There is much in the news today about failing schools and young people who do not measure up to our expectations. What is often missed, however, is the fact that, while there is no question that our educational system has problems, it also has successes. In particular, there are many local students who are doing very well.
I had an opportunity to witness this firsthand recently when I interviewed the four students who won top awards in the 72nd Annual Western New York Science Congress. They went on to earn additional honors in the statewide program at Brookhaven National Laboratory.
I came away from this experience both proud of these delightful kids and more than a bit overwhelmed by what they were doing. To indicate the level of their work, I offer the title and a single sentence from the abstract of the two Senior Division winners, both of whom will be seniors this fall.
Connor Huck of Buffalo City Honors. Title: “The Analysis of the Proteins in the Ribosome.” From the abstract: “This suggests that both the arginine interaction in S9 and the hystidine interaction in L35 with the tRNA play a vital role in the process of translation as it may be part of ensuring the correct pairing between the tRNA and mRNA.”
Hakeem Salem of Buffalo City Honors. Title: “Photodynamic Therapy Induced Microvascular Changes Assessed.” From the abstract: “Once excited, the signals emitted by the vasculature are then captured by an unfocused, 10MHz transducer, analyzed and plotted on a relative scale of intensity to create a 2D image.”
Clearly, these youngsters are not working at the superficial knowledge level of “Jeopardy.” They are deep into laboratory science.
I won’t try to translate those technical descriptions into lay terms the way they did for me, but I will say that they were able to convey to me at least the general sense of what they were doing. What I found most impressive as they offered these explanations was their use of metaphor to clarify concepts. For example, Connor compared his ribosome interactions to our muscles and spine. Clearly these winners had been able to convey these ideas to the scientists who judged the congress.
The Intermediate Division winners, Louise Faitar of Mill Middle School in Williamsville and Chandler Edbauer of St. Aloysius Regional School in Springville, impressed me for very different reasons. These much younger students now moving into eighth grade did not display the impressive background of the older students, but they did show me seriousness of purpose and creative thinking.
Chandler’s project is titled “A Brighter Future: Solar Energy,” and it fits perfectly with the local RiverBend initiative. Much of the information he had gathered and displayed came from his interactions with personnel from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.
My personal favorite of the four projects is Louise’s “Birth Order’s Worth.” An only child, Louise noticed some differences in personality and achievement of some of her classmates and wondered if her perceptions were real. Is it somehow advantageous to be an older or younger child in a family? She reviewed literature related to her questions and surveyed a number of students.
I came away from these interviews not only impressed with the scientific accomplishments of these youngsters but with some more general observations as well.
First, none of these students could be described as a nerd. They are all outgoing and involved in extracurricular activities as well as academics. The most involved is Louise. This 4-foot-6 dynamo organized her school’s Environmental Club and debate team. She even took the opportunity of our meeting to ask me to speak out against rezoning a woodlot at the end of Linwood Avenue where her family lives.
Second, they all drew on other aspects of their schooling. In particular, their English skills were excellent: they wrote and spoke well. In each case, teachers, mentors and parents provided support.
And third, all but Connor plan to explore different projects next school year. His Roswell Park adviser, Bill Duax, believes their project is well worth further exploration.