Science Fair

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Developing a Passion for Problem Solving

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Editors Note: Now that the submissions for the Google Science Fair are in and the judging has begun in earnest, we invited guest blogger Thomas Culhane, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and one of our judges for the Google Science Fair, to talk about how he believes the world is your laboratory.

I am so excited to see all of the submissions that came in -- but I am most looking forward to reviewing them and seeing which of the world’s problems you chose to tackle!

As I prepare to leave Germany to do field work on renewable energy projects in Africa and Asia, I find myself reflecting on how an American kid like me became a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. I spend one half the year travelling around the world conducting “citizen science” with people from a vast range of cultures and backgrounds and the other half working on home-scale energy, water and waste research in Europe. And I ask myself: what advice can I give to other young people who want to do something positive to help both civilization and the natural world endure?

My principal piece of advice is, “science is all around you. Build on the science you learn in a classroom or from a textbook; the world is your laboratory!”

When I was in middle school and high school, the land around my home -- the Hudson Valley ecosystem -- taught me important lessons about human impact. The stream was littered with phosphates, oil and other pollutants from the town. The forest was full of plastic waste, leftover shopping carts and even old cars that were dumped by my own neighbors. I became an environmental activist on the first Earth Day in 1972, when I was 10. While adults in my neighborhood were planting flowers and sweeping streets, I gathered my friends to clean up the woods.

In my teenage years, I did everything I could to further my scientific education. I rode the train to the Museum of Natural History in New York City, I joined Pete Seeger’s Clearwater Club, I took summer jobs cleaning test tubes in laboratories and I went on field trips with professional scientists who taught kids how to research environmental degradation. By age 15, I was finally old enough to fulfill a lifelong dream -- I took a scuba diving course.

Seeing the underwater world changed my life. My subsequent dives were often in lakes and quarries, so I saw a lot of garbage down there. And a lot of oil slicks. I realized that there is no “out of sight out of mind”; the way we live has downstream consequences that you can’t just throw or flush away. Even in the most remote and beautiful places, there is no escaping the mess we make in our cities and towns.

After college, I spent time following orangutans through the rainforests of Borneo and learning from the local tribespeople who knew how to live sustainably. I returned to my high school as a teacher and made it my mission to share what I had learned with others and inspire students to look beyond the classroom. Taking my students on field trips into the incredible Hudson Valley ecosystem was what led me to continue my own education and pursue my Ph.D. in Urban Planning with a specialty in Environmental Analysis and Policy.

Seeing the multiple problems we face, I am most excited to work with you, the students participating in the Google Science Fair, because I know that your creative minds are going to solve the problems you’ve inherited from us on this precious planet. Science is all around you -- but the excitement to tackle scientific problems is within you. To be a great scientist, develop a passion for the possible and an interest in problem solving. Then go outside and explore, observe, hypothesize and experiment. Alongside your schoolwork, the world, its citizens and the laws of nature will then teach you everything you need to know.