Dinky data tables

Parkway’s vision of science


Haran Kumar

Kumar presents his research to the board during the judging panel. The young computer programmer had to face two rounds of rigorous judging before being awarded second place. “I was surprised that I won. First they announced all of the finalists and when they skipped my name my mom started crying and somebody next to her said not to worry because I probably won something higher, but she was crying because she was happy,” Kumar said.

1,700 students, 75 countries, 6 days and $4 million on the line as prizes for the future of science. This is the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

On Feb. 27, sophomore Haran Kumar won a second place award at the St. Louis’ Academy of Science fair’s Honor division competition in a field of almost 50 competitors, receiving a $1,000 scholarship along with a chance to go to Intel’s international science fair. His project was a study and model of something most of us cannot begin to comprehend: multidimensional pathfinding- like Google maps, but bigger. An extension to limited research in the field, Kumar’s program could have such applications as asteroid belt navigation in space and guidance programs to enhance mobility for the blind.

That sure sounds like science to me–but it looks like Parkway doesn’t think so.

Boasting a well-established science program, more than 70 percent of all students in the district score Proficient or Advanced on the Science portion of the MAP tests. West High alone offers almost 30 different science courses to students, and nearly every common assessment secondary students take has questions about the nature of a scientific experiment. Accordingly, Parkway’s Science Fair also follows a rigid experimental design rubric requiring exactly one Independent Variable, one Dependent Variable and a detailed procedure.

With all of their STEM initiatives, you might think Parkway would be eager to recognize the high level of scientific and engineering prowess found in Kumar’s computer program, but when the young scientist went to the District fair at Southwest Middle fair on Feb. 26, he walked away with a Green ribbon. While almost half of students went off with Purple ribbons qualifying them for the Greater St. Louis fair at Queeny Park, Kumar was effectively sent home for the year, all because he was a creator rather than an experimenter.

There are some video games where time is considered a dimension. Asteroid fields and space paths are an application. Accessibility systems for people with limited vision could use it in an armband for example to guide them through space. ”

— Haran Kumar

Here lies the core problem with Parkway’s vision of students in science: they only see one path to success. To any layperson, Kumar’s computer program and accompanying research would seem a detailed scientific endeavor. In the next month, Kumar is going so far as to rewrite and improve his program, as flexibility and development are major elements of science. At the fair, however, Kumar’s project was judged negatively, for not having an independent variable, a measurable dependent variable, a simple line graph. A hundred boring, simple lima bean and water presentations with pretty paper could have taken home purple ribbons with this system.

Evidently, Parkway doesn’t see it’s students like scientists in their science fair. The narrow judging rubric treats science like a one-size-fits-all equation, when in reality, the most successful and ground breaking projects often develop not as rigid experiments, but as ideas, inventions and cumulative research. The most absurd part- students at the fair are even allowed to present engineering projects at the fair–but not when they reach high school, the time when students just start to understand advanced scientific concepts.

Another barrier Kumar faced—or should I say, didn’t face—at the fair, was that he, like all students, was not required or allowed to present his projects to judges himself. After listening to Kumar explain the complexities of his program in person, (I had to ask a lot of questions) I know for a fact that I would not have been able to sufficiently understand the program with a paper board- and I judged at the fair. This issue demonstrates Parkway’s main concern with efficiency over quality. Pulling judges from the student body and families primarily, Parkway neglects to take advantage of the expertise of science professionals who can actually understand complex topics and encourage students to apply their research.

The fact is, today’s students are smarter and more passionate about science than ever before. If Parkway wants to encourage future scientists, the focus needs to be shifted away from the grade and towards the realm of understanding and innovation. Parkway should offer an engineering division to high school students, just as Intel does, to prevent such an embarrassment to the system as Kumar’s project created. Last year, the grand prize winner of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair created a way to prevent disease transmission in airplane cabins—professional level research—and he did not win the fair with a dinky data table.