Today's OD had an article about Poland Central School's Science Research Class, where 12 science students in grades 9-12 have an opportunity to earn college credit conducting scientific research on the topic of their choice, perhaps even leading to publication of their work in a scientific journal. In March the students attended a science symposium in Albany where presentations of similar projects were made. One student is doing a study of the inheritability of fingerprint characteristics. Another is researching the negative effects of algae and thermo-pollution on Lake Ontario.
These things sound good . . . In fact, they sound downright impressive! But, always ready to find fault with the conventional wisdom, Fault Lines wonders if there is a negative to all the hoopla. While high-schoolers are capable of doing scientific research, is it appropriate for high-schoolers to be doing scientific research?
Learning logically progresses from the general to the specific, with early-learned generalized knowledge providing the foundation for later studies in specialized areas. It is from a "pinnacle" of specialized knowledge that scientific research embarks to discover the undiscovered. This is why scientific research is normally performed at the college graduate/post graduate level: It is at these levels where a solid foundation for understanding an issue exists.
Does a 9th or 10th grader have the requisite foundation? Probably not. It is unlikely that such a student would have already had Earth Science, Biology, Chemistry, and Physics -- yet all four disciplines are needed to understand, e.g., the negative effects of algae or thermo-pollution on Lake Ontario. Students are being led to believe they are experts while their foundational knowledge has serious gaps. What does this do for their attitudes?
Scientific research takes a lot of time but only increases knowledge in an extremely narrow subject area. It takes time away from more generalized fare. If the science research supplants a year of Earth Science, Biology, Physics or Chemistry, then the research project actually will create a knowledge gap. A student can major in science in college without knowing whether fingerprint characteristics can be inherited. However, if the student lacks the year of basic chemistry, it will spell trouble because the student will be presumed to already know it. The student having such a knowledge gap might not understand key points of his or her college lectures, making advanced learning more difficult and, perhaps, leading to abandonnment of what would have otherwise been a budding scientific career. In this respect science research "dumbs down" the curriculum by developing "expertise" in an esoteric unimportant specialty at the expense of something fundamental.
For some reason, people love the idea of high-schoolers receiving college credit, but why rush? College and the time to do specialized work will come later . . . . but youth, and the opportunity to sample a wide range of more generalized subjects will not be. Science research may impress parents and boost the self-esteem of the students, but it will produce lop-sided know-it-alls with limited knowledge outside their so-called expertise.
Let's save the scientific research for the higher levels of college and industry, and encourage our high-schools to produce well-rounded individuals.
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