Andrew Magrath (biggrumpy) wrote,
Andrew Magrath

The Science (un)Fair

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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