The Dark Side of Science Research

By Alex Finley

“Science research is the biggest bully at OES,” remarks Andy S. “It puts too much pressure on kids.”

Andy’s viewpoint is not radical. Instead, it is surprisingly commonplace in the OES Upper School. Though a few students embrace the work involved in the research process and go to ISEF, science research is, for many, a grueling task. Most research participants look back at their projects regrettably, as wastes of time and damagers of ego.

Science research takes from the overall science program while simultaneously making students feel less able to succeed. The skills that students learn from doing science research are undoubtedly beneficial but the required competitive nature of the Aardvark Science Expo takes from the larger and beneficial aspect of science research.

It becomes clear to the careful observer that the two to three months each student spends doing frequently inconsequential research takes away from the overall science program. Past students have commented that some of the OES science programs (Biology, Chemistry or Physics) did not teach enough of the details in each respective subject to prepare for challenging college science courses.

“Science research hinders our ability to learn the real science,” comments a student who wishes to remain anonymous, “For example, I don’t remember anything from chemistry, only my science project. I’ve heard from college going students that they have trouble in college science because of the lack of preparation.”

Sure, the research process is important to learn, but is it worth a total of nine months of work and the important science education we lose in the process?

Bettina, an Honors Biology teacher, agrees that she cannot teach everything she wants to because of the amount of time we spend on research. A student looking to take a science related subject test mentioned that “Science research took so much time out of the year that I had to fill gaps in my knowledge for the subject test.”

Shouldn’t our science program be preparing students for these advanced tests rather than advising them to study out of class? What about the students that don’t take these tests and never get that complete information because they are too busy doing science research?

It isn’t really the time spent on research that is the primary cause of distaste towards science research: it is the competitive nature of research that really hurts students. When we honor the ten to twenty people that win the science fair and move onwards to higher competitions, we discredit the work put in by the non-winning students. “Some kids have even stated their hard work has been discredited by the competition induced by science fairs,” another anonymous student states, “They feel like failures when they should be proud of the hard work and time they put in.”

There are always going to be students who do well in science research, and yet hundreds of other students go home with rolled poster boards and no recognition besides a letter grade scribbled on their ten page research paper.

We, as a school, should not be discriminating through research. We shouldn’t separate the good and the bad projects, we should separate the effort. Another student mentions that, “If you have a simple project that is really well executed you still have no chance of winning.” If you do a simple project and you do it well, judges will see it as non-novel.

No matter how much work and love you pour into that poster, you will not be awarded in the competitions. Of course competition has its benefits; people are driven to greater levels by the possibility of winning the coveted ‘Best of Fair’ plaque. But when students like Alex O. “See all the other projects out there and realize their higher calibur, science research makes [him] feel incompetent and lesser.”

Never should a student be devalued by competition, especially when it took months of effort for his or her project to come to fruition. The science program would be infinitely better if students had the option on whether to compete or not. I’m not talking about non-judged, where people go and still find people looking at their work and rudely commenting about the poor nature of the projects.

I believe that science research does teach us important things about the scientific process, but so long as each person learns something new, we should not have to have our hard work ripped apart by judges and parents alike at the overblown judgement that is the Aardvark Science Expo.

2 thoughts on “The Dark Side of Science Research

  1. ” The skills that students learn from doing science research are undoubtedly beneficial but the required competitive nature of the Aardvark Science Expo takes from the larger and beneficial aspect of science research.”
    Response: The competition is not required. As a faculty member who has worked with the non-judged category for a few years now, I know as a fact that the competition is not required. For students who want to view the research project as simply a learning experience (and not a competition), the non-judged option is highly recommended. This comment is key and actually undermines one of the the assumptions driving this article – that SRP is bad because competition. Well … the SRP doesn’t require competition to be completed.

    ““Science research hinders our ability to learn the real science,” comments a student who wishes to remain anonymous, “For example, I don’t remember anything from chemistry, only my science project. I’ve heard from college going students that they have trouble in college science because of the lack of preparation.”’
    Response: A difficulty teachers face is how the classroom environment doesn’t lend itself to “real [insert discipline]” in general. The problem with the quote above is that SRP IS real science. Look at “The Martian” – the movie/book – where science is the application of knowledge (and, in the book, is based on a lot of trial and error … but with educated guesses behind each trial). The Scientific Method (which is the core of SRP) is what research scientists do every day. They aren’t just sitting down and reading textbooks, they are asking questions and looking up research that pertains to their questions and then testing the limits of their questions. Other scientists are playing similar games, only focused on very particular applications (so their research is focused on a particular branch). I know that college sciences assume a particular high school class and that OES provides a different outlook to it, but OES also gives students multiple tools throughout their disciplines for studying. Using those tools, students can easily catch up and – with superior understanding of the labs – possibly surpass other students in the same classroom. It doesn’t come without work, but it can be done.

    “Shouldn’t our science program be preparing students for these advanced tests rather than advising them to study out of class? What about the students that don’t take these tests and never get that complete information because they are too busy doing science research?”
    Response: Umm, no? OES has been pretty clear in how few classes are built around the AP exams or subject tests (there are only 6 AP courses that I can remember off the top of my head and four of them are in the Math Department). So, the purpose of the science program is teaching students to think, to research, to learn (Mission Statement quote: “life-long learners”). So, no, it should be NO department’s expressed purpose to teach to a standardized exam. That’s a benefit of being in an Independent school (public schools DO have the “teach to the test” standards they need to fulfill). As to those students who don’t take those tests and thus don’t learn the specific material; is the lack of knowledge due to Science Research or to Club Soccer or performances in plays or Artwork or Math Competitions or … Priorities are made on a daily basis by everyone in the community. There are certain skills that teachers view as valuable/important to teach and other skills/info that we don’t view as important (and if they become important to students in the future, then students will have the skills to study and learn them).

    “When we honor the ten to twenty people that win the science fair and move onwards to higher competitions, we discredit the work put in by the non-winning students.”
    Response: So when we win a state competition, do we discredit the teams that never made it to state? When we do our pep rally for Fall Sports and not for Spring Sports, do we discredit the work for the teams not represented? Look, there are many places in the world we live in where there are no winners/losers. However, there are many places in the world where there ARE winners/losers or those who applied for a job and got in and those who applied for a job and didn’t (or applied to colleges or submitted a manuscript for publication or …). Why is it a bad thing to acknowledge and celebrate when folks do something difficult very well?

    “I believe that science research does teach us important things about the scientific process, but so long as each person learns something new, we should not have to have our hard work ripped apart by judges and parents alike at the overblown judgement that is the Aardvark Science Expo.”
    Response: See first comment. No need to have hard work (or faked hard work as is the case from time to time) judged.

  2. I fully respect this point of view. This article is in no way meant to reflect the overall viewpoint of faculty or students, rather the viewpoint of a select group of individuals (who have come to dislike the research program by any number of contributing factors). I feel obliged as a contributor to the student newspaper to tell the stories and opinions of those select individuals who do not share the above view.

    -Alex Finley

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