Young Scientist Problems

Kim Moldofsky is the publisher of The Maker Mom and STEM Kids Chicago.

I was delighted to see Allie Weber, a 2017 Young Scientist Finalist, chime in during a recent #STEMchat on Twitter. She got me thinking about the challenges of being a young scientist, thanks to her #YoungScientistProbs hashtag. Scientific research is challenging enough. Imagine if you had to ask your parents for permission any time you needed to head to your research lab.

Allie shared a humorous take on a few of the challenges in one of her summer posts on summer blog on this site. My curiosity was piqued enough that I decided to reach out to last year’s finalists* to learn more about the unique challenges faced by ambitious tweens or teens. The finalists were so generous with their responses that I can’t fit them all in, although I hope to work their feedback into future posts.

Space for Science

Neil deGrasse Tyson advises parents to tolerate a mess in the name of scientific discovery. Allie’s parents certainly embraced that philosophy. Allie notes that her work has taken over the kitchen counter for more than two weeks at a time. Allie also used the family’s unfinished basement, her bedroom, the backyard, and the garage.

It sounds like the parents of Gitanjali Rao, 2017’s Top Young Scientist, have an equally generous philosophy because she also did her research around the house and in the yard. However, she adds an important safety reminder: “While working with hazardous substance or chemicals, I had to reach out to research or chemistry labs to ensure that they’d have a proper way to dispose of hazardous waste before proposing my experiments.” Anika Bhagavatula experimented with crude oil at her school lab as she sought to develop solutions for oil spills.

A messy personal workspace forced Simone Jacobs into her family’s living room. Offering proof that the Young Scientist Competition is about more than just science, Simone cautions future young scientists: “PRO TIP: DO NOT DO THIS. It's so much harder to make progress when your tools are piled randomly and there's no flat surface to work on. I found that I was much more productive, and in a better state of mind, when I had a clean organized space to work.”

Speaking of Cleaning

Young Scientists need to balance the time they spend on scientific discoveries with normal kid stuff, like household chores. How do busy, precocious children get out of chores in the name of science? Alas, they often don’t. But that doesn’t stop them from trying.

Laalitya Acharya told her parents, "I'm helping to save the world right now. So, can I not do the *insert chore* tonight?"

Simone had offered a similar argument, "Mom, is emptying the dishwasher really important when I could be working on a planet-saving, awe-inspiring, innovative solution to (fill in the blank)?"

Alas, Gitanjali pointed out the silver lining of the dark cloud of cramming chores into an already crowded schedule, “Chores were part of learning to be organized and independent. Doing my own chores and taking care of my items were very useful the last two days of the competition because I had to make my own decisions on how the tables need to be arranged, taking care of my device, what can I leave out and what I need for my presentation, etc.”

Time Management

Managing their busy schedules is another way Young Scientists learn organization and independence. Austin Crouchley said it’s not a matter of finding time, but of making time to fit everything in.  

Kathryn Lampo suggested setting up “a basic, but flexible schedule. Balance social and physical activity with academic or Challenge activity. If you’re feeling good, don’t stop working. But if you need a break, take one. That’ll make it easier when you have to work again.”

Finding solutions

Whether in the lab, garage, living room, or basement, Young Scientists are going to have a variety of challenges. Thankfully, curious minds are good at finding solutions. If you know or are a young person who is good at finding solutions, put on your thinking hat and get ready for the 2018 Young Scientist Challenge!