15 April 2013

Lab dreams

Imagine this movie synopsis:

This documentary follows two inner-city Chicago residents, Ally A. and Bill G., as they follow their dreams of becoming science superstars. Beginning at the start of their high school years, and ending almost 5 years later, as they start university, we watch the boys and girls mature into men and women, still retaining their “Lab Dreams.” Both are recruited into the same elite high school as their idol, astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Only one survives the first year; the other must return to a high school closer to his home. Along the way, there is much tragedy, some joy, a great wealth of information about inner city life, and the suspense of not knowing what will occur next. This is not a “by-the-numbers” film.

This is not a real movie. That is actually a slightly edited version of the plot summary of Hoop Dreams.

Last Friday, I attended a planning meeting for graduate program that our university is participating in. During a break, I overheard one of the other participants talking. He noted that a young person who shows some talent at sports will often be brought to the attention of scouts. The job of the scouts is to identify talent. And there is the potential to gain rewards in the near (university sports scholarships) and long term (professional sports). People know this and pursue it, hard.

After the official meeting was over, I ran into him again. He talked to me about how important it had been to him that someone in school had told him that he had potential. That he could code, do computing, engineering, those sorts of things.

That brings up a few points. First, there aren’t very many venues where prospective scientists can show their skills. Science fairs, maybe. Science fairs are a little limited, though, in that they tend to be annual events, and they aren't terribly close to the way professional scientists work. Student athletes have consistent venues to show their skills: games where the players are constrained to play using the same rules as professional athletes. That’s important.

Second, recruiting for science is radically different than sports. It seems that most attempts at science recruitment are just widely cast nets to encourage people in general to enter university programs in science. Sports recruiting is very targeted to find individuals.

Of course, if you've seen another sports movie, Moneyball, you know that sports recruiters don't always get it right. A major plot element of that film is that Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) is recruited at an early age into a sports career that just doesn't pan out.

Additional, 16 April 2013: Science fairs are often seen as potential recruitment tools. This post makes some excellent points about how science fairs might just show off the Matthew Effect (the rich get richer).

There is no equity of access to lab facilities and equipment or access to scientific mentors, meaning some students are disadvantaged from the start. Projects done in the lab or with the help of a scientist mentor are inherently more impressive. While a kid who investigates pollution in a local watershed and a kid who looks at the effects of a chemotherapeutic drug on different cancer cells may be equals in the rigor of their scientific method, the kid with the lab-based project simply stands out more. So, unfortunately, the students who win these science fairs will often be the ones with the best access.

Photo by nashworld on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

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