Friday, December 16, 2011

Perfect class project for teaching science

Imagine a class project where the students have to find a few failed experiments (or experiments with confusing results) and develop hypothesis on possible explanations. Of course, some of them might be human error, but that is the part of the challenge of the assignment -- to develop reasons why that is the likely explanation.

I don't think this assignment is possible at present. Why? Below are my reasons, although I am sure there are many more.

1) There are a few journals of negative results, but I think they probably capture only a very small fraction of the number of failed experiments [in biological sciences as a whole].

2) EVEN IF all the failed results were published, how would a student navigate through them. Usually, understanding the nature of a failure is far far more difficult that understanding a successful experiment, because the pieces of a successful experiment make a coherent story. For a failed experiment, an expert in the field is often required to hypothesize potential explanations.

3) Failures MAY very often relate to each other. I, personally, think that most failed experiments can be attributed to a combination of human error and actual biological issues. If this is true, then looking at any single failed experiment is meaningless (sort of obvious). Finding "patterns" amongst thousands of failed experiments is practically impossible via the traditional journal-reading process.

Possible solutions (ambitious):

I believe that the human eye is extremely efficient in finding patterns, and therefore, it is necessary to leverage the visual + intuition capabilities of human researchers in order to make sense out of failed results.

A class project means that this task needs to be accomplished by non-experts. I think a framework that combines education + research + visual representation of results can by-pass this problem. In other words, provide ways to educate a student about a method when presenting the results from that method. If such a framework can be created, the boundary between education and research may become vague, which might be quite remarkable.


The traditional test-based system for selecting students is bound to miss several great minds who have the potential to solve many unresolved mysteries in science. If an infrastructure can be constructed where anyone can educate themselves and connect research results efficiently, there is a possibility that various geniuses around the world will be able to utilize their potential and service the community. The opportunity to circumvent the traditional test and money-based avenue to higher-education should provide an incentive for students around the world to try to do science on the side.

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