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Student: How To Make Football And Science Equally Exciting

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Browsing through the Intel Science Talent Search Finalist Facebook page a week ago, I found one particular article someone posted very interesting. The piece was Danny Heitman's The case for treating Super Bowl and science-fair winners differently (Washington Post, February 2011), which responded to President Obama's call to celebrate scientists as we do football players. Though I can't quite do Heitman's entire piece justice with such few words, the author goes on to recount the tepid celebration his high school gave when it awarded academic high-achievers on stage before the study body. In the end, he arrives at the conclusion that scientists have to just make do without recognition in the short-term because, unlike in sports, decisive results take so long to achieve.

Few things could be further from the truth!

It was intriguing to read about Heitman's perspective. Though I recognize the "awkward moment" described in his anecdote, my experience tells me that he finds the right problem, but the wrong solution.

The problem is that not enough American high school students are interested in science. The solution is not to raise our young scientists on a pedestal or to delay their recognition, but to engage everyone else in the community in the same way that sports have the power to do.

Well, what does that mean?

I am fortunate enough to attend a high school with a strong community that celebrates academic and athletic achievements alike. Among the latter, few things unite the school more than athletic matches against our long-standing arch-rival school.

During this past fall, the Choate campus hosted an annual full day of athletic contests between the two schools' teams. At the football game, for example, hordes of students flocked to the varsity field with school-branded vuvuzuelas in one hand and miscellaneous school items in the other. Throughout the game, we watched, cheered, and celebrated as one school. When our rival scored, we banded together as one school. When we scored, we rejoiced as one school.

Sports bring a community together because the people on the sidelines feel that they are part of the team experience. This is why we celebrate our athletes. Yes, the results are also instant, but even when things don't go as hoped, every team has loyal supporters because the audience feels it is part of the team.

The same should be true for science. The people on the sidelines -- the general public -- must experience the excitement of science in the same way scientists do.

Yes, it's possible! I witnessed this power first-hand at my school, during it's annual Student Lecture Series. In the two-evening program, seniors present research work they conducted during the previous summer to the greater school community and the general public. Every year, it warms my heart (really) to see -- just like at sports games -- hundreds of students flocking to the science center auditorium to watch the lectures.

Yes, students want to watch our science lectures.

Why? On the surface, many students come to support their very friends who did this research and will present on-stage that night. This part of the audience comes to quench its wonder about what these students seemingly mystically did throughout the summer. Through word-of-mouth and conversation about our research, interest spread among everyone else to also entice them to come watch. And once the auditorium is packed, the people in the room are suddenly part of the same community that united people on the sidelines.

Unlike in sports, most of the responsibility for implanting that curiosity and interest lies with the scientist. The key to making high school students interested in science is for the scientists to promote themselves. They need to talk up their research, their subjects. Even when they don't find groundbreaking results, sharing findings with non-scientists is still stimulating. Many times, the listeners ask a question that I don't think of, or propose new directions of research because of their fresh perspective. Talking up one's work takes a LOT of confidence, but the results are as rewarding as any touchdown.

Many lament how, in this nation, it is socially acceptable to be not good at math and science. But somehow, illiteracy is shameful. There are probably many reasons for this. Foremost is the fact that people don't understand math and science as easily because it is, in some ways, like a new language. Scientists have to help people to understand science and their work. The presentations at the Science Lecture Series are geared for the general public, so the goal is to help everyone in the auditorium understand scientific research. It's like trying to teach someone a new sports game. Most people watch football because they know how it's played. In the same way, science can unite communities if people first start to understand it. Personally, when sharing my own work, I had to suppress the urge to delve right into "proton reduction electrocatalysts". Instead, when I showed how my research would help develop a next-generation fuel cell that will run the listener's car on hydrogen, things started to make more sense.

The key is to present science as tangible, goal-oriented, and influential in everyone's lives. In many ways, it's easy because science IS so important for understanding today's world and making the most of it. At the same time, promoting science demands confidence in one's own work. But if people sense that confidence, understand the work, and feel a part of the research experience, then suddenly science is something that can motivate crowds and unite a community. It's a lot like a touchdown, you know?

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