As I mentioned above, the opportunity to be a 'judge' for a science fair at an elementary school a couple weeks ago was an enlightening experience to say the least. In this 'hyper-competitive' environment we live in, the elementary school kids seem NOT to be immune to the plague. What plague do I speak of? I use the word 'plague' to emphasize the prevalence and speed with which the 'hyper-competitive' nature of our society has spread to lower levels of education (i.e., elementary school). This news or observation was a complete surprise and disappointment to me. At the same time, there is always a positive aspect to every realization. Let me explain.
Kids Have Simple Ideas For Science Projects
One disappointment at the outset of serving as a judge in the local science fair was the realization that the projects were thought up by the parents. Not only were the projects subject matter thought up by the parents, the parents themselves had to execute the experiment themselves. I was completely blown away by the realization. This was very disappointing to a professional in science.
The kids that we were to judge came from the 3rd grade. I don't know about you, but when I was in the 3rd grade -- I was not thinking whether breakfast cereal was 'magnetic' -- due to the iron content in the food. I just wanted to play on the play ground and have fun. Maybe you (the reader) were the curious little scientist at that point? If so, leave a comment and tell me about your fascination at that age. Chances are that the comments will be centered around playing and talking with other children. I could be wrong. Why do I have such a strong feeling about this line of reasoning? Here is an example from my experience judging.
I was given 11 posters to judge. All together for the entire 3rd grade class there were 111 posters with 10 volunteer judges. The judges were composed of parents of children from other school districts with experience in such events along with other science teachers from junior high and high schools in the area and me (the odd ball -- from a different city and works at a university). I was asked to help out by a colleague (a fellow chemist, a good friend who has children that attend the school). She could not participate since one of her children was in the 3rd grade class.
During our judging session, a child from one of the 3rd grade classes came in accidentally. His father must have gotten the days mixed up. The following night, there was to be a celebration held at the gym and the winner would be announced. All of the judges were surprised, but not nearly as surprised as the child and the father. The father was surprised that he misread the flyer and was embarrassed to say the least. Since the two were standing there -- the teacher/coordinator asked if the child wanted to show the his poster to his dad. I happened to be the judge of his poster. He was studying the curvature of light with a flashlight and a mirror as his experimental setup.
His (the child's) response to the teacher really made an impression on me. He said, "I just want to see my friends and started crying." His father thanked all of us and apologized for screwing up the times and left with the boy. This experience was a huge indicator as to the level of sophistication of ideas for projects I should be looking for to judge as a winner.
Most of the posters were extremely complicated. One poster was of an experiment where the girl made a 'dimmer switch' with a graphite pencil serving at a 'potentiometer'. I work on instruments all day long. And I worked on F-16 fighter jets when I was in my early twenties. I can honestly say that the level of sophistication with which the experiment was performed was much greater than a 3rd grade level.
The way that a pencil 'dimmer switch' would work would be to expose the inner part of the pencil -- graphite. Hook up a power source with electrical leads at either end of the graphite -- that would complete a circuit to drive a lamp (light bulb). As you move the electrical leads (electrical clamps) closer together the light bulb would be brighter. This is due to the current being directed toward the lamp rather than being 'dissipated' across the graphite due to resistance.
I am sure that you knew that in 3rd grade right?
Another project (one of the top three contenders) compared the strength of baseball bats made out of different materials. Cork, wood, metal. The experimenter hit a large number of trial bats with each bat (on the order of 40 swings). Interesting idea. What was not interesting was that all of the data was compiled into a spread sheet. How many 3rd grade children do you see filling out excel sheets of batting results (on the order of 100 bats)? Furthermore, there was a 'data set' that was deemed 'an outlier' -- so the experimenter 'threw out' the data. The third grader determined a set of be an 'outlier'?
Again, were you thinking about throwing data sets that were considered "outliers" in 3rd grade?
I am not trying to knock down any of the ideas. In fact, the ideas were quite interesting. If the level of participation was around the high school level, the ideas would match the grade-level. But these were 3rd graders? Remember the crying child just wanting to be with his friends? Let kids be kids and come up with ideas that fit their age. Right about now, you are probably wondering what poster won? What was the winning topic about? Well....
The winner was a poster that had the results of an interesting and age-related experiment. The question was to determine whether plants would grow in different soils. Wow. Awesome. Different soils with different chemicals. The experimenter used different soils but did not try to answer/explain different soil composition. Just purely observational. He took pictures with a ruler beside the potted plant to show the growth (a true little experimenter). His results were purely qualitative (observational) and presented on a poster which he wrote with a pen and pencil every line. The entire poster was done with a ruler, tape, pencils, and pictures. That is a 3rd grade poster.
The voting revealed mixed results. Each of us had our own ideas as to which should win. I was amazed at the level of expectation of the parents and teachers. After, I asked my friend by phone why her child did not compete in the competition. She said "Tiam could not come up with an idea for a science project. Why should I do a project for her?" My thoughts exactly.
What benefit comes out of these science projects?
Science fair projects are important. I think that the interaction of students in a setting of presenting their projects to one another and the rest of the school is important. In fact, professional scientists do this when they attend professional conferences. At conferences, there are usually a few time slots allotted for poster sessions.
During the poster sessions, all of the posters are in one room and the entire conference audience is invited to circulate and discuss with the respective authors the content (research) present on a poster. This is possibly the most important period of time during the conference. The ability to be able to discuss the results of a research project is crucial to the long term success of the project. Developing the skill to communicate your science to your audience is very important. Plus, the interaction leads to networking, collaborations, and exchange of ideas that is critical to the overall success of the field of science. Starting at a young age is a good idea.
One Benefit Of 'Hyper-Competitive' Science Fairs
There are benefits to having a competitive science fair starting in elementary school. Even if the projects are a little too complicated for the age-group of the participants. The development of a science project allows the interaction (participation) to be distributed over the family. These interactions are important. In the world we live in, the educational process seems to be on 'warp-speed'. We blow through school at an incomprehensible speed trying to satisfy unattainable expectations of society. The process of helping your child or relative to develop a science project is important for all participants.
During this process, each member gets to participate based on their comfort level. Maybe Mom or Dad now has the chance to devote serious thought and participation to execute a science project. Or maybe Mom or Dad are scientists (like my colleagues) and are trying to ensure that their child's education is 'done right.' Maybe the interested parties just enjoy performing science experiments and are participating out of sheer curiosity. Regardless, the ability to have multiple people interested in performing science experiments is great -- why?
Getting people interested in science is great. During the experiment, all participants get to learn the overall purpose of the experiment. Each member might start the project with different experience levels. By the end, each member is generally more aware of the purpose behind and experiment and the direction of future inquiry into such research. The investigation process is reveals more about the process than the actual results -- which is one of the main ingredients of the scientific method.
As I have been rambling on in the above paragraphs, science fair projects are important for many reasons. The ability to get people (of all ages) interested in science is critical to the future of our society. Having a basic understanding of the scientific method will become more important as time progresses. Already, the issues facing society require us to think critically about what each of us on a local level are doing to the environment. Furthermore, the critical evaluation of corporations, governments only gets more complicated as we move up the scale.
What scale do I speak of?
The scale I refer to in the last sentence is describing viewing different levels of governance. Starting from the local level (city, towns, etc.) and moving on up through the regional (Southern California) up to state and federal level. From there, a national perspective is required to move onto a world perspective. Cast any issue as a science project to the appropriate scale. The process of participation and evaluating outcomes becomes difficult depending on the level we are looking at. Although, the fundamental aspect of the 'scientific method' is still the same regardless of scale.
The fundamental aspect of the scientific method is the same regardless of scale. This is a critical concept to grasp -- especially when deciding what project to pursue in an elementary school science fair. The level of sophistication needs to match the level of the child's participation. Upon announcing that the 'hand-written' poster won, the president of the local PTA (Parent Teacher Association) was completely surprised. Why? She would have thought that the organization of the poster was not as good as compared to other posters presented.
This statement was what really concerned me. The parent obviously did not have any idea of the level of participation that is involved in science. Presentation of data should match the age. Furthermore, when I suggested that the child whose poster won did research that was similar in practice to my wife's research in graduate school the response was hilarious: "Did your wife use tax payer money to take pictures of plants? Oh my." Yes, because that is how research is done. The type of research that large agricultural companies like Monsanto and BASF are clawing to get their hands on the results.
In closing, I have rambled on for quite a while. Hopefully, out of the rambling, the reader has taken away the message that science research needs to fit the age. If we give awards to projects that could not be completed by the age level of the student, then we are risking portraying science unrealistically. This will only exacerbate the deficiency in understanding of basic science research. Lets fix the problem not propagate the problem. Think simple.
Participation in performing the scientific method by a family is great and recommended. Although, we must strive to have the child participate to the maximum amount in the process. That way, when the child reaches a more advanced level of education, the level of sophistication and understanding will match appropriately. Just some thoughts from a concerned 'outsider' judge who is surrounded by college students on a daily basis. Have a wonderful weekend!