Non-traditional scientists

The label of “scientist” is usually assigned to a particular type of person. One who is highly educated and generally paid to do science as a profession. While this is not incorrect (these people are generally scientists)- it is not inclusive. Studies have highlighted that very young children use something very like the scientific method to discover things about their environment, the people they interact with, and how the world works.

A group of middle schoolers from New York were listed as co-authors on a PLoS One publication about elephant behavior last spring. This was featured in a New York Times article about it that mentions it as one of the first times that a teenagers have been listed as co-authors on a scientific study. This is really a big accomplishment for them- and it’s great to see them get recognition and respect from their coauthors, the established scientists. The paper itself doesn’t really highlight the role that the teenagers played in the experiment however. This is really written as more of a straight-on scientific paper.

However, this isn’t the first publication like this. In 2010 a paper on behavior in bees

Figure 2 from the paper: Conditions and responses to ‘test 2’. (a) The pattern of colours that the bees were tested on in their second test (see text for explanation). (b) A table showing the preferences of each bee during test 2 (see text for explanation).

was published in Biology Letters that includes as it’s first author “P.S. Blackawton”, where the “P.S.” stands for “Public School”. This paper is really cool because the entire process was guided by established scientists, but was thought of, executed by, and largely written by elementary school children, aged 8-10. The abstract for the paper gives a good overview of how, and why, the study was organized as such.

This is science: the process of playing with rules that enables one to reveal previously unseen patterns of relationships that extend our collective understanding of nature and human nature.

What a great thing not to forget as an “established scientist”.

Here’s an excerpt from the Discussion section that highlights what a refreshingly delightful read this paper is:

This experiment is important, because, as far as we know, no one in history (including adults) has done this experiment before. It tells us that bees can learn to solve puzzles (and if we are lucky we will be able to get them to do Sudoku in a couple of years’ time).

It is really important to remember that the label of “scientist” does not just apply to those with PhDs (or on their way), with white coats, doing experiments in laboratories. Scientists are those who follow the scientific method, intentionally or not, to discover things about the world around them. And non-traditional scientists can bring a whole new perspective to challenging problems.

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