top of page

Learn by Doing

Most scientists learn about their field through years of high school and undergraduate lectures and labs with predetermined outcomes. They venture into the unknown as graduate students and full-fledged PhD research team members. Their research results are published in refereed journals. As an occupation, scientific research is truly publish or perish. The teams compete for funding, and similar to batting averages in baseball, research publication citation indices keep score. Do students really need to wait until graduate school until they begin exploring the unknown?

Learning science by doing research as an undergraduate or even high school student can be a motivating supplement to the usual lectures and labs. Sports have always emphasized this approach. You have to play to really understand, experience, and learn what the game is all about. It would be ludicrous to only teach basketball through classes and practicing fundamentals in the gym without ever playing any games. As important as classes labs are in science education, early engagement with the unknown—the true home of science—could inspire students and can motivates them to become scientists or at least appreciate science.

The problem is that, generally, published research is strictly a “game” for PhDs after many years of training. There are, however, a few research areas—ornithology (observing birds), archeology (excavations), and astronomy (nighttime observations)—where advanced amateurs, working within a professional-amateur (pro-am) community of practice, routinely publish their research in entry level journals such as the Journal of the American Association of Variable Star Observers and the Journal of Double Star Observations.

Observations of double stars by amateur astronomers is an interesting case. To the unaided eye, double stars appear single, but when viewed through telescopes at high magnification they appear as two very close stars. While most double stars are not close in 3D space—just mere chance alignments on the 2D celestial sphere—a small percentage of them really are close, gravitationally bound binaries rotating around a common center of gravity with orbital periods from years to centuries. Keeping track of their changing positions has been a task for generations of astronomers. There being many more binaries than professional astronomers, the help of amateurs is appreciated, although the amateurs must publish their observations before incorporation in the U. S. Naval Observatory’s Washington Double Star Catalog.

bottom of page