Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Science Fair Kids Are Alright.

 “Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them. A few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact.” —Carl Sagan

The above picture is a science fair project created by a sixth grader. Seriously. Needless to say I was riveted, and not just because of how impressive it is that such an idea was being presented by a little girl who looks like she might still require the use of booster seat, but because the experiment itself was relevant and fascinating. For the sake of my own curiosity I really, really wanted to know the outcome.

Here's a tip: If you are fruit fly, avoid genetically modified papaya at all costs. Humans might want to exercise some caution as well, until more people like this Jr. Scientist start calling the shots.

This past weekend, it was my privilege and pleasure to be roped in by my SCMOD friend Miguel Aznar to act as a judge for the annual Santa Cruz County Science Fair. Being that I'm all about educational games and design, in one fell swoop I got a decent fix of three awesome things that I absolutely love: Working with kids, science and blue-sky creativity. I walked in curious and motivated, and walked out totally inspired, hopeful that the next generation has what it takes to move the world beyond the troubling mess we are currently creating. Harmless biodegradable plastic alternatives? Check. Detailed studies on health effects of GMO vs organic foods? Check. College graduate level ecology science that made me and my astute fellow judges (mostly scientists themselves) stop and think, over and over again? Check, check and check.

The science was indeed great, and the top prizes well deserved. But who are we kidding, a continuum of ability exists in any group of people. And not everyone at Science Fair is going to demonstrate breakthrough work before they can even legally drive a car. But, everyone did get creative. As I saw it, the ubiquitous creative element in these projects was just as impressive as the science. And perhaps it was even more important, as every one of these kids I talked to took great pride in explaining the details of their creations. In a way, the interview process felt like I was asking an artist to explain a piece of work, and even the "least" scientifically impressive of the bunch had a lot to say, with a credible amount of depth and understanding.

The experience got me thinking about the relationship between science (or any subject really) and creativity, and at what point does western thinking demand that the two be separated? What I was seeing in the roughly 350 individual presentations was a powerful blend of the two. Kids were encouraged to use their imagination to create a meaningful hypothesis, gather data and to be creative in how they present their efforts. They were asked to engage in Shoshin, the "beginner's mind", and to think about science not so much as a process of crunching numbers, but as a channel to express themselves by asking and answering their own questions that they are eager to know about in the world. No such thing as a crazy idea if the curiosity is strong. Does it actually help kids to embrace scientific learning using their own creativity? I certainly remember my 6th grade science project (how crystals grow) and I'm going to hazard to guess that these children won't soon forget what they have created either. That's just the thing, they created these projects as an extension of their own belief systems, which changes everything by making it more meaningful.

So why can't the creative spirit, which works so well and is so magnificently supported in the Science Fair universe, be the focus throughout the process of learning? Why do we force kids to memorize and regurgitate a whole bunch of meaningless data-bits when instead they could be creating personal masterpieces that draw from every educational angle? I guess today I'm asking more questions than usual because in the context of a what could be seen as a national education emergency, the kids are, as always, ready to embrace the new and evolve. The burden of letting go of that which does not serve them is ours, not theirs.

I look forward to making this an annual event. And I can't wait until my four year old is ready to get creative with his own science fair masterpiece.

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