07 February 2006

Educational Disparities

I had more fun than usual today - instead of doing labwork and going to class, I cut school and volunteered as a judge for the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools annual science fair. For those of you not familiar with our school system out here, HAIS covers the private schools on the island. Most are religious, but there are also a couple of private schools that don't seem to be religiously affiliated.

It was interesting, and it definitely wasn't what I was expecting. There were something like 45 entries in the category that I was judging (grade 9-12 research), and I got to talk to about 24 of the entrants. Along the way, I saw a couple of the worst research projects I'd ever seen, but I also saw some that totally blew me out of the water. There were several entries that could just as easily have been up at a scientific conference.

In some cases, the difference in quality was clearly related to the motivation and aptitude of the student. There were a couple of projects that were pure pseudoscience, and a few more that lacked any understanding of scientific method. There were also a couple of students who pretty obviously didn't know anything about what they were talking about. Other students knew more about their particular area of interest within their field than I did, and I wound up learning from them.

Unfortunately, a great deal of the disparity was also related to where the students went to school. This is great for the students that go to the schools that have extrordinary facilities. It's not so good for some of the others.

Some of the schools have science facilities available to their students that are better equipped than the lab I work in. One student, from Kamehameha Schools, did a project attempting to look at the structure of a particular enzyme across a range of taxa. Some of the work presented involved taking RNA, using an enzyme to convert it back to DNA, making a large number of copies of the DNA, and then sequencing the DNA. I asked the student where the work was done, thinking that it was a project done with a University of Hawaii researcher. The answer: "I did it at school." I said, "No, I meant where did you have the sequencing done." The answer: "Yeah, uh, we have our own sequencer." Their high school has a DNA sequencer. My lab doesn't have a sequencer.

Other students did not have access to anywhere near the same level of facilities. Where some students were doing their lab work in state of the art labs, and growing bacteria in temperature controlled incubators, others were doing their lab work on the kitchen counter and putting their bacteria out in the sun to incubate. Students at some schools had access to university researchers. Others did not. Some students participated in an intensive summer program that taught research methods. Others were being taught from the textbook, with the goal of being able to pass standardized tests.

Talking to the students was great. Some were clearly there because they had to be, and didn't really care about what they were doing. Others were highly motivated and extrordinarily enthusiastic - the type of student that you hope like hell goes on to a career in science.

Ranking their projects wasn't so great. I started from the bottom, and had no problems until I got up to the top half. That was when things started to suck. There were a few students there who were clearly motivated, intelligent, and creative, but who hadn't had access to anything near the level of resources that others did. Their projects, unsurprisingly, simply weren't as good as those with access to more people and equipment. Unfortunately, the student's potential isn't really something that I could give them a lot of points for - it was a science fair, it was about doing and presenting research, and the research just wasn't as good. And, if I did give them points for working with fewer resources, I'd be punishing others for having access to good resources. I just love problems that have no fair solutions, don't you?

I don't resent schools, like Kamehameha, that have lots of really, really good equipment, superb faculty, and special intensive science courses for interested students. I just wish everyone had access to that caliber of education. It would be expensive as hell, but we could do it. We could make teaching a high-paid, prestigious career. We could build the best education program in the world. It would even be the American thing to do, since it would give everyone a more level playing field for their career.

We won't, of course, because people don't like paying taxes, and the idiot with the Pennsylvania Avenue address isn't about to make the actual commitment to education that it would require.

But we should, damn it. We should.

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