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The Science (un)Fair - A Recovering Physicist's Apology

About The Science (un)Fair

Previous Entry The Science (un)Fair Mar. 28th, 2009 @ 04:29 pm Next Entry
Today I was a judge at the Regional Science Fair. I really enjoyed aspects of it. Yet, it also reminded me of all the critiques I had about the science fair when I was in school, and also why my friend and I were going to do a project our Junior year entitled, "The Science Fair is Neither Science Nor Fair" sadly this projected was rejected by higher ups.

For today, I judged physics (obviously). My team judged four projects total. Each team of judges consisted of two people: a school teacher and a professional. I was considered the school teacher, which was a bit silly considering I was paired with an electrical engineer. Nothing against EEs but I knew more pure physics than he did, and he had been working science fairs for several years, so the idea that I was going to understand the kids "level" and he would understand the "technical" stuff didn't really work out so hot.

What really shocked and saddened me was a lack of understanding of the basic idea of how physics is done. In science, data is all important, but this is particularly true of the physical sciences. In the biological sciences you might "see" something happen. But more often than not in physics you see nothing -- everything is taking place in the belly of some machine -- ALL THERE IS IS THE DATA. Your only link to the experiment is usually a volt meter or something converting volts into something else. Many of the kids did not get that. They did not have their raw data at all, not even in their notebooks! In physics you have to have the raw data.

I don't blame the kids for that. They don't know what science is, or the methodologies behind science. They don't know that you need to be able to present your raw data in raw (written), table, and graph forms. That is the teacher's fault. I hate to pick on biology (well, sometimes I don't hate to do it, but usually that is just for fun) but looking at these kids grade levels they were not old enough to have taken a physics course, so the only science they had under their belts was biology or possibly chemistry, and that did not prepare them for the rigors of physics.

In all four projects, the only type of graph the kids had was a bar graph. Which was shocking. The type of data they were presenting would much better suit itself to a scatter point or line graph. I am again blown away by the basic lack of understanding shown by their teachers. Bar graphs are the lay person's graph. They are for Newsweek, not Scientific America. A student does not have the experience to know that -- in all likelihood they have only been exposed to powerful graphs in a pure mathematics course. A science teacher is needed to understand the data and understand how to present it, that was lacking in 4 out of 4 projects. The fact that science advisers let bar graphs slip through is a scary thought.

Then there is the fact that the science fair is not fair. Often times science is not being judged. The kids with the most resources wins. Have a parent that is a professor/professional and can open up his/her lab for you? You are going to State. That's not to say that the kids didn't do the work or learn something, but mass spectrometers can't be rented out of the local library, and there is a big difference between sitting down and looking up and wading through encyclopedias to learn what an LED is, compared to going, "Hey, Dad, what's an LED and how does it work?" and having him sit down and walk you through it step-by-step until you really get it. When a kid has a lab and a parent that knows how to use it they will always have a better end result than the kid that doesn't have parents that can help either with knowledge or resources. I fully admit that my science fair projects would not have been as good as they were had my parents not helped me layout the board, put some money to buying supplies, help me build things, and let me watch hours and hours of the Discovery Channel all my life. I had a team, I was lucky, and I went far. That's not to say I didn't bust my ass and put in the time, but it is also absurd to think that having parents that helped had no affect. And it is really absurd to think that having parents that are experts in the same field you are researching and have a laboratory at their disposal has no affect. Sadly Big Science has even come to the science fair.

To me that is the grand flaw of the science fair. When in high school I saw projects that did better science with an ice cube tray and a refrigerator than someone with a lab at their back. But the deck is stacked against the dark horse. Looking at the way the fair is scored it is geared towards the kids that already have the built in advantages. I tried my best to judge against this ingrained leg up, but I ended up giving highest marks to the girl that had a lab at her back. She busted her ass, she knew her stuff, she had a good board and presentation, had lots of input from her father and his lab, and in the end all of that mathematically was forced to carry more weight than the kid that liked to swim and obviously setup his own board and experiment with all the bells and whistles of a stopwatch, the local Y's pool, and his grandfather. And, truth be told, she probably deserved to beat him, because she understood science better than he did. Because she had an engineer walk her through what science is and what it is supposed to do, and she absorbed that data, and he didn't have anyone in his life to walk him through what science was or how it worked. As I walked way from both projects I was forced to ask myself, "I know where her father was, but where was his science teacher?"
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From:superpastelgirl
Date:March 30th, 2009 04:56 am (UTC)

a word in defense of biology

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I know you like to say biology is not "real" science, but to do a good biology experiment you still have to understand "what is my dependent variable?" "what is my independent variable?" "what are my units, and how do they relate to those?" "What type of graph do I use to show my variables and how they relate?" So, really, you can have a crappy bio science fair project that lacks the same things a physics project lacks. Also, you can totally "see physics". We see physics (or mechanics at least) in every single thing that ever happens. Every move we make is physics.
Also, in defense of bar graphs; sometimes they are the best way to clearly represent the data, and using them is related to whether your independent variable is quantitative or categorical. For instance, you have protons, electrons, and neutrons that you are shooting through jello, and you want to see how quickly they move through the jello using some sort of receiving device. It is much clearer to have a bar graph of the three particles w/ error bars than a scatter plot. Or, more in my line of work; you want to see whether male lions eat more kudu, zebra, or wildebeest. Clearly, this requires a bar graph. And, if you want to keep lions in your new safari park, it's "important science".
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From:biggrumpy
Date:March 31st, 2009 01:29 am (UTC)

Re: a word in defense of biology

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Without getting too combative, I will say that I understand where you are coming from, but I remain hard line. I think your example shows my point about the fundamental difference between physics and biology. Physicists would not use a bar graph even in the situation you described because we are interested in mathematically modeling the situation. We would use neutrons, protons, and electrons as known sized particles in the experiment you described. We are not interested in them as they are; we are interested in what they tell us about the mathematics underlying the situation. In essence, we don’t care how long it takes for these particles to get through jello, we want to know how long it takes ALL particles to get through jello. We would graph the speed of a proton, neutron, and election through jello using a line graph, so that a best-fit curve could be deduced to generalize the data for a particle of some arbitrary mass. The line graph is a far more powerful graph for the type of information physicists are actually interested in, because our work ideally begins with data and ends with a generalized equation, where biology starts with data and ends with a rough statistical model. The data you work with is not conducive to physics level modeling or mathematical manipulation.

Within your example, even assuming linearity, if you noticed a lion was 2x as likely to eat a zebra than a gazelle, and a zebra is twice as massive as a gazelle, you could not conclude that a lion was 4x as likely to eat an elephant because it is twice as massive as a zebra which is twice as massive as a gazelle. But (again assuming linearity) if a physicist noticed it took a helium atom 4x as long to get through the jello as a proton, than we COULD mathematically conclude that a beryllium atom should take about 9x as long to go through jello because it is 9x as massive as a proton. To you it matters if a lion eats a zebra or a gazelle because you are interested in how many zebras and gazelles a lion eats; to a physicist it does not matter what particle is going through the jello because we don’t care about the particles themselves, we care about what their known masses reveal about the mathematics that govern the interaction. We want the equation; you want the statistics. Physicists are interested in the underlying mathematics that govern the universe; biologists are not. This is likely due to the fact that you study systems that are FAR more complicated than physical systems and cannot be mathematically modeled (at least at present), but I define pure science as the reduction of phenomenon to mathematical models. Biology does not do that (at least not at present) and so it is not a pure science as I define it. To quote Ernest Rutherford, “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.”


Edited at 2009-03-31 01:38 am (UTC)
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From:superpastelgirl
Date:March 31st, 2009 06:36 pm (UTC)

hmmph

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So, it comes down to definition of science; I simply define science more broadly than you. I think that science is anything which you can study using the scientific method and make clear conclusions about. Again, I feel that saying my fictional study is "not science" belittles it in an unwarranted way. Because the world IS complicated, and understanding what happens in complex systems is more practical than understanding what happens in simple systems, or at least I think so.
Anyway, we can re-hash this to death, but it's really terminology. As long as you acknowledge that "non-science" studies are still essential to understanding our world, I'll be satisfied.
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From:biggrumpy
Date:April 1st, 2009 02:23 am (UTC)

Re: hmmph

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I fear your definition of science is overly broad because such non-sciences as the so called, "political sciences", along the lines of economics and sociology, all approach problems in a scientific manner and claim that they can draw conclusions about what they study, would you call those sciences? I would not, they borrow the scientific method, but they lack something essential to science, and that is the level of mathematical modeling and predictability that is exemplified by physics. I agree with you that the scientific method is the mark of science, but (again) I believe that method inherently requires a level of mathematical modeling not shown in biology.

That doesn't mean that the "life sciences" cannot show us something about the world in the same way that physics can show us something about "pure mathematics" (yet another term I define in a very specific manner that, by my definition, excludes physics as an acceptable form).

I don't think English is a science, nor is art, nor is most aspects of philosophy, but all of those can move me, educate me, impress me, and I owe a debt of understanding to them. All of those, in their own way, convey elegance, grace, beauty, and understanding about the world. Just because I don't think biology is a science, doesn't mean I think it is worthless (no more than I think a good book is worthless). It just means I don't think it is a pure science. I completely understand that there are other tools and other ways to find truth than mathematics. Ultimately I believe the physics style modelling is the best way to understand the world, but I recognize that it is not the only way and it is outright non-applicable in most cases. I hope that one day that isn't true, but right now it is. Biology shows us a great deal about a complicated world, in a way that physics cannot because we have our hands full with our relatively uncomplicated systems! Ideally, we will one day be able to condense all interactions of all kinds to mathematical models on the level of physics, but we can't do that right now. The sad truth may be, we may never have the mathematical tools or calculatory power to model anything beyond the basic systems of physics. It is silly to say that the world should sit on its hands and not bother to study anything that cannot be modeled until the math catches up. In my ideal world mathematics and physical modeling will progress to a degree so that biology will be absorbed as a "branch" of physics. That means everything that is known and has been discovered by biology will have to be fit into a very complicated mathematical model, making it all fantastic test data. I see a parallel today in how DNA is helping biologists using lots of old knowns to generate better mathematical models than previously seen in biology.
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