STEM Thinking and The Joy of Research by Nury Vittachi

Reading Time: 5 minutes
STEM Thinking and The Joy of Research by Nury Vittachi

Nury Vittachi explains how you can teach your child the joy of research.

I sat in a school library and challenged the school community to ask me about the origin of anything at all – and pledged to use library resources to answer within 60 minutes. It was a game.

Children and adults delivered clever, funny, unexpected questions:  

Who owned the first pet dog? 

Who invented toilets? 

What was the first song?

Were the first newspapers really made of rock? 

And who was the first human, anyway?

Seeking answers from reference books, the Internet, and educational databases, my young assistants and I soon discovered the answers to the questions –  and many more amazing stories from history. 

Did you know that someone once used a tape measure to work out how far away the moon was? (He noticed that during an eclipse, the shadow of the Earth reached all the way to touch the moon. So he used maths to work out how long the shadow was.)

Perhaps one of our oddest discoveries during this process was the fact that the first daily newspaper was made of rock — just like in the Flintstones cartoon. (Julius Caesar published it every day by getting his staff to scratch announcements into sheets of rock and placing them in public places.) The whole project was an enjoyable exercise to show just how one can use libraries to find out information. But this was more than just a fun way to pass the time. In these days of fake news, information overload, and tough academic competition, the ability to conduct fast, accurate research is one of the best skills any student can have.

Data-handling skills are often associated with what is sometimes called “left-brain processing” or “convergent thinking” or STEM-style research, with STEM standing for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – areas of learning which used to be considered “boy subjects” although no one would dare to suggest that now! STEM is now sometimes extended to “STEAM” to include arts subjects – and there’s debate about how much sense that makes. In my experience, there’s as much convergent thinking in arts subjects as there is divergent thinking in science subjects, so the division is more than a little artificial. But how can you encourage your child to think analytically?

Our library lunch challenge game turned into a book — The First of Everything — so my junior assistants and I had to spend a lot of time researching the origins of things. Here’s a tip for reading scientific articles.

You may find an article with a clear conclusion: “Earth’s rotation is speeding up.” Before trusting this information, take a moment to check whether there is another science paper that reaches the opposite conclusion. You’ll quickly learn that there is. An Internet search will show there’s a paper which reports that “Earth’s rotation is slowing down”. Both claim to have good supporting evidence. So instead of adopting the views of individual science papers; look for lots of sources, or general overviews.  

Now the rest of this article is really aimed at younger readers.

10 THINGS WORTH KNOWING ABOUT THE RESEARCH PROCESS

1) If you are researching birds or dinosaurs or Zheng He or space travel or pretty much anything else, reading through physical books is much more enjoyable than reading on screen. And the act of flicking through pages and letting your eyes wonder across illustrations is great for triggering ideas.

2) BUT, if you are writing a non-fiction essay and your topic MUST have up-to-date facts, use the Internet instead. Things are continuously being discovered. So, for example, a book might say that Ur was the first real city in the world, but the Internet may tell you that archeologists more recently decided that Jericho should have that title.

3) At the same time, we need to be very careful of “facts” on the Internet. The web is full of traps for junior researchers. The Internet is written by its users, many of whom are just not very careful and a few of whom have deliberate bad intentions. Try to get a few different sources, to confirm facts before you accept them.

4) Don’t trust anyone! Well, that’s a bit melodramatic, but what we mean is this: Always maintain a little healthy scepticism. When you read something presented as a fact, don’t immediately accept it as such. Take it as an assertion that someone has made, and then decide yourself how much credence (that means level of believability) you will give it. If it’s specifically designed to make you startled or angry or click a link, avoid it.

5) Check the writer’s motivation. If your mother says: “It’s really cold today, wear a coat,” you can give her the highest level of credence. She’s your mother, she cares for you, and you know it’s winter anyway. But imagine you are presented with a “fact” such as this: “Sprinkle fruit on this breakfast cereal and you can count it as one of your five a day.” How can sugary cereal be part of our recommended five portions a day of fruit and vegetables? The cereal maker is trying to trick us into associating his or her product with healthy eating. We wouldn’t be fooled by that, would we? 

6) In many ways, this writer is a big fan of Wikipedia, which is by far the most popular online encyclopaedia. But it’s very important to take reports on Wikipedia with healthy scepticism too. On Wikipedia we typically see very long articles on trivial subjects such as the light sabers used in the movie series Star Wars, while historically important cultural topics from, say, Africa, get little or no coverage! Medical treatments such as acupuncture from Asia are listed in Wikipedia under “pseudoscience”. 

7) An under-used resource is the school librarian. Just wait until she or he is not busy, and then ask for help. School librarians are trained in finding information, and can often cut minutes, hours, or days off a research project. And they’re lovely people! (This is very often true for folk who love books!)  In fact, school librarians can often be a bit frustrated that some of the best resources in their libraries are rarely used – and so they are delighted to help students who want to do serious research.

8) The other best resource is your own enthusiasm. If you are interested in something, it’s amazing what you can achieve. When I was at school, I found the section of books that interested me – science and ecology – and sat at a table next to that bookcase. I read almost all the books, one after another, going through entire shelves, volume after volume, day after day, week after week. Teachers congratulated me on working so hard – but I wasn’t working, I was having fun!

9) Some people think non-fiction work has to be serious and dull. Your science teacher might think it odd if you wrote a chemistry essay as a funny poem. But all pieces of writing need to be interesting—otherwise, why would anyone read them? So find offbeat or eye-opening facts about the topic you have to cover, and include them in your final essay. 

10) And one last fact about facts: This article is wrong! Science works by continuously assuming that any set of findings is either wrong, incomplete, or at least capable of improvement. And that includes the facts in this article. That’s just how science works. It’s not a problem, but just part of the process. So one day this list will be improved by a better writer.

It might be you! 

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