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What was I doing at age 14 or 15? Not conducting research on the metallurgical properties of MnNiGe-compounds or investigating DNA origami models, that’s for sure. When I was a teenager, Music Television or MTV had just come on the air, and I was spending hours watching Michael Jackson and Duran Duran videos. My mother would plead with me to hit the books or to do something productive. Really? I would have liked to have seen her try to master the moonwalk! Perfecting the dance sure seemed productive, and yet, I never mastered Michael’s signature move.

Fast-forward a few decades to 2017 and the Beijing Youth Science Creation Competition. This event has student participants ranging in age from 13 to 18 years and from countries like Australia, Czech Republic, Ukraine, Malaysia, China, America, and Taiwan. As I stopped and talked to the uber-intelligent, hypermotivated participants, I found myself slowly sinking into a sea of guilt over my wasted teen years.

Mom, I think I owe you an apology.

I spoke with one young Chinese girl who had conducted research on the cancer-fighting benefits of asparagus. She had been attracted to her subject because she wanted to prove that traditional Chinese medicinal practices have measurable positive impacts. When I asked her to explain her project to me, she mentioned that she did not speak English very well. Yet, she whipped out a 10-minute discourse on her topic in perfect English.

Mom, not only do I owe you an apology for my teenage years, it turns out you were also right about those darn green vegetables.

I navigated the hall looking for research on adult guilt, when I passed a display that had a picture of my beloved coffee beans together with the words ‘Placebo Effect.’ “Not wasting my time listening to his controversial research,” I thought to myself (see my blog post titled ‘A Caff-dog in the Land of the Tea-cat’ and you will understand). I eventually spied an irresolute-looking group of young students impatiently waiting to describe their project to any unsuspecting passerby. I took the bait and asked them about their work. This team of students, ages 13, 13, and 14, had designed and built a digital language learning device for vision-impaired students. The device was complete with braille buttons, audio responses and guides, and had a processor that could store thousands of lessons. When I was 13, I couldn’t even correctly spell the word ‘vision.’

Mom, I get it, and yes, I am fully impressed with all the young scientists at this event.

Matthew Meyer

Dr. Matthew Meyer is the associate vice president of educational innovations for the N.C. Community College System.