Science Fair

Posted By on February 29, 2008

“Giving Back to the Community, One Hastily Written Appraisal at a Time”

.: Last week a professor emailed me about the upcoming Central Texas Science and Engineering Fair and its need for volunteer judges. Those of us participating were asked to choose which subjects we’d like to judge. As someone who loves molecular biology, I asked to be placed in the Cellular physiology/Biochemistry sections. As someone who clearly doesn’t matter, they assigned me to physics.

.: Physics is the only class I’ve had to retake. It’s a shameful blight on my collegiate career. It’s a subject of which the difficulty is matched only by the intensity of my disinterest. (I’m not sure if one can be actively disinterested in something, but the correlation is there.)

.: Luckily, the science fair projects I judged all belonged to 6th and 8th grade students, so for the most part I was safe. Another safety net was my co-judge, Jay. If we ran across a student whose project dealt with physics beyond my caliber, he was to play the role of the person who knew what he was talking about.

.: My fear of physics was assuaged when we approached the first poster. She was a 6th grader, and her question was a simple one: “Does the number of megapixels on a camera affect picture quality?” I realized at that point I wasn’t going to be dealing with physics. My role was to ask leading questions that might lead to sudden epiphanies in basic experimental design and scientific thought.

“These two cameras have built-in flash, but this camera does not. How do you think that might have affected your results?”

.: When we were satisfied that the student had grasped the concept of controls, my co-judge Jay followed with an equally important question I had not thought to ask.

“Did you have fun?”

.: Jay had a gift for making the students excited. I’m sure most of them were nervous when we started, so he already had some form of energy to work with. Still, when we went to the next poster (“Is one pole of a magnet stronger than the other?”), he enchanted the student with a description of the magnet in his lab.

“It has a coil that goes about this high” — his hand came above his head — “and it has over a million loops. Isn’t that cool?”

.: To a kid, a million of anything is cool. That this particular million can, with several thousand amps running through it, pull a wrench from your hand is, to a 6th grader, about as cool as having Superman show up at your birthday party.

.: As with every 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 of my molecular genetics professor. That kind of parental involvement is fine, because the student understood the relevance of the test. However, when a student had a beautifully constructed poster, an interesting problem, a well-written presentation, and no understanding of the basics of their project, we got suspicious.

.: Then there were cases where a complete lack of parental involvement was evident (or so we hoped). One student’s question was, “Do different types of lights produce different numbers of shadows?” As in, if you take a flashlight and shine it on an erect pencil, will you see more shadows than if you used, say, an LED microlight? She took pictures to document the different shadows. I questioned her about the use of flash in her pictures, and whether the multiple shadows might have been created by more than one light source. She did not understand the purpose of either question.

.: There was also at least one instance of adult input being completely wrong. We asked one student if she thought three trials was enough data. She said yes, because her science teacher told her it’s always best to have an odd number of trials so you don’t have symmetrical bias. I’m not sure what that means, but for all you people out there doing experiments with exactly 100 trials, you’re doing it wrong.

.: The first project we saw in the 8th grade section was simply amazing. This student wrote a program in Java to simulate the Ising model of ferromagnetism. If you are a physics major and even you do not know what that means, do not worry: you have simply not gone to grad school yet. Now think how a lowly biochemistry major might react to such a display. What could I say? I had to retake Physics I, I barely passed Physics II, and I have no familiarity with a coding language of any kind. Even Jay took a while to say anything. All our questions for the other kids were designed for their benefit; we already knew the answers in those cases. But any question we had for this student would be a genuine search for knowledge — how did he do that?

.: He told us exactly what he did and how he did it, but I didn’t have to take his word for it. “Everything he said was accurate,” said Jay, the experimental particle physicist. True, I just took someone else’s word for it, but I figured someone like Jay wouldn’t be a professor of physics if he had a habit of making statements that didn’t accord with reality.

.: Two students had projects that involved trips to the Meyer observatory. One of the students clearly knew a great deal about astronomy, but her hypothesis was a bit weak. It was basically, “I bet I can find Polaris with my sextant.” It wasn’t the kind of hypothesis which generates any knew knowledge when falsified, but how do you explain that to a middle-schooler — especially one who was kind enough to show how you can make a own homemade sextant with a straw, a protractor, and a fishing lure?

.: The other kid, however, made full use of his telescope time. I can’t remember the exact details of his hypothesis (it involved absorption of different wavelengths, I’m sure), but I did learn how to determine whether a star has an exoplanet orbiting around it. [FYI: a star dims slightly whenever a planet passes between it and an observer.] He also explained the importance of a check star and the effect our atmosphere and rotation has on the perceived brightness of stars — both topics which I, a mere manipulator of DNA sequences, did not know a thing about beforehand.

.: There were six projects each for both 6th and 8th grade physics. Awards were to be given to each subject for every grade. We were allowed to assign 1st and 2nd place, as well as up to three honorable mentions. The other judges wanted to give as many honorable mentions as possible to encourage the students, but I petitioned to limit them to two. My reasoning was that two people could shoulder failure a lot easier than one person, even is one student’s project failed spectacularly more than the other’s.

.: I guess I can end this post by explaining my one and only science fair project from the 6th grade. My problem was a simple one: “Which candy bar is the tastiest?” My hypothesis followed directly from my preferences: “I think butterfingers are the tastiest.” My methods were as simple as they were sound: “Several volunteers were asked to sample candy bars and note whichever one they thought was the tastiest.” My conclusion was controversial: “The data indicates that Reese’s peanut butter cups are the tastiest.” My proposal for further research was denied.

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