The vast majority of the articles you see in the world of science are written by a professional science writer about a postdoctoral fellow and a tenured professor who made a major discovery in a collaboration with another tenured professor from across an ocean working at a multi-million dollar supercomputer run by a wealthy world-renowned institution. And yet there is a huge amount of talk in the education world about how we have to find ways to teach and inspire our kids to participate in the process of discovery and integrate STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math).
If we want to find an easy way to inspire students, show them examples of kids their age succeeding in science. It will let them know that they can do it too, and at worst it will inspire them to think about the world in a different way. At the Ontario Science Center we have the Weston Family Youth Innovation Award, awarding a young Canadian innovator once per year. Every year I see the finalists and winners and I wonder how many Canadian elementary and high school students get to see what these amazing youth are doing. For this reason I want to promote young scientists. Science is for everyone and there is no knowledge requirements when it comes to the scientific process. If you know the process and see it through, you will find truth.
Two years ago, when he was 15, Tom Wagg was feeding an interest in science by asking if he could do a work-experience placement at Keele University in the UK. The researchers taught him to look for planets in the Wide Angle Survey for Planets (WASP), a survey of millions of stars across the entire night sky. He quickly learned to look for the telltale dip in the light curve of a star created when an orbiting exoplanet eclipses, and he found just such a dip while looking at image results.
Two years of observations confirmed that Tom, a student at Newcastle-under-Lyme School, did in fact discover a new planet. “The WASP software was impressive, enabling me to search through hundreds of different stars, looking for ones that have a planet”, says Tom. The planet is the same size as Jupiter, but orbits its star in only two days. With such a short orbital period the transits occur frequently, making such planets much easier to find.
WASP-142b is a class of planets called ‘Hot Jupiters,’ due to their large size and close orbit to their parent star. Many Hot Jupiters are closer to their parent star than Mercury is to the Sun, giving them orbits as short as a few days, and leading to regular dips in their star’s brightness as they pass between it and the Earth.
Even if students like Tom never continue on and become professional scientists, their stories can inspire other students to pursue projects at a young age and help change the world for the better, regardless of how long they’ve been a part of it.