TEACHABLE MOMENTS: The making of a scientist

Tommy Fairweather
Tommy Fairweather

Having read The Boy who Played with Fusion and Breakthrough: How One Teenager is Changing the World, two biographies of successful teenage scientists, I can say with certainty that parents make a difference. Sharing some common actions these parents took that helped their children develop into top notch scientists at a very early age might be helpful for other parents.

The parents of Taylor Wilson and Jack Andraka, paid attention to their child's interest and supported the interests in various ways even when these interests changed. For example, Taylor went from studying building construction, to building and fueling rockets, and to the possible use of nuclear energy to fuel rockets, to studying nuclear physics all by age 11. Jack went from observation of nature, to experimentation, to the search for early lab test detection for pancreatic cancer.

Both sets of parents provided reading materials in the form of magazines and books. Popular Science was very important to Taylor and was one of the publications Jack read as well. A particular column, The Amateur Scientist, described experiments that could be tried safely at home. The Internet was very important to these young men while they gathered knowledge on their interests at the time. Jack’s mother said she showed Jack how to phrase search questions when he was young. One of his favorite sites was Science Daily and Jack used the computer to search and download the medical journals he needed to come up with the plan for his early test for detection of pancreatic cancer. Taylor used the computer in each of his knowledge seeking “phases” to gather background information.

Providing transportation was also a major contribution of the parents. Jack's mom drove him repeatedly to the research lab, while Taylor's parents transported him to various locations to meet with experts. Both sets of parents paid for and transported the boys for specialized training. Jack attended summer Math camps while Taylor's parents drove him to the Space Camp in Alabama and to Los Alamos to meet experts.

Having "scientific" mentors was another common factor in the development of these boys. Taylor's Dad recruited the help of a friend with a science background to make sure Taylor's experiments were safe. Both boys, on their own, sought mentors in fields of interest. Jack sent letters to almost two hundred researching doctors requesting to use a laboratory. Only Dr. Aniban Maitra of Johns Hopkins responded “yes” to the request for the use of a lab.

Both boys entered science fairs early and the competition became more challenging as they grew older. As they progressed, they selected important topics and improved presentation skills.

It is important to note that in the formative years, schools did not help these boys gain knowledge in areas of interest. In fact, the school teachers were often barriers. Jack's story of his biology teacher getting upset with him for reading a medical journal article in class, instead of the textbook, is priceless. Taylor ended up teaching his middle school science classes because his knowledge was more current than the teacher’s. Fortunately, when he entered high school, he attended a special school for the gifted, Davidson Institute.

Most schools do not meet the needs of these talented students. The average teacher receives little training regarding how to identify these children, how best to teach them, and lacks the materials needed to enhance the curriculum. You, as parents, can make all the difference in your child’s choice of career even if you do not have a science background. Barbara Kerr, quoted in Taylor’s biography, indicates that there are crucial times when a child’s interest must be recognized by either a teacher or parent, or the talent will be lost. Our world will be better off and your child will be happy in a science career if you just help the child explore his/her chosen area of science.

Tommy Fairweather is a retired Walton County teacher, who lives in Destin and still volunteers in the school system.

Tommy Fairweather