Why Children Make the Best Scientists

The intersection of science and play.

We are taught from a young age that authority in any academic realm must be allocated to adults only–or more specifically grey haired men in tweed jackets staring down their noses at us from in front of a chalkboard or behind a cluttered desk. But when we think about the fundamentals of Science, a field that in its research requires constant questioning and experimentation, who better to contribute to its innovation than the naturally curious? In his TED talk above, neuroscientist Beau Lotto tells why children make the best scientists.

Evolution’s solution to uncertainty is play… Play is the only human endeavor where uncertainty is celebrated. When you add rules to play, you have a game. And that’s what an experiment is–a game…

Armed with these two ideas that science is a way of being and experiments are play, we asked, “Can anyone become a scientist?” And who better to ask than twenty-five 8-10 year old children? Because they’re experts in play.

With this idea in mind, Lotto turned to a primary school in Devon, England, to create a program in which children would be given the opportunity to act as scientists. He was granted no funding for this idea, as “scientists said children couldn’t make a strong contribution to science, and teachers said kids couldn’t do it.” Teachers, if you can believe it, had no faith in the capabilities of young people. Lotto went through with it anyway.

His first step in the program was to have the students ask questions. The results?

Five of the questions the students came up with were questions that were the basis of science publication in the last 5-15 years. They were asking questions that were significant to expert scientists.

This gave Lotto and his colleagues the impetus to turn the group of children into full-fledged scientists, an idea that amazingly resulted in the peer-reviewed publication of 10-year old Amy O’Toole’s science paper. She joins Lotto onstage to describe the inspiring journey from early hypothesis to academic acceptance.

I strongly suggest you watch this video, if not to be inspired by the true capabilities of children (despite the misgivings of teachers, scientists, and most adults), then to rethink how good scientific thought requires our embrace of uncertainty.


How Reading Kafka Can Make You Smarter

Got a big test coming up? Think you’ve tried every study tip available? Think again…

Here’s one you likely haven’t heard of: read a short story by Franz Kafka before your exam and you may come out of it with an improved test score. The short story in question is a surreal work by Kafka called “A Country Doctor.” It was selected by post-doctoral researcher Travis Proulx (of the University of California, Santa Barbara) and Professor of Psychology Steven J. Heine (University of British Columbia) in their 2009 study specifically because of its absurdist elements. The hypothesis behind their research was that the exposure to a strange and unnerving stimulus would lead the brain to look for structure and order in any subsequent activity.

The Method:

The method of Proulx and Heine’s study involved exposing a test group to the surreal stimulus (in this case “A Country Doctor”) and then administering a grammar test to the group. The test was made up of “an artificial-grammar learning task in which [subjects] were exposed to hidden patterns in letter strings. They were asked to copy the individual letter strings and then to put a mark next to those that followed a similar pattern.” A control group was also tested; these subjects’ pre-test reading consisted of a substantially edited version of Kafka’s text, which arranged the story in a more straightforward plot structure. Proulx and Heine labeled the surreal stimulus as a “Meaning Threat”–“something that fundamentally does not make sense”–while the absence of a surreal stimulus was categorized as having No-Meaning Threat.

The Results:

It was quickly apparent that Proulx and Heine’s hypothesis was correct; the test subjects who had been exposed to the Meaning Threat (“A Country Doctor”) not only found more patterns within the letter strings presented to them, but they were also correct in their findings more of the time than the test subjects who were not exposed to that surreal stimulus.

“People feel uncomfortable when their expected associations are violated, and that creates an unconscious desire to make sense of their surroundings.” -Travis Proulx

It turns out that the test subjects were so unsettled by the absurdism in Kafka’s short story that their brains felt compelled to find order and meaning afterwards, as if to make up for the nonsensical nature of what came before it.

So, how can this be applied to your studies?

Well, besides reading “A Country Doctor” before a test, there are a number of other Meaning Threats you could apply to your life. You just have to understand what exactly a Meaning Threat is. You need something that challenges your very nature and the way you innately look at the world. When, for example, we think of fire, we instinctively associate it with heat. Now imagine placing your hand over a flame and feeling an icy coldness, the exact opposite of your expectations. Pretty disturbing, right? That’s exactly what a threat to meaning is. Meaning “is an expected association within one’s environment.” A Meaning Threat is therefore something that doesn’t make sense.

When a committed meaning framework is threatened, people experience an arousal state that prompts them to affirm any other meaning framework to which they are committed.

Exposing yourself to mind-opening (or mind-bending) works similar to Kafka’s will spur you to find patterns and structure in other works. These can include the works of Surrealist painters, or certain movies, like “Blue Velvet” by David Lynch or “Un Chien Andalou” by Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel.

The Sound of Silence: NASA Probes Record Earth’s ‘Chorus’

Here’s a question for Science teachers to ask their classes:

If space made a noise, what would it sound like? The reverberations of Neil Armstrong’s footsteps? Space junk clanging together?  The chatter of little green men?

Or perhaps, early morning birdsong?

An illustration of the earth’s magnetosphere, where our planet’s magnetic field collides with charged particles from the Sun.

Yes, unlikely as it is, Earth actually gives off a noise that most liken to birds’ chirping. We know this because when NASA wasn’t busy sending a rover to explore Mars, it created a device to detect the sounds of an atmosphere much closer to home.

Surrounding our planet are rings of plasma… which are pulsing with radio waves. Those waves are not audible to the human ear alone, but radio antennae can pick them up, and that’s just what an instrument — the Electric and Magnetic Field Instrument Suite and Integrated Science (EMFISIS) — on NASA’s recently launched Radiation Belt Storm Probes has done.

Scientists have known of Earth’s “chorus” for several decades, but one of the missions of the Probes project has been to uncover the science behind the emissions. The sounds come from a part of Earth’s outer atmosphere called the magnetosphere (pictured above) “an area where charged particles from the sun interact with the earth’s magnetic field.”

Fortunately for us, the radio waves emitted by Earth’s atmosphere occur in the same frequency of sounds we can hear. That means that, once the waves are picked up by a radio transmitter and translated into sound waves, we can listen to the hauntingly beautiful sounds of our home planet, recorded below:

The project will continue for two more years and will also investigate the phenomenon of “space weather,” which actually affects us on the ground by knocking out satellites and power grids. Who knew space suffered weather like the rest of us?

Idea for a Classroom Activity: Earth’s Song

Objective: To help students connect the concepts of magnetic fields and radio waves.

Grade Level: 4-8

Time Needed: 20-30 minutes

Dialogue/Worksheet: Can you imagine what space would sound like if we could listen to it? What kind of sounds do you think we would hear?

(Have students draw Earth and its magnetic field. This activity should follow a unit on magnetism and polarity.)

Did you know that the magnetic field makes a noise when tiny particles from the Sun hit it? We can’t hear this sound just by listening with our ears. We need radio waves to be able to hear it. What kinds of objects detect radio waves?

(Have students list the many different items that pick up radio waves. Ex. radios, baby monitors, garage door openers, cell phones, radio-controlled toys, TVs, wifi, airplanes etc.)

Radio waves make up a a type of sound wave that travels through the air at a frequency humans can’t hear. They travel much faster than the sound waves you hear when I speak. But we can hear them when we use a radio. The antennae pick up radio waves from the air and switch them into sound waves, which we can hear through the speakers. 

Earth’s magnetic field gives off its own noise because radio waves are  electromagnetic. Using a radio antennae, we can pick up this sound and listen to the planet. 

(Play audio of Earth’s chorus.)

What did that sound like to you? Did its sound surprise you? If you could give Earth’s song a name, what would you call it?


NASA explains Radio Waves

eNotes Reference Guide: Electricity and Magnetism

eNotes Q&A: Definition of radio waves

Curiosity Killed No-One: A Round-Up of eNotes’ Answers Across 10 Subjects

“I want to be under the sea”: Google Releases Street View of the Ocean Floor

Attention Jacques Cousteau, Steve Zissou, and general oceanographer wannabes: you can now visit the sea beds of the world from your very computer. That’s because this week Google unveiled its latest addition to Google Maps–“street views” of six of the world’s most breathtaking coral reefs.

Via this new addition, you can now view a  sea turtle swimming among a school of fish in the Great Barrier Reef, follow a manta ray, visit an ancient boulder coral near Apo Island in the Philippines,  join snorkelers in Oahu’s Hanauma Bay, and much more.

To capture these amazing images, Google turned to The Catlin Seaview Survey, whose team members occasionally dive into view of some of the photos.

[The divers] used a specialized SVII camera to capture the images. Every three seconds while traveling at about 2.5 miles/hour, the camera captures a 360-degree panorama with geolocation information and a compass heading. Only two of the cameras are in existence worldwide.

We just had to give it up for the amazing science and technology behind this project, which not only reminds us that the world is an awe-inspiring place, but also allows the landlubbers among us to discover every piece of it.

Looking for interesting Science and Marine Biology Q&A? We’ve got that!

What is a “red tide”?

What are some interesting facts about stingrays?

How does oxygen naturally enter an aquatic ecosystem?

What is the significance of the marine ecosystem on world biology?

What is the difference between fresh-water biology and marine biology?