The Academic Pathway Test
Do you have a student that is interested in following a career in one of the many sciences? The romantic image of being the quirky professor, an expert in a field, entices many a person. And why shouldn’t it? You get to teach, to travel, and to research whatever you want. Also, personally, I like the elbow patches.
But there is more to this career choice than prestige and a social acceptance of various eccentricities. A researcher by heart has a love of scientific exploration. But being an academic is not for everyone.
The Academic Pathway Test, exposes students to the fundamental frame of mind of a true scientist. Provide the following text to anyone considering an academic career and see if it uncovers an intrinsic curiosity, a yearning to ask questions and teach others. If you want, share this text in a group and at a later stage hold a “conference” that encourages debate.
Imagine a field of grass intersected by a well trodden trail, worn down to a smooth, winding lane. The pattern of the path is the design of a group of random people, an unexplained social phenomenon. No one person has drafted the layout of this pathway.
How did it come into existence? Why was one path formed and not another?
Take some time come up with at least one hypothesis. You can use any field of science that suits you. Does the weather affect the formation of the pathway? Maybe there is a point of interest on the corner of the field? Is there something about the soil? Do people generally walk in straight lines? Are there mice in the grass that made a tiny path that people then started following? Does the magnetic field of the world have any impact on the growth of the grass, which in turn makes certain patches softer and more pleasant to walk on? Has the introduction of smartphones into the general society in any way affected the patterns formed in these pathways? Do people unconsciously walk away from points of higher pollution, thus avoiding sections of the park that are closer to highways? There are an infinite amount of queries that can be made.
Once you have a theory, it is time to explore various ways to find evidence for or against your idea. This latter stage is where scientists get technical. Do you look at the surroundings for social mediators, like a popular restaurant at one corner of the park? Do you measure topography, like minor changes in altitude? Do you analyse the chemical compounds in the air and the ground? Do you observe the local fauna, flora, and animals?
Whatever the technical approaches, whatever field of science speaks to you, the important element is whether you have an interest in making a hypothesis. How curious are you to ask how this simple yet truly unexplained phenomenon occurs? In many ways, love of the scientific process is more about asking questions than finding answers. And of course, it is also about collaboration and debate. What was your hypothesis? Did you think of ways to test it? Were you able to explain to others why you think you are asking an important question?
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