23 February 2011

Science Fairs

Last week I had the pleasure of judging at the Eleanor Roosevelt High School science fair.  The   pleasure was only added to by the breakfast, snacks, and beverages provided by the ERHS PTSA.  Program organized by Jennifer Massagli

The main fun, as always, was talking to the students.  But I'll also make some comments here for students who are thinking about next year's science fair projects.  One part of the fun (for judges) being to talk to the students, I'll advise that students act like they're interested in their projects.  "Here is something I slapped together because the school made me." even if true, is just not the way to your judge's heart.  I also make this comment to graduate students and scientists about their presentations.  Many people don't act interested in their own work.  Trust me, if you aren't interested, we won't be either.

Fun parts of the talk include finding out what prompted the student to do their project and where they might take it in the future.  Also an important part of a professional presentation.  One student I spoke with was looking at the output of solar cells, how they depended on light sources and filters.  This is sufficient reason for the science fair project, and he explored that question ok.  But it became much more interesting to me when I discovered that he was using the solar cells as proxies for plant photosynthesis.  Plants do rely on the sun, as do solar cells, and there are degrees to which you can indeed use solar cells to map out plant responses.

A different line of interest for me is to see what the students think of to investigate, and how.  Many different sorts of things investigation, and many ingenious ideas on how to get the measurements.  Both are good areas to use and show your creativity, which is one of the areas on the official scoresheet.

The judge's worksheet we had is a fairly typical one (I've judged science fairs at several different levels and areas).  General areas are scientific thought (15 points), Creative ability (10), thoroughness/clarity (15), exhibit presentation (10).  Total of 50.

For scientific thought, the areas are:
1) The problem/hypothesis is stated clearly
2) Variables are clearly recognized and defined by the experiment
3) There is a procedural plan for obtaining a solution and the plan covered the problem completel

For Creativity:
4) The approach showed creativity in solving the problem.
5) The analysis of the data showed creativity

6) Data and results are clearly presented and there are adequate data to support the conclusions, such as replication of experiments
7) The conclusion is justified based on the data and results
8) Project shows evidence of laboratory, observational, and computational skill needed to obtain and analyze the data

Exhibit Presentation
9) Backboard is well-designed and effective in presenting the project
10) Student is able to discuss the project clearly and concisely; demonstrating and understanding of principles involved in the research

Standard checklists don't always cover vitally important things.   For instance, though it only officially shows up as 5 points (#10), in practice it is about a million points that if you don't know what you did or why, you're not going to do well.  The 5 points is to distinguish between students who did do their own project, not to distinguish between students who did, and those who didn't.  This is seldom an issue, but it does show up from time to time.  I usually feel sorry for these students, because it's usually a matter of an over-helpful or over-involved advisor or parent.  Unfortunately, the outcome is that the student doesn't know why they were doing one thing rather than another, or even that there might have been other things to try.

Students are also usually very good at the straightforward parts of the list.  Almost everybody states their hypothesis clearly (#1) and backboards (#9) are usually very good, and several others.  An outcome of this is that simply adding up the item scores tends to be extremely close, including a lot of ties.  We judges then have to use tiebreakers not on the list, which takes us back to those issues of the student knowing why they were doing what they were doing, connecting it to other parts of science, seeing a path forward in to other researches, how to improve their own work if they were to be restarting it now, and so forth.

Regardless of all the preceding, I'll say to pursue figuring out something that's interesting to you about the universe.  Do it in a way you find interesting.  This may or may not turn out to be something that gets a lot of points.  But it will be how you learn the most.  My own science fair projects were generally not very good by the standards above, nor would I as a judge today give my projects back then a high rating.  They were usually a matter of reading about what other people had found out, rather than doing my own experiments to find out things.  Not what the judges looked for then or now, but something that I did learn a lot from.

For schools and teachers in my area: I'd be happy to come to your school for judging, or to talk with you about science and science fairs.  Comment here, or use my email -- bobg at radix dot net.  Allow some time for me to find your real email amidst the dreck I get there.

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