To name or not to name…

As we gear up to celebrate the 5th International Day of Action Against Contract Cheating, I thought it apt to share an incident that took place in my daughter’s old school with regards to her science project.

Oh yes, I am back with yet another hair-raising experience.

When my daughter was in Year 4 (she is in Year 7 now), we got a circular from school that they were going to introduce a “Science Fair” where students would get to “make” a project, bring it to school, display it and present it to judges. Being from a science background, we all got excited about this new adventure my daughter was going to join in.

After much brainstorming for a good two – three days, my daughter heard about all sorts of projects we did as kids in school and picked up on one that would be unique and something only she would be able to offer to the judges – testing a hypothesis on which kind of leaf helps increase growth of pet tortoises – Alfa Alfa or Lettuce. Now I know you are wondering why this would be so unique – because she would interview her grandfather, my father who is an Ornithologist and an avid conservationist and headed the Dubai Zoo for what was back then almost 30 years. You see, we grew up in the Dubai Zoo and had very different experiences as children than most, one of which was that most of our school projects revolved around animals. It seems the next generation was catching on too!

My daughter spent a week researching, interviewing my father, talking to the zookeepers in charge of the tortoise babies. In the process, she learned how to prepare the food, how to measure the food, how to measure the weight of the tortoises, how to record the weights and to graph them – the whole shebang! We could not have been prouder parents!

She went out looking for all the material she would need, bought the charts and boards with her pocket money, asked me to design the slides so she could then put the text and images in and then practiced her presentation. She was ready and excited.

As always was her practice by now, she aptly put down her name and then she added the “WiHF” – with help from and proceeded to add her grand father’s name, the two zookeepers and my name.

The much-awaited day of the competition arrived, and my daughter very proudly joined in, set up all her boards, displayed her tortoises, all the equipment she had used, and she was ready. We wished her luck and left. The fair was open only to the school students and staff.

Eagerly awaiting her reactions from her first science fair, both my husband and I went to pick her up that day from school. Lo and behold, her shoulders were drooping, eyes were downtrodden, my baby looked dejected! We were both surprised to see her like that because we know we hadn’t brought her up to be that upset if she didn’t win something – for us participation and giving your all has always been paramount importance.

After some prodding, my daughter told us she was being disqualified from the Science Fair. Were completely flabbergasted and honestly did not know how to react.

“Mom, the judges were shocked that I had help and said that was not allowed and so said they wouldn’t consider my project for the judging”, my daughter whimpered out, seemingly confused.

I saw red.

Yes, yes I did and I am not ashamed to admit it. The ignorance and unfairness of the action blew my mind.

The next day and for a few more days after, I was knocking on the class teacher’s door, the headmistresses’ door, the principal’s door… any door I could find.

My message was simple.

This was not about winning or losing. It was about integrity.

I finally got a chance to meet the judges, looked them in the eye and asked them to tell me if they honestly thought the kaleidoscope the size of a table or the planetary system the size of half a room was built by a child without any help. They couldn’t look me in the eye, and they couldn’t disagree.

“Why then would you penalize and punish a child who is being honest about the help she took and not claiming the work to be hers when it completely isn’t?”

Needless to say, I got a chance to give them not just a piece of my mind but a good share more on contract cheating and how they were breeding a culture of it right there in their school!

Having done all I could, I sat down with my daughter and explained to her that she had done nothing wrong. She was being honest, and she was building integrity as part of who she was and that was nothing to be ashamed of or to feel bad about. We got ice crème and hung out.

Soon after I had to leave for a conference (as it happens, my first attending an Academic Integrity one in Ephesus, Turkey – yes, it was the ENAI Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond conference). On the second day of the conference, my daughter sent me a very excited message – not only had the judges rescinded their decision to disqualify her, but she was also named a winner in her group!

This was cherry on top for sure. My daughter got to stand up in front of her class and explain why she wrote “WiHF”, what it meant and why it was so important to acknowledge when someone else did help with the project.

The next year on my daughter tried harder and harder to do her projects by herself, so she would be able to proudly put only her name on the projects.

This is still one family, one experience. But it is in no means an isolated incident. We need to have more dialogue on school curricula and assessment design, training school-teachers the right way so that they are able to instill the right values in the children from a young age. By the time students join university, students have probably had 12 academic years of taking credit for someone else’s work! When in university, it would then seem normal to reach out to a parent, a sibling, a roommate, or an essay mill to do the work and claim the credit, right?

Let’s break the chain. Let’s work together and bring focus back on schools and how we can ensure the entire academic system is helping students be better, socially responsible human beings.

Have you registered to participate in this years’ International Day of Action Against Contract Cheating? If not, https://www.academicintegrity.org/day-against-contract-cheating/

P/s: Rest assured I am happy to report I have changed my daughter’s school.

About the Author
Dr Zeenath Reza Khan is an assistant professor at Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences and recently became head of the Integrity in Academia and Beyond Research & Learning Forum at the university with a multi-disciplinary nine-member committee that has come together to work hand-in-hand on research and campaigns across the campus and beyond on academic integrity and beyond. Zeenath is a leading expert in the MENA region on academic integrity Dr Khan completed her PhD on Academic Integrity in 2014, chaired the International Conference on Academic Integrity -Middle East Chapter in 2016 in collaboration with ICAI and is currently chairing the 2020 Plagairism Across Europe and Beyond Conference to be held in Dubai.
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