Photo/Illutration The outburst of shooting stars was observed on the day after the predicted peak day on Aug. 14. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Science projects undertaken by Japanese teenagers on occasion lead to discoveries that amaze even professional researchers. There have been instances where experts described these students’ achievements as “superb,” “so magnificent as to move me to tears” and “far more elaborate than expected.”

A case in point is a study of “kabutomushi” (Japanese rhinoceros beetle) chosen by Ryo Shibata, a sixth-grader in Saitama Prefecture outside Tokyo, as the subject of his science project. His interest was sparked by his initial discovery of one of the inspects, which are believed to be nocturnal and remain hidden until dark, on a tree in the garden of his home during the daytime.

He then came across a book in a library that noted that the evergreen ash, a species of flowering tree native to Southeast Asia, attracts beetles during the day as well. When he sought advice on his project from the author of the book, Wataru Kojima, a senior lecturer at Yamaguchi University, suggested that he record the behavior of individual beetles.

Shibata put marks on the rounded, convex backs of the bugs that visited his garden to observe their behavior with the help of family members to record their movements on video. He discovered that the beetles come to the tree at night and remain there until around noon. It is possible that they acquired new behavior after they encountered the exotic plant, the evergreen ash. A thesis on the subject Shibata coauthored with Kojima was published in a U.S. academic journal.

Kazuma Tani, a second-year junior high school student in Akashi, Hyogo Prefecture, compiled records of his observations of the Perseid meteor shower, the outburst of shooting stars that occur each August when Earth passes through the trail of the Comet Swift-Tuttle.

Since the Perseid meteor shower usually produces the greatest number of meteors in predawn hours in mid-August, Tani consulted with the city’s municipal planetarium for advice on how to proceed with his project and learned that he could observe the meteor shower at a more convenient time by watching live streaming footage from Hawaii.

Tani sought an explanation after observing that the largest number of meteors came on the day after the predicted peak. His hypothesis about the phenomenon surprised researchers because it included many elements of related scientific theories.

The science club of Kumamoto Prefectural Amakusa Takushin High School’s “Marin Kosha” (marine campus) has been studying “kayanomikanimori” (Clypeomorus bifasciata), an endangered species of sea snail.

Experts had long assumed it was impossible to observe how these sea snails went about laying eggs or be able to monitor the growth of baby snails under artificial circumstances. Despite this, the club successfully bred them from their egg-laying to growth of larvae into young sea snails in a lab. In another landmark discovery, the club members found that the sea snails also feed on algae, although they were described in science literature as carnivorous.

All these cases demonstrate that actions driven by simple curiosity and steady efforts to observe the subject and keep accurate observations can lead to new findings. In cases of school club activities, students can also draw on the experience and data accumulated by past members. These “amateur” scientists have some advantages over professional researchers in that they are free from the pressure to produce results to publish their findings and get budgets to fund their work. This means they can tackle challenges with a freewheeling mindset without any fear of failure.

Atsushi Miyashita, a professor at Seikei University who has long been involved in science education, pointed out that adults often wrongly believe it is difficult for elementary, junior or senior high school students to undertake full-fledged scientific research.

Children have both intriguing ideas and the tenacity needed for scientific research, Miyashita says. There are many themes professional researchers have overlooked and it is quite possible that students without expert knowledge, experience or cutting edge equipment may accomplish feats that rival those of professional researchers, according to Miyashita.

The benefits of science projects for students are not limited to the development of abilities to understand natural phenomenon and solve problems.

Observing nature can lead to the preservation of local ecosystems. And experts who advise students with their projects, either in science or liberal arts, can gain unexpected inspiration to educate and guide next-generation researchers.

Let us encourage and support young people who are seeking to find answers to questions about nature and the world.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 13