On the Nature of Butterflies

Spend a summer day watching a field. Under a blazing sun, above flower-speckled green, they dance on the air like living confetti—just as paper-thin and delicate. They, among other pollinators, maintain a crucial link in the living systems of the world. Flowering plants use their visitations to propagate themselves on into the future.

This summer I’m volunteering in a butterfly garden, as a caretaker of caterpillars. Most of the caterpillars that Beaver Creek Reserve raises are monarchs, a species of particular concern for conservation groups.

As we spent the hour-long training period exploring our work space and seeing demonstrations on the care of caterpillars and chrysalises, I was stricken by the many instances of frailty we encountered in our overview of the butterfly life cycle. Of course, butterflies are symbols of fragility: it should surprise no one that I think this way—but it’s more significant than I imagined.

Monarch caterpillars go through five stages of molting, or shedding of the old skin; the final instance of which is the formation of the chrysalis in preparation for becoming a butterfly. If a molting caterpillar is disturbed—too firm a nudge from a finger—the old skin will stiffen, vicelike, about the insect’s body. The caterpillar becomes trapped in its own skin. Unable to escape, it dies.

When the caterpillar is ready to become a butterfly and prepares to form its chrysalis, it will climb to a high surface and begin weaving a small node of silk by which to hang itself. If a caterpillar is removed from the surface while in the characteristic “J” position (that is, preparing to become a chrysalis), the thread of silk snaps and it is detached. Unable to form another silk node, the caterpillar dies.

The final stage of molting leads to the chrysalis. The caterpillar attaches itself to the underside of a high surface and sheds the final skin of its neonatal form. The chrysalis, though, is still delicate. A chrysalis which falls to the ground becomes dented or flattened. This is another death sentence for the insect. The caterpillar may become unable to reform into a butterfly, or the resultant butterfly may be deformed and unable to fly. It dies.

As we learned about these dangers to caterpillars, they were all in the context of how to handle the insect. We are not to disturb a molting caterpillar or a caterpillar in a “J” position. Chrysalises, which are almost always formed on the bottom of screens attached over ice cream pails (the “habitat” of the caterpillars”), are to be transferred, screen and all, to a new cage to develop in peace. If any fall, there is no point in transferring them. I took careful notes, as usual, and committed myself to an ethic of caution and sensitivity when handling our charges.

However, it does not escape me that the reality is far removed from our careful environment. Creatures which we are working so hard to care for, which we are taking such precautions not to damage, which would fill us with guilt if we killed, are routinely sentenced to the void: to the continuing cycles of nutrients and energy that is the natural trophic web. Countless numbers die while in these impossibly fragile states of being—how could they not? A tiny bump, a fall, a rough gust of wind—all spell instant death. How can creatures which require such perfect conditions to survive continue to exist in our world? It is something remarkably beautiful and precious.

Something we should continue to care for.

Monarchs are in danger. They are noteworthy for being a migratory butterfly species: and what’s more, their migrations are multigenerational. One generation makes only part of the journey. Only the last generation of the year actually migrates at all. If something goes wrong in one generation—one terrible summer storm or one eroded migratory route or one degraded overwintering ground—the species itself will suffer. Linked by thin threads of time, bound by strict anatomical rules: this is a species which seems, because it is so very fragile, barely tethered to existence. And yet, butterflies are everywhere. Until humans began wide-scale degradation of habitat and application of insecticides and herbicides, they were incredibly successful and widespread. It is up to us to keep them here in our world.

Jim, our instructor and the person in charge of Beaver Creek’s butterfly raising project, is certainly trying. He and a few other volunteers gather wild eggs for the butterfly house. “My wife and I have these milkweed patches on the roadsides where we go just before we know they’re about to mow.” And thus, monarchs are saved from death.

So what are some ways you can help butterflies?

  • Volunteer: this is something I’m doing since I have the time. Find a butterfly garden or nature center that does butterfly work.
  • Raise caterpillars: it is best not to do too many at once since this can spread disease or parasites if you’re not careful enough, but you can easily rescue some eggs from dangerous locations, raise the caterpillars, and release them. I’ll be documenting Beaver Creek’s butterfly-raising methods so you can follow along with me. Otherwise, there are plenty of sites based on the topic. Here’s a lovely one I found which covers the care of caterpillars.
  • Plant a butterfly garden: choose plants that attract butterflies, preferably ones native to your region, and plant them. This is pretty simple, but you can add more complexity (with sunning and shady spots, plants that flower at different times of the year, plants for different species, and so on). It’s a good way to help out wild butterflies, especially ones that wander into town. Again, there are many resources available to help you. Make sure to find guides for your region to learn the best plants to use and which butterfly species to expect.


To the reader: What are your experiences with butterflies?

Book Review: Citizen Scientist

Mary Ellen Hannibal’s Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction is a book that encompasses a depth of ponderings and a wealth of rich detail. It is one great emotional journey composed of myriad smaller ones, crossing history and the world. It is a work of literature as well as a science book, a memoir and a set of profiles. In short, it is an ambitious work and left me deeply satisfied.22580997

Hannibal’s broad goal with this volume is right there in the subtitle: she is on a hunt for the heroes of citizen science: those citizen scientists whose lives fulfill some aspect of the Hero’s Journey as defined by Joseph Campbell, and for hope for the future in a time when the natural world is in a state of diminishment. She notes in the Introduction, specifically in a project where Native American wisdom is being utilized to reintroduce fire to landscapes where it is needed:

“Science is sometimes blamed for separating humans from nature, but here science was helping to heal the rift. Can it be healed? Are we nearing the utter end of the world, or is there a way forward?”

Hannibal uses as an anchor her own personal interactions with citizen science. Over the course of writing, she gets involved with a number of projects (from a seashore life inventory to a migratory hawk count program) and writes about the vibrant personalities she encounters as well as the notes of history that run deep beneath the different kinds of work she does. While visiting her own experiences, she touches back frequently on the central relationship of the book: that between her and her now-deceased father. That relationship, specifically the end of it, reflects the larger story: of our relationship to a suffering natural world.

Her fascination with heroes, specifically, comes from a personal source: she attended a lecture by a then elderly Joseph Campbell, the famed mythologizer and author of Hero with a Thousand Faces. His life was intricately linked to those of John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts, authors of one of the founding works of citizen science: The Log from the Sea of Cortez. Campbell was influenced enough by his time with them to state that “myth is a function of biology.” Fascinated by this implication, Hannibal has linked myth, heroes, and biology all together in this work.

“What I’m trying to do in this book is what they were trying to do—put it all together, the personal, the historical, the scientific,” she writes, referencing Steinbeck and Ricketts.

Much of the book consists of interweaving narratives: with Hannibal’s experiences as the jumping point for forays into the lives of so-called “heroes” both modern and historic. In some cases, she probably doesn’t spend enough time defining why her featured subjects fit Campbell’s “hero” mold, and occasionally goes on tangents concerning other people who are related to the topic but not “heroes” themselves. This made the book a bit information-heavy at times, but the general goal is still fulfilled.

Perhaps one of the more satisfying aspects of the book was its clear story arc. I haven’t often encountered a full arc (rise to a climax and then a resolution) in science books, so this was a delightful find for me as a reader (perhaps my standards aren’t high enough?).

As this book deals with extinction, threads of despair are woven throughout, but they are perhaps strongest in Chapter 8, which deals a great deal with the threatening effects of climate change. The chapter specifically mentions the loss of Bay checkerspot butterflies (a historically important species, as they were the model species for the first defining studies of coevolution) from Jasper Ridge and the total invasion of buffelgrass into the Sonoran Desert and French brome onto Mount Tam. Chapter 9, however, seems like the climactic moment. It is primarily the story of Campbell, Steinbeck, and Ricketts and the development of the seminal works used in Citizen Scientist. There is even a final note of great despair: the mentioning of the Dark Mountain Project (which was influenced by some of the same philosophers these men were), who profess that they have “stopped believing the stories our civilization tells itself. We see that the world is entering an age of ecological collapse,” and that “writing and art have a crucial role to play in coming to terms with this reality.” Dark, indeed. Hannibal doesn’t linger here, though. She moves back into the tale of the three central figures and their influence on citizen science.

My one major qualm with this section is that she doesn’t spend much time talking about Carol Steinbeck, John’s wife and apparently just as central to the story as the three men.

All of the references to them really made that chapter the climactic section of the book, but momentum doesn’t falter after Chapter 9. Chapter 10 details the work of Same Droege, inventor of the “bioblitz” citizen science survey. Droege’s drive and energy inspire a new injection of hope; there is no time to think about extinction or endings, only a constant forward momentum here. It’s a good resolution to the emotions of the book, which until then had been rather ambiguous about whether we should be hopeful or despairing of our natural world’s future.

Citizen Scientist is successful in its broad goals. Although Hannibal can be detail-heavy at times, her occasionally extraneous tangents didn’t detract too much from the flow of the work. The emotional arc was satisfying enough that I can forgive it for being a slow read.

There were a few other personal things I’ll mention:

My favorite “hero” of the book is Alice Eastwood. Her life story is simply fascinating and she sounds almost fantastical as a character, but she was quite real.

There are many citizen science projects mentioned in the book. Although many are local, many others are not. Therefore, anyone reading this book looking for advice can easily use it to get ideas for how to participate in citizen science. However, it is by no means a how-to manual. If you’re looking for a book purely about citizen science efforts, this will be more than you asked for. Citizen Scientist is more of a work of literary nonfiction for those of a scientific bent, with the added bonus of being helpful to anyone who wants to get more involved in scientific efforts.

I personally also loved the positive emphasis placed on citizen science. There were so many examples of the major contributions citizen science has made to the advancement of science in general. Charles Darwin, in fact, can be loosely categorized as a citizen scientist (and the voyage of the Beagle, is, in fact, written about here).

I’ll allow Hannibal the last word, here, as it is a fitting call to action:

“Citizen science is taking off as never before, and it is needed as never before.”


To the reader: As with my other book reviews, please let me know if you’ve read this book or similar ones and would like to discuss or compare. Do you feel that citizen science has an important place in the future of science? What about its history, after reading this book?

Storytelling and the Seasons: Connecting Kids with Nature

Reading a picture book about animals and nature, and going on a hike through the woods: two activities that can get kids thinking about ecology and the natural world that could be even more powerful if combined.

That’s the rationale of a program at the Beaver Creek Nature Center in Fall Creek, Wisconsin. Posted along a quarter-mile, paved trail through a deciduous forest are ten large signs where pages from a picture book are displayed. As children and their families walk the trail, they can also read the story. The Trail has only been functioning for about a year and a half, now; it’s a newer project run partially by volunteers—including, recently, myself.

whenspringcomesMy role was a supporting one: I helped conduct one of the seasonal Storybook Hiking Trail events. A new story, relating to what the kids could see outside, is selected each season. The pages are scanned and organized to fit on the ten signs, and sometime during the season children are invited out to a group reading of the story as well as other educational activities. I helped get children from between 3 and 8 years old thinking about springtime by playing a few games and then eventually going out to read When Spring Comes by Kevin Henkes and Laura Dronzek, a story about the onset of spring and renewal of life after winter. It’s a very sweet, softly illustrated story that I would recommend to caretakers of young children. You can talk to your child about what they’re seeing in the story versus what they see outside, allowing them to think and learn about the natural world.

So why would reading a picture book while on a hike be beneficial to children? There are a few reasons:

  • It gets kids outside and exercising. To finish the story, they have to keep moving and walk the whole trail.bearsnoreson
  • The story is nature-themed; it helps the kids think about plants and animals and can often teach them about parts of nature. (For example, the winter story this year was Bear Snores On by Karma Wilson and Jane Chapman, which was about hibernation).
  • It helps them notice real things around them. (Another example: when talking about the signs of spring in the pictures and words of When Spring Comes, the kids could relate these to what they were seeing on the trail and what they’d seen at home).
  • The seasonal changing of the story gives children a deeper connection to the cycles of nature.
  • Storytelling is a good way to engage attention—we are naturally drawn to a story structure and, because we want to find cause and effect and see an arc of progression, we naturally assign narratives to events.

So what can you do, if you want to achieve this kind of effect with your own children? Without actually visiting this particular place, you can still use storytelling to get your kids connected to nature. Conducting this activity on a smaller scale is actually very easy: just read a story to your kids outside, maybe also encouraging them to walk a little before reading them the next page.

Trail at Beaver Creek Reserve

For the most effective results, find a natural place (nature trail or even a park near your neighborhood) and find a story that will relate to something you’ll see outside. You can find stories about animals native to your region, animal behaviors (like hibernation or migration), stories about the weather or seasons, or even stories about the plant life or habitats. Relating the story to whatever season is going on is Beaver Creek’s strategy. This is a great activity to do with young children—one you can tailor to fit whatever ages you’re working with.


For an added level of complexity, perhaps to engage older kids, you can even get them to make up their own story about something they see outside—with illustrations—and then read it outdoors, having them show you what they found that inspired the story.

If you’re looking for ideas, here are a few lists on Goodreads with picture books about different nature themes: Trees, Birds, Spring, Fall, Bears, and Bugs.

If you’re interested in volunteering with children in science/nature education, I’d recommend finding a nature center, science or children’s museum, educational garden, zoo, or even a state or national park (one that conducts educational programming) near you and visiting its website. Many of them rely on volunteers to help guests or to help with special events. If you enjoy working with kids and love nature or science, these kinds of opportunities are great and the help is sorely needed.

Whether you’re trying to get involved in your community or just want to spend time with your own kids, enjoy some story time in the great outdoors!


To the reader: do you have thoughts on how to connect picture books to actual trips to the outdoors? Do you have recommendations for specific books or places? Do you know of other locations like Beaver Creek Reserve that host programs like this? Please share!


*Note: Book cover images from Goodreads. Trail photo from Beaver Creek’s website.

Why Putting Shrimp on Treadmills is Good Science

Example for: What Does this Scientific Paper Mean for People?

It’s likely you’ve come to this post after seeing my related post, “What Does this Scientific Paper Mean for People?” If not, I recommend skimming it first, as it details the process I’m about to use to assess the merit of a pretty famous example of potentially wasteful science.

First, I’ll find a few pieces of journalism about the shrimp situation.


Screenshot from the video

The study originally came to media attention when a video was posted to Youtube from David Scholnick’s (one of the researchers) website. One of the early articles on the video and surrounding research was by Sara Goudarzi (it can be found on Live Science and NBC). It’s a short article, without much context. Most of the implications can be found in one paragraph at the bottom of the article.


“Shrimp dealing with an infection would be less active and might be limited in their ability to migrate, find food, and avoid being eaten, Scholnick said. “These studies will give us a better idea of how marine animals can perform in their native habitat when faced with increasing pathogens and immunological challenges.””

So here is a bigger biological context: disease can affect parts of the shrimp life cycle. But why should we care? And why is this relevant?

There is a later report by Mike Selizic on Today which makes much more of an effort to detail the broader implications of the study.

“Both climate change and the runoff from agriculture and human activities affect the composition of ocean water, which in turn can lead to higher levels of bacteria. If shrimp with bacterial infections have less endurance and strength, that affects their ability to survive.”

Now we know more about the relevance. Human activity may cause increased disease vectors in shrimp. But still, why should we care about shrimp survival?

“Now that Burnett and Scholnick have a handle on how disease affects shrimp, they’re applying treadmill research to other critters that most of us think about only when they show up on a menu.”

In this case, it’s obvious and assumed as obvious by the article: we eat shrimp! Therefore, we should understand how disease affects them and other creatures we eat.


shrimp trawler
Shrimp Trawler


My example is so far showing that you can’t just take one journalistic article as your entire reference for the relevance of a study. That is especially true in this case. Many later articles focused on this study as a waste of taxpayer dollars and fruitless government spending. In cases like this, where the journalism is obviously controversial or political, it’s time to look to the paper itself. I’ve selected one paper that was within the larger study the treadmill video was a part of and conducted by the same team of researchers (David Scholnick, Karen Burnett, and Louis Burnett): Impact of Exposure to Bacteria on Metabolism in the Penaeid Shrimp Litopenaeus vannamei.

First, I’ll examine the Introduction. This is a relatively short paper; the Intro jumps straight into a very specific line of research, discussing first the role of gills in the crustacean immune system (the gills may eject bacteria). Large levels of bacteria may also impede respiratory performance in crustaceans. One statement relates to a somewhat larger picture:

“…low levels of environmental oxygen can impair the rate at which bacteria are cleared from the hemolymph.”

Although the Intro doesn’t go into more detail than this. It concludes with the specific research question: the investigators want to test respiratory performance of shrimp that have been exposed to bacterial pathogens in water with normal and low levels of oxygen.

The Discussion may have some larger context as well. The researchers noticed a significant “metabolic depression” in the infected shrimp, at levels that surprised even them and are worth of further research based on discrepancies between their test and other related tests. The Discussion then reiterates how bacterial infection and low-oxygen environments may compound each other’s effects on shrimp respiration and metabolism, an observation supported by their experiment.

Based on levels of lactate produced by the infected shrimp (lactate being the byproduct of anaerobic respiration, which takes over when there isn’t enough oxygen to support the muscular system), the researchers estimated there to be a “29% reduction in overall metabolism” because of bacterial infection. This is a big number, but what does it mean?

The last statement in the paper is perhaps the broadest and most meaningful.

“Our results provide a plausible explanation for the increased susceptibility of crustaceans to infectious disease in hypoxic environments and lend support for further investigations to determine how reduced ATP production associated with exposure to bacteria may impact overall activity and performance.”

Crustaceans respond worse to infection in low-oxygen environments. Though it isn’t stated outright why we should care about their “activity and performance,” it seems fairly obvious that it is because crustaceans are important to human dietary intake. We eat shrimp in large quantities, so it matters how they perform as a species (as in, if they can survive easily).

However, there’s one statement that the researchers could’ve gone into more that would’ve related things to a bigger picture. They keep mentioning hypoxic environments, but why would this be timely? This will require some further investigation.

The paper is somewhat short, and shorter papers are often so either because of space requirements (they can’t afford to give a lot of words over to explaining background and context) or because the background and context are assumed based on the expected readers of the paper. In this case, I’d go with the latter, at least partially. As someone with a background in marine science, I can already tell you why considering hypoxic environments and their effects on food animals like shrimp is important and relevant.

To delve more into hypoxia, I followed some citations. Boyd and Burnett’s Reactive Oxygen Intermediate Production by Oyster Hemocytes Exposed to Hypoxia led to a few more papers on hypoxic environments in general which mentioned how they are often seasonal, can cover large areas, and can have large effects on organisms living there and are associated with mortality events.

Algae blooms like this one can soak up oxygen

Simply googling hypoxia at this point would easily lead to a more obvious relevance to humans: our actions, specifically the overproduction of certain nutrients mostly due to agriculture and industry, are fueling algal blooms in estuaries and gulfs. When the algae die and start to decay, the process consumes oxygen in the water and leads to a hypoxic event. Therefore, we are directly causing a drastic change in certain environments—understanding that change on different levels is in our best interest.


More information can be found in the other methods I mentioned at the end of my original post. To expand our viewpoints, we can find opinion pieces about the study. Betsy Hammond wrote a piece for The Oregonian allowing David Scholnick, the researcher who originally posted the shrimp treadmill video, to defend his work. There is one paragraph which sums up the defense pretty well:

“His decision to put shrimp on treadmills was a very tiny part of a much larger study by two College of Charleston professors, looking at how shrimps’ immune systems react when ocean warming or pollution makes it hard for them to breathe. The National Science Foundation paid $426,000 for that study, which was designed to help promote food safety and the health of commercial shrimp fisheries.”

So there’s an obvious meaningfulness to the work. Scholnick even published his own post about the entire incident; it’s a good way to get everything from his viewpoint and really see how everything played out.

There’s one last avenue of investigation we can follow, here. The NSF grant information for the larger study that the paper and video were a part of is available to view online. The entire Abstract for the project is one long justification for its existence: detailing the rise of hypoxic conditions, commercially important crustacean populations that may live in vulnerable environments, and what environmental and physiological variables may react to low oxygen conditions. It is very clear that more research into specific, physiological-level effects are needed to understand effects on entire populations of crustaceans.

So what have we learned from all this?

First, sometimes it takes a lot of research to figure out the big picture context of a single scientific study.

Second, good journalism is important in relating between science and society when the links are not obvious or too broad in scope to be in the original paper.

Third, putting shrimp on a treadmill was worthy science.


To the reader: are there any scientific studies that you’ve had difficulty relating to larger contexts, or that you can see the relevance of but others seem not to be able to? Also, I can repeat this procedure for papers you give me if you want more examples! Feel free to make requests.

Tips: What Does this Scientific Paper Mean for People?

Shrimp on a treadmill? A few years ago, you may have noticed a small uproar develop over research involving placing shrimp on underwater treadmills. The largest outcry involved claims of wasteful government spending, resulting in scrutiny for many researchers and research grants. The NPR has a great report on the situation if you’re interested in reading more.

So if you heard about that or got caught up in it in some way, which side is to be believed? Were the shrimp-on-treadmill studies wasteful or worth it? Here I’ll offer up some tips on checking for yourself what scientific studies mean for people and the world.

As an example for readers, I’ll use one of the papers published by the researchers who did the treadmill-shrimp study so we can look together to see if something presented as ridiculous might have bigger implications for society. I’ll put my example in a separate post.

Start with what you encounter first: journalism. Most journalistic pieces on science will relate whatever research is being talked about to the world at large. A news piece will usually have interviews with the researchers involved and one or more researchers in the field who were not involved that will discuss impacts of the study. This can range from obvious things like new technology and health benefits to studies that will advance the field (testing new methods or techniques, for example).

Journalism should not be the last step if you have further questions, though—especially if the benefits or implications of a study still aren’t obvious outside of one specific field. You have to move on to the paper itself (the following tips all assume you can access the full paper—in some cases, you will not be able to).

The two most important sections of the paper to read for broader implications are the Introduction and Discussion (or Conclusions).

The Introduction will start with broad context, explaining what field is being studied, questions and progress within that field, and often the relation of that field of science to society. It will usually narrow down in scope until it addresses the specific research questions of the study. In longer papers, you’ll get a much longer, more involved background while in short ones it may feel rushed and not include as much context, but don’t worry about that for now.

The Discussion will talk about the findings of the paper and what they mean in the context of the field and for science. Usually, the Discussion will take an opposite, mirrored effect to the Intro: broadening in scope until it finally addresses larger societal implications.

Most of your questions, therefore, will probably be answered by the researchers themselves in the Intro and Discussion. But what if you still don’t feel like it has much impact on society? You may have to dig into the background research.

Start with the list of references at the end of the paper. Go through the Intro and Discussion again, and wherever you see a citation (usually an author’s name and date or sometimes just a number) for a piece of information that seems like it could be part of the big picture, find it in the list of references and try to find that paper. With some background (detailing why the field was explored in the first place) or side studies (which link the research to something more relevant to society), you should find broader implications very quickly.

Sometimes this process may result in detective work where you continually find new papers to skim to try and broaden your scope, but by this point, you may be wondering if that original paper really means that much if you have to get so far removed to see the impacts.

The answer to this musing, of course, is perhaps it doesn’t. If a paper doesn’t seem to advance a field (by clearing up a definition, testing new methodologies, or investigating important hypotheses), perhaps it’s not particularly important. But this will rarely be the case. It shouldn’t take too much searching to find links between the paper and important, relevant topics (important and relevant to some sector of society, anyway).

A lot of what we view as important science is very subjective. Take space exploration, for example. Many people see it as crucially important to the existence of humanity and imperative to fulfilling our species’ drive for discovery. However, some see it as a waste. This stance seems impossible to me, but the views of people are as varied and diverse as the people themselves.

If you can’t see why a paper is important, before disdaining it try to have an open mind. Perhaps there is a perspective from which a study or bit of research is very important. Perhaps for some people, it is life or death, or will affect their livelihoods, or will save endangered species (another occasionally divisive topic which for some people is extremely important and worthy). If you want to practice at this, try looking for opinion pieces about the scientific field or find the webpages of the scientists involved in the study to get a better feel for how it affects their lives. Expanding your horizons before casting doubt and shame is always the best option in my experience.

There is a side note to this process as well: funding. In the case of the shrimp-on-treadmills study, most of the outrage seemed to stem from the fact that there was government funding involved. When it is a case of whether public funds are being put to good use, try researching the funding agencies. The primary federal scientific funding agency is the National Science Foundation. The NSF receives thousands of project proposals every year, selecting only about a quarter of them to which to allot funding. It has strict merit review criteria as part of its reviewing process. Specifically, from Chapter 4, Section A of the Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide:

“When evaluating NSF proposals, reviewers will be asked to consider what the proposers want to do, why they want to do it, how they plan to do it, how they will know if they succeed, and what benefits could accrue if the project is successful. These issues apply both to the technical aspects of the proposal and the way in which the project may make broader contributions. To that end, reviewers will be asked to evaluate all proposals against two criteria:

  • Intellectual Merit: The Intellectual Merit criterion encompasses the potential to advance knowledge; and
  • Broader Impacts: The Broader Impacts criterion encompasses the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes.

The following elements should be considered in the review for both criteria:

1. What is the potential for the proposed activity to:

a. Advance knowledge and understanding within its own field or across different fields (Intellectual Merit); and

b. Benefit society or advance desired societal outcomes (Broader Impacts)?

2. To what extent do the proposed activities suggest and explore creative, original, or potentially transformative concepts?”

The NSF already evaluates what it gives funding to based on broader impacts to society, so your tax dollars (at least on the federal level) are most likely not going to waste.

I hope my tips have helped you and will continue to help you in evaluations of the merit of research. It can be hard, at first, to see why a hyper-specific scientific study might be important—science is usually incremental and diverse. But if you really want to know, the answers are likely already there.


To the reader: do you have tips or advice of your own for assessing how important a given study is to society? Are there any fields of science you think are wasteful or not worth publicly funding? Or the reverse: any fields (or specific studies) usually seen as obscure and pointless that you can relate to a bigger scale?

The Science Olympiad: Volunteering for Science Education

You stare ahead, waiting restlessly, and shift your weight back and forth in the seat that you can’t quite seem to make comfortable. Your arms rest on the table, pencil hovering precipitously over the packet of paper that is alone save for your ever-at-the-ready calculator. When will it begin? Your heart races, palms sweating as you run everything over and over again through your mind, wondering if you’ve studied enough.

Suddenly, the word is out: it’s time. You have fifty minutes. You flip from the first page, where you wrote your name and the name of your school, to the start of the test.

But this isn’t a normal test. You’re not here for the grade.

You’re here for the glory.

You volunteered for this. You have several other events today, some of them written tests like this and some not. You imagine the weight of the medal hanging around your neck, heart swelling with pride.

And you are filled with joy: that of a mind expanded as you’ve taken the time to learn more about the wonders of science.

This was me as a nerdy high schooler, and it will be the countless students this spring who participate in the Science Olympiad.

It was also the few dozen students who sat in front of me recently.

I took a day out of my schedule to volunteer at one of the regional Science Olympiad competitions in my home state. I helped supervise the competitors and score their tests. During my thoughtful moments, it was fascinating to note the stark contrast between then and now. I felt at ease, surrounded by obviously nervous teenagers whose thoughts were probably filled with the material of a few different subjects all crammed into one day—teenagers in the place I once occupied.

The Science Olympiad is a competition which allots to the science crowd the pageantry, drama, excitement, and yes, even glory, usually relegated to sports. If you’ve never participated, there are a few dozen events to choose from in different areas of science and technology. Some events are hands-on (including chemical lab work and construction of machines), some are written tests, and some combine elements of both. Students, usually in pairs, can participate in only a handful of them and are broken up by school. At the end of the day, the highest placing teams receive medals and the schools that received the highest overall scores win trophies. Schools that do well enough in sectional competitions move on to the state competition, and from there can move on to a national event.

For the curious, here is the Science Olympiad’s website. There are individual websites for each state as well. You’ll probably notice pretty quickly the high-profile list of funders—in the science world, this is big.

I feel as though the comparison with sports is especially apt given the effects of the competition upon its participants. Students who usually don’t have much reason to celebrate their accomplishments before a cheering crowd get that opportunity, and it’s a huge encouragement for someone going into science. It’s also a message: science deserves celebration and excitement as much as any sporting event does.

It’s a way to learn about careers, too. The tests often involve topics that aren’t covered in as much depth during classes. The supervisor for the event I helped with was a professional working in the field that the test covered, and I got to see her talk to an excited boy who wanted to do the same thing. He got to meet someone who made it happen and see a potential future for himself, all through this competition as a connecting point.

If you want to get involved and volunteer for a Science Olympiad competition, here are some things I picked up:

Competition coordinators usually look for people with experience in a specific field (professionals or teachers), many of whom participated in the Science Olympiad, to write the tests. So if you fit this profile, you have a chance to get very heavily involved!

That isn’t the option for most people, though. If you want to get involved (but not that much) then I encourage you to do what I did. Contact a coordinator for a regional, sectional, or state event and offer to assist with one of the events. Assistants will mostly just supervise students while they compete and then help score their tests afterward.

If you’ve participated in the Science Olympiad in middle or high school, then I definitely encourage you to get involved. It’s a great way to reciprocate what you were given and doesn’t require much effort on your part—only time. I did this opportunistically, as a regional competition was held very close to where I live.

Check out the website for your state’s Science Olympiad. It will have the list of sectional and regional competition locations and will also list coordinators for each one (the person you will want to get in contact with). It will also have the list of events (if you have a preference). As an example, here’s the site of the state where I participated.

This is a great way to get involved in science education, and for me was a very positive experience.


To the reader: have you participated in the Science Olympiad as a competitor, coach, or volunteer? How was your experience? What do you think of the value of science competitions like this to society?