The Science of Not Knowing
This was only the first year out, but both students and faculty are pleased with how the summer research program is shaping up. (“Pleased” might be understating the case; “smashing success” are the words Cullinane used.) In fact, students who did more traditional summer programming have been inspired to work more independently next year. Consider Tara’s classmate Peter Shaw ’14, who spent four weeks at the University of New England focusing on neuroscience. “For the first two weeks, we sat in a classroom, like regular school,” he explains. But then that shifted; by the end of his time there, he spent his days in a neuroscience lab, working on ways to prevent arteries from bursting in the brain.
Peter finds it’s now having a direct impact on his schoolwork. “I’m taking biology this year, and I’m always coming across concepts and words in my biology textbook that I remember from the program,” he points out. “The material has saved me on biology tests a couple of times.” It’s not just boosting his GPA, however—it has also fanned a flame of curiosity. “Before doing that neuroscience project,” Peter admits, “the variety of topics we were going over, the endless possibilities, were a little too intimidating to think about. But once I started doing it, homing in on what I was truly interested in, it opened the realm of independent research for me. I’m more keen on doing that now.”
Hills and Cullinane both see this as the best endpoint for the research program. Getting A’s is great, but the real goal is to ignite enthusiasm. Peter is an example; Cullinane also points to Nina. “I never really pegged her as science-y kid,” he says. “And that’s the target for this kind of program. Here’s this experience that takes a wonderful student and lights a fire inside of them.” Cullinane pauses. “My job in the classroom isn’t necessarily to teach material,” he confesses. “They’ll forget the material. But once a flame is lit . . . it’s difficult to extinguish.”
That’s a good thing, because that kind of burning curiosity can be what helps students get past the biggest challenges of all. Sometimes it’s not simply a matter of not knowing the answer. Sometimes you take a stab at it and you’re wrong. Jade describes opening herself up to making mistakes as adjusting her lens toward school.
“I would always try to accomplish what I intended to do, but throughout the process I had to redo several experiments,” she says. It’s an extremely frustrating scenario for a normally careful, deliberate student. Hills knew it would be hard for them, but stood back and let these students move through the experience. “They do have a certain level of discomfort at the start. But that’s a valuable lesson for them: ‘I was uncomfortable, and it didn’t kill me. I overcame it, and I thrived,’” Hills emphasizes. “It’s good to get that experience under your belt. It can be applied to so many things. Students want to know the guidelines to the game they’re playing so they can optimize their score… but sometimes the game is just go in there and mess around and see what happens.”
Which brings us back to the moment when Jade tells us how she spent her summer vacation. She still can’t say ectonucleoside triphosphate diphosphohydrolase 5 without hesitating, but she has a sense of humor about it—and she’s taking an increasingly philosophical approach to her work. “At first I got mad at myself for messing up, but more and more I expect that I won’t always be able to have the answer on the first go,” she reflects. It’s exactly the lesson her teachers want her to learn. “The process of not knowing can help you learn better than you would otherwise,” she continues. “I’m trying to embrace the fact that I’ll make mistakes, because those mistakes lead to new things. I learn from them.”••
Naomi Shulman has written for The New York Times, Ladies’ Home Journal, Whole Living, FamilyFun, and other publications. She is a frequent contributor to Deerfield Magazine.