T.H. Culhane

On Monday Google will announce the winners of its second annual Google Science Fair. As SA did last year, we've partnered with Google on the competition, and editor in chief Mariette DiChristina serves as a judge. This year, SA helped expand the honors by sponsoring the Science In Action award for a project that addresses a social, environmental or health issue to make a practical difference in the lives of a group or community. We announced the winners - Bonkhe Mahlalela and Sakhiwe Shongwe, 14, of Swaziland - last month, and they will be attending next week's awards in Mountain View, Calif., where they are eligible for more honors. And I'll be covering the ceremony and the events leading up to it on this blog.

To help provide some context, I wanted to share a post by T. H. Culhane, a science educator and Google Science Fair judge. He reflects on the pain of choosing just a handful of winners from among a highly gifted group of finalists and proposes a way of rewarding more of these talented young people.


Guest post by T.H. Culhane, excerpted from a longer essay that can be found here.

I [recently] had the honor to judge the work of 15 dedicated young men and women whose brilliant applications of their native curiosity and formal science education had led to them becoming finalists in the first Scientific American "Science in Action" awards competition, and it was quite a moving experience, given their universal sincerity in helping their fellow humans -- particularly those less fortunate than them -- to lead dignified, meaningful, healthy and environmentally sustainable lives.

It was a joy to think through these remarkable young people's projects through this process; at the same time it was very very difficult (often painfully so) to think that my judgements as a science educator/mentor could actually stand between a young person and their dreams of improving their world, for every time we select a "winner" we also are aware that in this go-round we will be unable to support the work of the other nominees. And I often ask myself, when it comes to solving our biggest environmental and health challenges, how many rounds do we get? Isn't there some way to put the great science all these kids are doing into action now?

16 year old Catherine Wong pointed out in her proposal, "Engineering is applied dreaming." Her call to action -- "here's to daring to dream!"-- puts a lump in my throat every time I read it. Similarly, 14 year olds Sakhiwe and Bonkhe moved me beyond measure with their astute observation that "Winning Google Science Fair as young Swazi scientists cannot change the world; however can change the way we live in it. Given the opportunity the project can make Swaziland a better country to live in." If that isn't the strongest statement of the pragmatic dreamer, who realizes the true limitations of all our best intentions, yet still knows what the right application of intelligence and resources can do to improve local conditions, I don't know what is! What this process made me do is come up with a fantasy for a possible "Science in Action Summer Camp". This would be a science in action prize which, rather than selecting a winner from among the group, would function to bring together ALL the contestants to synergize their contributions in a results oriented cooperative rather than competitive forum.

As a science educator I've learned that some parameters that lead to ultimate success in the implementation of a great idea are notoriously difficult to measure or evaluate. We as teachers often can only vaguely feel when our judgements and actions can provide that incredibly valuable spark that can cause the waiting tinder of a child's mind to burst into the passionate flame of understanding and activity; often we inadvertently snuff out a glimmer of promise whose consequences could have major positive impacts if we could only have known where and how to nudge things toward to light.

So I keep thinking of ways to make everyone a winner. Now, as I look at the incredible crop of young people we've just been judging for Science in Action, I'd like to propose a fantasy for how further support might be given to them and students like them in the future.

Along with (or instead of?) a grand prize winner getting $50,000 dollars for their particular work, $50,000 could be made available, as the Blackstone Ranch has done, for the creation of a synergistic team that can put their ideas together to create a "best practice model" somewhere in the world (a showcase in Swaziland? a gaggle of ideas on display at Google? A eutopia trial baloon in Ethiopia or Uruguay?)

We "judges" and the institutions sponsoring the initiative would be acting like "The Wizard of Oz" when, at the end of the MGM film, at the wish granting ceremony, he points out to Dorothy and the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodsman and the Cowardly Lion that they already have almost everything they need to achieve their goals, but are often merely missing one or two catalysts to enable their best qualities to shine through and work to their greatest effect. We would point out that the missing catalysts can often be found in the toolkits of the other finalists. As in the Blackstone Ranch Emerging Explorer Innovation Challenge that would be the challenge -- identifying and putting those missing pieces together.

Finalist Sumit Singh of India wrote this poem to the Science in Action committee regarding people in need around the world:

"I sense their pain and apprehend their affliction,

Their hardships and their grievous soul,

I resolve to bring a change in their condition,

And choose their happiness as my goal."

Any would-be superhero who chooses to tackle such hardships will face the prospect of severe disillusionment when trying to go it alone. But, as the recent Marvel "The Avengers" film shows these young people, when people with different talents and abilities come together with common purpose and pool their energies, there is nothing they can't overcome.

For T.H.'s full post, click here.