Desmond Murray, PhD
Associate Professor of Chemistry, Andrews University & Berrien RESA Math Science Center
Founding Director, Building Excellence in Science and Technology (BEST Early)
2012 College Science Teacher of the Year, Michigan Science Teachers Association
Why has it become accepted practice for our youth to play musical instruments, sports and video games early but not to conduct independent lab experiments and research until much later? This science education tradition persists in the face of our own personal experiences and objective findings from, for example, neuroscience and pedagogy, which declare affirmatively that - early matters.
As we all know, while there are some exceptions, by and large, our educational system does not provide real authentic independent research opportunities for the majority of students until graduate school. This means the majority of students complete four years of high school and four years of college without any or very little research experience. This in itself means that they are not generally exposed to and competent in such marketable skills as careful observation, documenting data/experience accurately, communicating results effectively, and critically thinking through what their observations mean. These are skills urgently and broadly needed in our 21st century information-innovation economy, regardless of job, career or field.
In my opinion this is an unfortunate waste. A waste of time and a waste of talent. It is wasted time and opportunity since we all know that human curiosity is very high in our early years. Our current science education systems do not maximize fully, leverage effectively or nurture efficiently this window of opportunity in the human life cycle. In fact, many have argued convincingly, and I agree completely, that we have traditionally done the opposite: discouraging curiosity and creativity; and valuing conformity, rote-memorization and standardization rather than independence and critical thought. It is as if we all seem to forget that experiments made us modern.
Our current system also wastes the most valuable and vital resource in the 21st century economy – our human resource. By not fully utilizing and harnessing our human resources early in our pursuit of knowledge and for the purpose of innovation, we are losing out. Students in this content-obsessed system become disinterested in science early and consequently the science talent pool and STEM workforce begins diminishing quite early. This means we are losing insights, discovery, creativity and productivity in a world where more is needed to address global problems such as health, energy, rapid urbanization and scarcity of essential resources from water to minerals.
For the last 17 years, I have been engaging both high school and college students, curricularly and non-curricularly, in early research (www.bestearly.com). I can assure you that our students are not too young to research and are in fact very eager to do so (http://www.youtube.com/user/dmond1960/videos). These years of experience has embolden my efforts to advocate and provide our youth with opportunities to conduct research early regardless of whether or not their career goals are in science, technology engineering, or mathematics.
There is no valid reason why high school students who drive cars, use computers, excel at video games, and navigate a host of 21st century technologies cannot also recrystallize solids, isolate DNA, rotovap solvents, reflux reactions, separate mixtures, analyze protein gels, or operate infrared, Raman, UV-Vis, NMR and AFM instruments.
Early research participation facilitates a host of desirable and needed outcomes, such as, (a) building the STEM workforce, (b) capturing the most innovative and productive years of the human life span, (c) increasing investments in young ‘homegrown’ researchers rather than foreign post-docs, (d) providing an avenue for seamless transitions and interactions between secondary and tertiary science education, and (e) facilitating a sustainable culture of innovation, discovery and development.
Our democratic western societies are built, in part, on the values of open and free. I believe that with respect to research, discovery and innovation, we need to institutionalize another value – early. Engaging students early in discovery, creativity, research and innovation should be the norm; one that is needed, not exclusively but especially in STEM education. I believe that universal adoption of early research participation programs is fully consistent with former United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s statement: “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.” Furthermore, it is in the spirit of our very best pedagogical traditions as eloquently, succinctly and powerfully expressed by the American poet, Theodore Roethke, “I learn by going where I have to go.”