Can sport teach science about excellence?
Science knowledge has improved sport performance in many ways. New training and recovery programs plus advances in equipment have led to new heights of achievement. Is it time for science to learn from sport?
When I was considering grad school, a mentor told me:
A working scientist needs to be 2 of these 3: smart, lucky, and hardworking. A successful scientist works hard and is smart enough to create luck by recognizing opportunities.
I remembered this conversation when talking with my friend who is a professional hockey player about his career. He said that to get to the NHL, a player needs: talent, discipline, drive, and the support from family and friends. Success in hockey sounds a lot like success in science – could science take lessons in training from hockey?
Career Journeys in Hockey and Science In Canada, there is a ‘farm system’ of hockey. Players with talent are recognized early and given opportunities to play in competitive leagues. As they progress, the options require more dedication and many players leave home in their early teens to play for the best teams. Scouts for pro hockey watch these leagues for talent and some players will enter various junior leagues where NHL teams recruit players.
Do you see any parallels with science training? We work hard and there are drop-outs at each stage (BSc, MSc, PhD, post-doc, etc.) plus many of us go to new cities to train. A few will become a tenured professor. As in hockey, many are happy to step down at an earlier stage, using their skills in related careers.
While talking with my hockey friend, I was stuck by the support of the community in his childhood training. Should we do something similar for budding scientists?
Moving beyond ‘interest in science’
There are many programs to spark an interest in science. I’ve been involved in several programs over the past decade and am a big believer in outreach programs. But many of these programs are too limited – they initiate excitement or students complete one challenge but there isn’t long term support. Students who have an interest may have nowhere to go with this excitement.
Science is like soccer (football) in Canada
Can we create a training program for science?
In sport, there are specific skills and it is fairly easy to create related training drills for improvement. Plus, sports don’t usually dramatically change in a short time. Hockey players don’t suddenly have to learn how to swim. But scientific research techniques are always mutating. My mad wet lab skills from 2003 are probably obsolete for 2011. What skills would we want to improve in a training program?
Many people have written about the skills needed as a scientist, including those who contributed to this post at the PostDoc Forum. My quick list:
- critical thinking and planning skills to develop good research questions
- good hands to do the work
- writing skills to communicate the work
- teamwork/people skills to collaborate and manage staff
- excitement to keep going (drive)
- work ethic to show up even when it sucks (discipline)
As you can see, most of the list is about talent but those are the things that can be improved. The drive and discipline are internal but we may be able to help students find ways to cultivate these traits.
How do you set up a training program for these skills? Is it math and engineering competitions? Science fairs? Doing experiments like the elementary students who published their work on bees?
If I had the money*, I would create a multi-year program. Students with initial interest and talen would enter an exploration year where they would learn about different science disciplines and do small experiments or challenges in each field. They would compete for spots in the following focus year where students would work in two areas, doing supervised research. Top students would then be chosen for a third year and perform independent research. All years would require students to read and discuss current research, write, and work in teams. What do you think?
What would you do? How would you measure success?
Please share your suggestions! We could design the ‘best’ program as if we had unlimited funds. It’s a fun exercise. Plus, there may be some funding opportunities and at least some of the best program could be accomplished. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments or by email (anderson [at] genegeek [dot] ca].