Science Fair

Posted By on February 28, 2007

“Isn’t This What Science Is All About?”

.: Two weeks ago my molecular genetics professor, Dr. Chris Kearney, made an announcement in class about a local elementary school teacher needing volunteers to judge at the school’s science fair. My friend Larry and I decided we were up for it, and today we woke up an hour early and drove across town to harshly critique appraise and encourage burgeoning young scientists.

.: It was your typical science fair scene in all its tri-panel glory. I walked up to a kindergarten student — official clipboard in hand — and asked her what she did in her experiment. “I mixed oil and water and food coloring and I found out that it creates two colors that separate after you shake them up.” I asked her if she knew what she wanted to be when she grew up, and she said she didn’t know.

.: Some of the experiments were good, practical experiments that a kid could easily create on their own. One such experiment was the simple question, “Can you taste the difference between splenda cookies and regular cookies?” It’s a good question, and the student even went through the trouble of making a survey sheet for everyone involved (216 people!). It was a good project, and it was clear that the parents only helped with the implementation of the experiment, not with the ideas behind it. I was a little dismayed, though, when I learned that — after making sure to record all the data about which variety of cookie the people preferred, and whether or not they thought they would be able to determine the difference — the student never wrote down the figures for whether or not people could actually tell the difference between the two cookies!

.: With few exceptions, the best projects showed tell tale signs of deep parental involvement — and of these, the best were from parents who were also scientists. Compare and contrast the following statement from one third grader:

I took the pennies and I stacked them ten at a time and placed them on the scale and I took their weight and the the boat that held the most pennies was also the biggest boat and my conclusion was that the bigger the boat the more pennies it could hold.

… with this from another third grader:

Light enters the eye by first passing through the cornea, which is the outer layer of the eye, then on through the lens, which is an adjustable clear structure that stiffens with age — which is why older people need glasses more than younger people. Once light passes through the lens, it is projected onto the retina, but because of the curvature of the lens, the image is inverted. The image is then converted into signals by the retina and the signal is sent to the brain by the optic nerve. Once in the brain the image is flipped right-side up again, and the end result is what you see. I’ve constructed a model eye which demonstrates the image-flipping property of a convex lens.

.: The first third grader was helped by his mom, who as near as I could tell was your regular non-scientist mommy. The second third grader was helped by her dad . . . who was an optometrist. However, the second third grader really knew what she was talking about. It wasn’t the case of a parent doing all the work and sending their clueless child to a science fair with a whole bunch of mysterious writings pinned to a cardboard display. I pressed her on a few questions (questions that not even some of my friends would know), and she didn’t even hesitate in answering them correctly. I asked her if she wanted to be a scientist when she grew up. She said, “No, I want to be a doctor.” I laughed.

.: I asked every kid, “Who came up with the idea for this experiment?” and the most common answers were “My mom/dad” and “We just picked it out of a science project book.” In those cases, I would ask questions to make sure they knew what the purpose of the experiment was. But my favorites were the kids who picked their own topics after seeing something their siblings did. “I saw my brother accidentally spill some vinegar on the counter and it made neat bubbles, so I experimented with all kinds of liquids to see if they would make bubbles with vinegar.”

.: For other kids, I would suggest further things they could do that were related to their experiment. One girl collected a whole bunch of liquids and performed litmus tests for all of them (her father was a chemistry student). I saw that she tested 7-UP, so I told her to ask her dad if they could test 7-UP again. I suggested she shake it up to get all the bubbles out and test it one more time to see if the pH changes (it will of course become less acidic as the carbonic acid converts to water and carbon dioxide, which leaves). I also noticed that she listed the pH of saltwater as 10.0. I asked her if she used tap water for her saltwater; she said yes, so I further suggested she ask her dad for distilled water to use for the next round of saltwater. I think she’ll be pleasantly surprise.

.: My favorite project, though, was by a particularly enthusiastic third grader. I walked over to his presentation and before I could ask for his name he started immediately:

In genetic engineering they use a technique called knockout mutation, where they take a gene in a mouse and remove it to see what kind of mouse results. If the mice run around only in circles then they know that gene has something to do with navigation. In my experiment I made knockout muffins where I removed a single different ingredient from each batch of muffins so I could determine what role that ingredient played. The muffins without baking powder failed to rise, the muffins without sugar tasted like biscuits, the muffins without flour hardly looked like muffins at all . . .

.: I was blown away. Here’s a third grader . . . talking about knockout mice! The kid knew what he was talking about, knew the importance of each step in his experiment, and even knew how to relate it to other areas of science. Clearly there was parental involvement, but of the most positive kind. Then I looked at the name on the tri-panel:

B. Kearney.

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6 Responses to “Science Fair”

  1. Oscar B. says:

    You might have to obfuscate the kid’s name, to avoid any issues.

  2. Robin Z says:

    Oh, ha! No wonder your prof knew they needed volunteers!

  3. Larry says:

    As soon as I walked up to him and heard knockout mice, I got suspicious.

  4. Parsa says:

    haha, very good read. if you took my navigation gene out, i’d run around in circles as well.

  5. […] science fair, however, there were some fairly obvious incidents of too much parental involvement. Last year I mentioned the case of the knockout muffins presented by a student who just happened to be the son […]

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