following weather trends.

I think of projects. Last summer, which was unusually dry, I noticed that a pond that I pass during my daily walks in the woods was shrinking. Rapidly. As the weeks went on, the vocally disturbed resident frog population crowded along the shoreline. I counted them, I’m not sure why. I was just intrigued. Then mammals I’d never seen there before showed up, leaving unusual tracks – had the changing ecosystem driven them out? I could envision a student taking all sorts of measurements over time, microscopic and macroscopic, perhaps comparing the same ecosystem from one summer to the next, or monitoring more than one. That’s a more real-world ecology project than growing things inside a cut-off plastic soda bottle.

How Will COVID Influence Science Fairs?

What unites all science fair projects is adherence to the scientific method. It’s a way of thinking that I wish more of the news media understood, so they wouldn’t pass on so many misconceptions. Consider the steps in the context of developing a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2.

MAKE AN OBSERVATION: People are getting sick and dying from a novel respiratory infectious disease.

CONSULT PRIOR KNOWLEDGE: Preliminary isolation and examination of the pathogen, including its genome sequence, reveals that it is a coronavirus closely related to the SARS virus of 2003. A coronavirus is so-called because it has protein spikes on its surface. The immune system “sees” the spikes, and responds. A vaccine against the 2003 virus used a synthetic version of mRNA encoding the spikes to evoke an immune response.

FORMULATE A HYPOTHESIS: If a person takes mRNA (as a vaccine) directed against the spikes of the new virus, an ensuing immune response would recognize the spikes of, and destroy, infecting viruses. The person wouldn’t get sick.

DESIGN A CONTROLLED EXPERIMENT: Give half of a large number of healthy volunteers vaccine and half a sham injection, with neither participants nor researchers knowing who got what. Include a range of ages and population groups. Exclude certain groups, such as the immunocompromised, and use common sense. Larry and I applied to be in the Moderna trials but were not selected, I believe, because there are few people where we live – transmission rate would certainly be lower than in a city, too low to sustain meaningful comparisons.

COLLECT DATA: Who gets sick? What were their environmental exposures during the course of the experiment?

INTERPRET DATA: Do the math. Does the vaccine protect? How does it stand up to vaccines against other pathogens?

DRAW CONCLUSIONS: mRNA vaccines prevent COVID because a significantly lower percentage of people in the group who received them became ill.

MAKE FURTHER OBSERVATIONS AND ASK MORE QUESTIONS: Is the vaccine more protective of individuals who have a certain factor in common than others? Will vaccines cover emerging variants predicted using genome data? Does natural infection evoke a broader antibody response? How long does protection last? Would a vaccine that recognizes viral parts in addition to the spike be even more effective? Can COVID vaccines also be based on DNA or protein?

I look forward to seeing how students will use the unprecedented volume of data pouring out of pandemic research. The SARS-CoV-2 genome sequences being uploaded all the time make me want to do my own project! There are 15 million right now.

An upside to the horror of the past three years could be catalyzing interest in, and understanding of, science.

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