Yesterday, I helped a group of high school students to finish a heap of research projects. May sound a bit boring, but damn, it was awesome.
I don't know what was the best part. Coming up with ideas at the start of the project course was a time filled to the brim with scientific creativity. Or maybe the highlight was those frantic last few hours before the deadline for competition submissions, everyone being completely engrossed in the task at hand. Even filling up web submission forms becomes exciting when a few absent-minded students are still at the task on the last possible minute - speaking quite literally at that.
The topics ranged from the societally important to the eccentric: one student thoroughly examined a suggested change in the Finnish parliamentary election system, another measured how players of machine dance games move their feet. Did you know that a moderately experienced player's feet routinely reach acceleration of 30m/s^2? Now you do.
I could enumerate a lot of other interesting topics and results, but it would be hard to choose only a few. I focused on instructing parts of the projects that were somehow related to information technology, that being my area of expertise. This included helping in a theoretical study of pathfinding algorithms and building signal processing software for recognizing car sounds, but technology also finds use in humanities. Amongst the programming, I was able to help in a psychology study about people's self-images. The questionnaire database had to be designed so that it could handle the large number of questions and answers, while the privacy of answerers would be sufficiently protected. This is just one example of how computers are helping in research, accelerating progress in all areas of human knowledge.
The regular staff at the mathematics-focused high school hold the opinion that this year's science project course yielded better results than it has ever done before - and as far as I know I agree. Back in the day I did quite well in the high school science competition myself, placing in the national top ten, but this year's crop puts my work to shame. It's hard to believe how many promising papers came out. Yes, they are written by high school students, so there will be no groundbreaking publications, and many suffered from the tight time constraints. Yet I was able to learn from them as much as teach. If that's any indication of what these people and other people like them elsewhere will do next, the future of science is in good hands.