Young students review adults’ scientific papers at Chabot
By Lou Fancher
Debunking three common misconceptions — that boys mumble only monosyllabic words, girls shy away from science and kids have more to learn from adults than vice versa — a six-member panel of experts ranging in age from 7 to 13 took on hard science.
The occasion Oct. 29 at the Chabot Space & Science Center had adult researchers present scientific articles for review by students from the Bay Area. The Frontiers for Young Minds international program is an open-access online platform founded in 2007 by two neuroscientists from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne. Since then, the pioneering program has published more than 30,000 peer-reviewed articles and, according to its website, is one of the largest and fastest-growing open-access publishers worldwide.
Scientists in 22 different countries are encouraged to write about their discoveries in language that is accessible to readers of all ages. With the help of a science mentor, the local students read articles on mind wandering, brain waves and perception, the brain and social interaction and on plant evolution.
The student panel was composed of: Krishna Ram, 11; Wyatt Fisher, 10; Schuyler Simon-Thomas, 11; Sybille Simon-Thomas, 8; Paceyn Ogrady-Specht, 7; and Darius Suplica, 13.
Presented by Bay Area Science Festival and moderated by neuroscientist Dr. Indre Viskontas, the programs’ field chief editor and UC Berkeley professor of psychology and neuroscience Dr. Robert Knight said the event “flipped the scientific process” by having students become the reviewers.
From publications covering new discoveries to core concepts, Viskontas said her papers had improved because of peer review and would have benefited even more if the students had looked at them.
“If you can’t explain your science to a fifth- or sixth-grader, you don’t understand it well enough yourself,” she said.
For the students, the activity resulted in encounters with subjects they might not otherwise have selected.
“They teach you about what’s in your head. I think it’s fun,” said Wyatt, a fifth-grade student at Beach Elementary School in Piedmont.
“This is what keeps him up at night,” said his mother, Lindsay Fisher, about her oldest son’s intellectual pursuits. As the mother of four boys with energy equal to Wyatt’s, Fisher says her former career as a dog trainer was perfect preparation.
Wyatt, two minutes before the student panel sat down to hear 10-minute presentations from the scientists, was exuberantly verbal on a variety of topics.
“My favorite thing is science because we’re doing engineering,” he said. “We built catapults. We tested celery by adding dye to it. We wanted to see where the celery transported water. The orange dye had things in it that messed with celery’s photosynthesis and killed it. We should have used dark green dye, but we used orange.”
He continued, describing machines he’d like to build to “pull you into other dimensions” and portals needed to reach “hyperspace.” A robot that thinks and feels, learns and adapts, would “get smarter and smarter and solve all the world’s problems,” he promised.
First on the robot’s to-do list would be discovering an infinite, sanitary energy source.
“Then you could get rid of coal and oil and global warming,” he said. “Then you’d have time to work on other stuff.”
Schuyler, a seventh-grade student at Willard Middle School in Berkeley, was particularly interested in plant life.
“I like the idea that they’re related, that plants look similar even if they’re grown in vastly different places,” she said.
Paceyn, a student in second grade at LeConte Elementary, especially likes math and most often during the program asked questions related to patterns and multi-tasking.
“Can you have a conversation while mind wandering?” she asked the scientists who presented their study of episodic daydreaming. Later, a paper absent an exact, linear description of how pollen transfer relates to plant survival drew cautionary comment from Paceyn that earned praise from the adults. Throughout the 90-minute program, “great idea” and “good input” where the most frequent responses heard from the adult scientists.
Based on the number of questions and length of discussion, the student panel appeared most intrigued by information about human beings. Where in the brain mind wandering occurs; whether or not a brain that is damaged can heal, the veracity of study participants; why the snapshots our brains take of our experiences convert to flow like a film; and how discoveries in human genomics might transfer to the study of plants.
Asked for subjects they hoped articles will address in the future, there was no shortage of suggestions: robotics, physics, aeronautical engineering, nature, space, artificial intelligence, life in other planets, chemistry, biochemistry and more.