As my Amtrak train rolled past the “Lancaster” sign, the window view alighted on the upright figure of an Amish farmer and his mule-team-pulled hand plow, working the verdant Pennsylvania land just as his forefathers have done here for more than two centuries. I remembered that I was only some 33 miles from Dover, Pa., which in 2005 was the site of a widely reported trial over teaching intelligent design in schools (the judge ultimately ruled against the idea).
In this region wrapped in tradition and homespun values, however, I was about to see some examples of how vibrant the local science also is—both in many school-age children and as an adult enterprise.
As President Obama noted in his 2011 State of the Union address, if our nation wants to improve student performance in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), one thing we can do is celebrate the winners of science fairs. "We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair," he said. I’d been asked by Marian Bechtel to speak at a dinner to do just that: we would fete the local Champions of Science, category winners, in grades 7 through 12, of a countywide science fair. (Marian was herself a past Champion, among other honors.) Each fall, some 70 teachers, 25 schools and 1,000 students register to participate, ultimately resulting in about 750 written project proposals submitted for review. Most of the 750 go on to local science fairs, and the winners become part of the countywide program, which has been organized by Lancaster's North Museum of Natural History & Science for the past few years. The countywide fair is an affiliate of the International Science and Engineering Fair—and a number of competing Champions go to other national science competitions as well.
As I walked through the exhibit area before the Champions dinner, I talked to each of the students about their posters and research. Among the impressive projects I saw were a biodegradable packaging material made from mushroom mycelia (photo), a frictionless gear created with magnets, a study of ecosystem differences in urban and rural areas of the Conestoga River, and a way to convert municipal waste to ethanol. An audience of 200, including these youngsters, their parents and their teachers, then supped and swapped tales about science. In my remarks, I talked to them about how to nurture their inner scientist throughout their lives—even if, like me, they ultimately don't end up practicing research.
The next morning, I visited the state-of-the-art but homey Clinic for Special Children, whose genetics research and therapies were recently profiled in an article in the journal Nature, "Rare Diseases: Genomics Plain and Simple" (Scientific American is part of the Nature Publishing Group). The post-and-beam building, the structure of which was raised in a day with the help of local Amish community members, is decorated with hand-sewn quilts—and well stocked with modern lab equipment for genetic testing and analysis. Through the center’s efforts, more than 120 genetic ailments of Amish and Mennonites have been identified, along with many pioneering treatments. To a visitor, the connection between traditional, community-based patient care and modern personalized medicine and research appeared laudably seamless.
Last on my brief Lancaster tour, I spoke over lunch to a few dozen members and friends of the North Museum of Natural History. I was peppered with insightful questions about what Scientific American is doing to help foster an appreciation of science in young people and the public in general—and got some new ideas about doing so as well. (My favorite was to try to add hands-on activities to our stories where we can.)
I left the area feeling uplifted and grateful to all the individuals who generously spent time with me during my visit because of their love of science and education. Who says science isn’t a spiritually nourishing endeavor?