As the Stink Squad gets closer and closer to educational experiences in science investigation that are engaging, authentic, and impactful, I’ve been thinking about the timelines of science. At camp, we have five days (yes, FIVE) to enable students in practicing meaningful science. In labs and other types of investigations in schools and colleges, the timelines of science often range in length from 30 minutes to a few class sessions to a semester. But science research often takes longer than that. For example, the NIH typically funds research projects for four years! Can we create authentic science experiences for students without at least engaging in the idea of prolonged experimentation? What are ways we can help students consider extended investigations? How can we give students the tools to deal with long-term problems? How do we prepare them for the months and years that they might spend with data (or a life experience) that is “almost there?”
While I’ve been thinking about this, one of my favorite youtube channels, SmarterEveryDay, run by a mechanical engineer named Destin Sandlin, posted a video about a fluid dynamics investigation that has been going for three years! He discusses recreating what’s called a “vortex collision,” the direct impact between two masses of swirling fluid (in this case, water with food dye), and trying to understand the rings that the impact creates. There are a lot of science-y words in the video that I don’t totally understand, but one of my favorite things about Destin’s videos is that you don’t really need that information to understand the main ideas of his videos, which usually relate to developing and nurturing a love for science. Here’s Destin’s video about his three-year fluid dynamics project:
Near the end of the video, Destin says the following:
“So three years, and a bunch of ink, and an aquarium? No, this is so much more than that. This is what taught me persistence. For you, [for] example, what is your vortex collision? Is it something at school that’s hard? A subject? Is it a project at work that you don’t think you can overcome? Is it some skill you want to learn? What is the thing you have to overcome and how are you gonna do it?“
This is a huge part of the reason that I think helping students consider long-term problems is important, not just for developing research scientists. Everyone has a “vortex collision” in their lives, often multiple. Can we use science education to give students some of the tools to persist through challenges and adversity? And beyond that, can we do it in a day? A week? One school year? I hope so, but I’m still grappling with it.
In some ways, though, this video is unsatisfying. So Destin got the video of this cool phenomenon. So what? Destin doesn’t make a single conclusion about his anchoring phenomenon even though he spent three years studying it. How is that possible?! And I think that this is a huge theme that students should consider in science investigations and in life. Every step of the way is just that: a step. Science doesn’t end, and three years just leads to a new stepping stone. Every investigation leads to the next investigation. What are the best ways we can engage students in investigations that don’t end and give them practice considering the next step?
Even more than those questions, though, I hope you will consider what your vortex collision is. Like Destin, I want to know, “What is the thing you have to overcome and how are you gonna do it?”