Finally, a research article even an 8-year-old can undersand

Last year was a fantastic one for the science world, thanks largely to the efforts out of England. First, the journal The Lancet retracted Andrew Wakefield’s paper, which fraudulently linked autism and the MMR vaccine, The British Chiropractic Association’s (BCA) dropped its lawsuit against Simon Singh and BCA members’ websites with false advertisements were taken down, and finally the British Medical Association declared that homeopathy is “witchcraft” and voted for the National Health Service to stop spending millions of pounds funding it. All this was from just the early months of 2010.

These victories, and many more, were substantial because they brought many pseudoscience purveyors to their knees, raised awareness across the world and rallied the science community from every strata and job sector imaginable — from comedians to particle physicists.

For example, hundreds of people all over the world participated in the 10:23 protests, in which they gathered to swallow enough homeopathy pills to be lethal — if homeopathy truly did anything. The idea started in England, because of Boots Pharmacy selling such products on the same shelves as non-homeopathic medicine. As expected, nothing happened, and they are now preparing for the 2011 campaign in early February, organizing via

However, what’s perhaps even more important is the sense of wonderment about science that English educators are able to instill in their youth. It is this passion that drives people to continue learning well after they have forgotten the facts from textbooks. Learning about science is one of the most fundamental forces that can positively advance our ever-globalizing society and a necessary goal that American President Barack Obama, and various other leaders, have been actively pursuing, especially in an age of rampant scientific illiteracy.

One class project in London’s Blackawton Primary School was to conduct a scientific experiment, with a little help from adults like Beau Lotto, a neuroscientist from University College London. They learned proper scientific research methodology, which is evidently not as esoteric as it sounds, and the class of eight to 10-year-olds conducted the experiment, wrote up the report and sent it to a journal.

“Scientists do experiments on monkeys because they are similar to man,” the students write in the introduction, “but bees could actually be close to man too.” The students trained bumblebees to fly towards targets of specific colours and shapes by reinforcing them with sugar. They wanted to see whether or not bees could learn which flowers to forage from, in order to get the most fruitful result.
The unorthodox paper — which includes adorable phrasing and hand-drawn diagrams in coloured pencil — passed the peer-review process and was published on Dec. 22 in the prestigious Royal Society’s journal Biology Letters. The results were not robust, and there was no statistical analysis (maybe that’s for the 11-year-olds) or references, but the findings were a “genuine advance” in the scientific literature of insect vision.

Neuroscientists Larry Maloney and Natalie Hempel de Ibarra, who wrote the accompanying background for the report, make a well-reasoned argument that this work should absolutely be taken seriously. They conclude with:
“[The] lack of historical, scientific context does not diminish the resulting data, scientific methodology or merit of the discovery for the scientific and ‘non-scientific’ audience. On the contrary, it reveals science in its truest (most naive) form, and in this way makes explicit the commonality between science, art and indeed all creative activities.”

We need more educators like Lotto — whose goal was to creatively inspire children to enjoy science — because the future of science is our youth. Sure, we should teach kids to understand science, but a greater and more important challenge is for us to teach kids to want to understand science. We have to make a big deal about children’s curiosity, not just answer their questions when they raise their hands and then move on.

So when someone like Canadian 10-year-old Kathryn Gray becomes the youngest girl to discover a supernova — in a galaxy 240 light-years from Earth, no less — we should make a big deal of it. Let me try that again . . . we should make a big deal of it! She was the youngest person ever to discover a supernova! The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada confirmed her discovery on Jan. 3.
Even if her future does not involve the cosmos, she likely gained a lasting appreciation for science, which not enough children get in school.