an eye-opening conversation last year with a high school student who sat next
to me at the awards banquet for a state-level high school science competition.
He asked me what my daughters project had been on, and, when I responded
that Carolyn had done a geology project, his ingenuous response was a polite
but puzzled, Why would someone want to do a geology project? There arent
any interesting questions in geology. Hmmm
Is this students viewpoint unique, or are our brightest and most motivated high school students failing to discover that geology is full of compelling research questions? Consider that in the past 10 years of the prestigious national Intel Science Talent Search, only two of the top-10 finalists had geoscience projects (Bruce Haggerty in 1995 and Carolyn Tewksbury in 2003). By contrast, 25 of the top-10 finalists were in the biosciences. Furthermore, in the past eight years, only one student with a project in the geosciences has won one of the three top prizes given annually at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Sarah Langberg in 2004). By comparison, the biosciences and physics have accounted for fully half of the top prizes. And, anyone who has judged science fairs at any level can tell you not only that geoscience projects are rare, but also that the top students working with mentors who are professional scientists rarely have geoscience projects.
By many measures, then, disappointingly few high school students who are looking for research projects are drawn to geoscience questions. We know that there are plenty of interesting questions in the geosciences. Why do so few of our best and most motivated high school students become involved in geoscience research?
Is the well-known lack of exposure to earth science courses in the pre-college curriculum a contributing factor? Lets look at New York State, where earth science courses have been well-established for half a century through the states Regents system and where roughly 90 percent of students who have graduated with Regents diplomas have taken earth science. More than one-third of the Intel Science Talent Search semifinalists and finalists over the past several decades have come from New York State, but very few of those students have done geoscience projects despite having taken Regents earth science. So, the simple answer that many students dont encounter earth science courses in school is clearly not the whole answer.
I spoke recently with Melanie Krieger, president of the Long Island Science and Engineering Fair, and with Len Behr, who is affiliated with the upstate New York program Science Research in the High Schools. Both Krieger and Behr stressed that most high school teachers have neither the time nor the resources to mentor students interested in doing significant science research and that professional scientists play a crucial role as mentors for students in their programs.
Behr indicated that high school teachers in their program teach a general course in science research and help students find mentors for research projects. Most of the high school teachers involved are biology teachers, and students are typically 10th graders enrolled in biology at the time they start the program. Predictably, mentors and projects are heavily skewed toward the biosciences. Krieger told me that virtually all of the 400 students who participate annually in the Long Island Science and Engineering Fair have mentors and that she remembers only a handful of geoscientists among the group of mentors over the past 20 years. Predictably, geoscience projects are few and far between.
So, whats the message? Were missing the boat! We need more people like Mike Perfit at the University of Florida, who mentored 2004 Intel Young Scientist Sarah Langberg, and Vicki Hansen of the University of Minnesota, Duluth, who mentored 2003 Intel Science Talent Search Finalist Carolyn Tewksbury. By connecting with young scientists, we can increase the number of top students entering our field and conducting geoscience research (the topic of this issue of Geotimes) at an early age. The quality of our college and university faculty and students, and the health of our departments, ultimately starts at the pre-college level.
I urge all of you to go to your local schools, share your passion for the geosciences, take the time to mentor a student or two, volunteer to judge at local, regional and international science competitions, and consider establishing a prize at your local or regional fair to recognize an outstanding young geoscience researcher. You can find good advice on mentoring students for high school research projects and competitions online at www.sciserv.org/isef/teachers, www.jshs.org/getinvolved.html and www.albany.edu/rshs, or you can e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org for advice on how to get started. Lets turn the tide!
Geotimes Guest Editor and AGI President
Department of Geology, Hamilton College, Clinton, N.Y.