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Valuable Lesson About Variables

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Photo courtesy of Aidan.

In the last few weeks, 13-year-old Aidan — a 2011 Young Naturalist Award winner whose scientific project, described in his essay The Secret of the Fibonacci Sequence in Trees, garnered much attention for examining whether patterns of tree leaf distribution were linked to more efficient sunlight collection—received another important lesson in his young scientific career.

The seventh grader, who came up with a compelling question, designed an experiment, and gathered data for his investigation, fully met the criteria of the Young Naturalist Awards, a research-based competition that encourages students to develop their research skills by engaging in scientific investigations. But he had also made a mistake well-known to veteran scientists: he tested the wrong variable—in this case, voltage instead of power generated. A flawed experimental design, no matter how carefully executed, yields data that cannot be used to evaluate the hypothesis.

Although the contest judges did not recognize the error, Aidan’s interesting results—and his clear description of his methodology in his essay—led an electrical engineer to pinpoint the mistake in another process familiar to researchers: community review. In this case, Aidan’s community happened to include not just other seventh-graders but professional researchers, who were able to accurately assess his project—in itself, a credit to Aidan’s writing skills and clearly described methodology.

Tad Montgomery, founder of ecological engineering firm Tad Montgomery & Associates, read Aidan’s essay online and wrote a letter to point out some additional flaws in the original experiment. Still, Montgomery stressed that “it was deeply heartening to read of [Aidan’s] keen observations of nature…I was deeply inspired by his love of nature and his desire to study and use the wisdom of nature to help solve humanity’s pressing problems.”

In research, recognizing an error is an important step that leads to recalibrating an experiment or method. Aidan, who has demonstrated great intellectual curiosity, had planned on continuing to investigate tree leaf patterns. All science builds upon current knowledge, and now Aidan will be armed with additional knowledge as he heads back into the field—and we at the Museum hope that he will continue to develop his insightful experimental investigations in the near future.