Out of the Box and Into the Spotlight

JENNA ZHANG

When first introducing the idea of research to students, it may be best to avoid the word “research” altogether.

Debate 1, Jenna Zhang FeaturedI owe my love of research to a box. Said box resided in my junior year history class, where each week students and faculty alike would feed it slips of paper bearing various topics: current events, cool new developments in the research world, anything that the person dropping off the paper found interesting. On Fridays, students would draw out a slip of paper and, over the weekend, they would look for articles on that topic to share with the class on Monday. The often-contrasting views of the student who researched the topic and the person who proposed it sparked lively debates over everything from Coke versus Pepsi to the sustainability of alternative energy. As the year went on, our class grew more and more comfortable with researching topics we had never even heard of before.

What made my history class’ approach unique was that although we were researching topics, we weren’t capital-R-Researching them. Indeed, the mere mention of capital-R-Research is enough to strike a mix of fear and boredom into the hearts of seventeen year olds. The average layperson feels completely out of depth when confronted with a topic that seems to require an insurmountable amount of background information, as well as several higher degrees, to understand. The mentality of “I’ll never be able to understand this” creates a cycle in which the less comfortable people feel approaching an unfamiliar piece of work, the less they understand it, and the less they understand, the more they distance themselves from anything that even hints at the dreaded r-word.

The result is that people place research upon a pedestal; they see it as a magical entity that can be admired from afar, but should not, by any means, be touched. I’m all for exposing children to research at a young age, but programs geared towards this purpose often fuel the pedestal effect by misrepresenting research as a grand and idealized concept. The introductions they provide are usually accompanied by videos of scientists with test tubes and sparkly 3-D models of DNA. Drawn in by the aura of importance and excitement, kids are left disheartened when, later on, they discover the hard work that goes into thoroughly understanding a research concept.

That’s why I think that when first introducing the idea of research to students, it may be best to avoid the word “research” altogether. While this sounds counter-intuitive, first instilling students with a love of simply poring over material will give them the foundation needed to effectively understand and appreciate research in the future. This is similar to hiding vegetables in small children’s food so that they can develop a taste for greens and willingly eat them later on. Not the most glamorous of analogies, but if there’s one thing that the past four years of experience with research has taught me, it’s that glamor has little place in the research community. Forget large-scale initiatives and budget-heavy movies. Our humble and homely classroom box did nothing more than expose us to the practice of understanding various topics, and that innocuous concept of creating exposure in a very rudimentary way may just be the key to increasing public engagement with research.

Jenna Zhang is a Brevia staff writer. She can be reached at jennazhang@college.harvard.edu.