Last friday I volunteered as a science fair judge. It took half a day, but I did get free food and tons of things to blog about. There are so many things to say about science fairs that I don’t really know where to begin. I actually might not even address all the issues. Here is what I would like to talk about (in no particular order):
- What is the purpose of a science fair?
- How do you win a science fair? Tips.
- What about judging? Are the normal methods reliable?
- Data Analysis tips for middle schoolers
- Creativity vs. the Internet vs. parents.
- Social Science Fair posters? Er?
Why science fairs?
If I were in charge of science fairs (clearly, I am not), I would make the primary goal to be the promotion of science and to give students a chance to do some real science. I guess this is the goal of the actual science fairs. However, I really don’t think science fairs promote sound understanding of the nature of science.
My biggest two problems are the same format of “The Scientific Method” and part of that is the use and misuse of the word hypothesis. To me, science is about building models. Models can be physical (like a ship model), numerical or a conceptual model. A hypothesis is what a model predicts. If you go around and look at how the hypothesis is used on these posters, it is clear that the science fair is not helping.
What would I do differently? I really don’t know. Make the science fair less structured. Don’t focus on everyone following the same format, that might help.
At the science fair I was at, each judge was given a set of judging sheets with poster numbers. It seems like each poster was judged by two judges. I couldn’t tell exactly if the other judge to look at the same poster looked at all the other same posters that I did. However, you may be able to see the problem. Suppose that I am a hard judge. I try to be fair and accurately evaluate where the poster scores on what I think of as a universal scale. Another judge may judge much higher because you don’t want to discourage young scientists. So the problem is that our two scores don’t mean the same thing. Now suppose another poster was judged by two easier judges and no hard judges. Well, their project may not be that great but they could still get a high score.
Another problem is that judges look for different things. I like projects that may not have turned out perfectly, but were clearly unique and had data that might be heading towards answering a question. Other judges might like a good presentation. Perhaps this focus could be settled by having a judging sheet, but for me the judging sheet had too many different criteria to evaluate.
In the end, if you are a student with a science fair project and you don’t win, don’t take it too seriously. Really sometimes the winner is somewhat arbitrary (if you become a scientist, it will be good practice to be rejected – think: rejected papers, rejected grants). I really even wonder if what my own reliability is. Would I judge the same poster the same way if the order were different? Actually, this could be an interesting project to look at the judging of science fairs. Take a normal science fair and have way too many judges (but only some count). Do they all agree? What if the judges were “trained”, would this make a difference?
Data Analysis Tips for Middle Schoolers
A lot of these projects need some serious help. Here is an example of stuff you will see (I am making this up). Suppose I hit two different brand golf balls to see which goes farther. Here is the data I collect.
“So, my hypothesis was correct. Clearly Brand B is better.” I see lots of stuff like this. Students often go straight for comparing an average without regard for the spread in the data. Also, 4 hits is probably not enough. At this point, I don’t really have more to add. I am not sure what level of data analysis is appropriate for middle schoolers. Let me think about this and get back to it.
How do you win?
This is a tough question. It obviously depends on the judges and the scoring sheets that are used. Here are a few tips.
- I know everyone thinks real scientist are messy, but you need to have a nice and neat poster. Have everything clearly labeled and organized. I hate to say it, but color and font probably matter also. I would go with something that looks nice but nothing too flashy. Just a guess there.
- Follow the rules and the guidelines. If the guidelines say to have a notebook available, have one. If it says to clearly display your references, look up something more than wikipedia. Actually, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have at least 1 non-internet reference. During my judging, I was secretly hoping to see someone reference (http://scienceblogs.com/dotphysics).
- Be creative. Nothing is more awesome to see a student with a great (and doable) idea. However, don’t get crazy creative. Just normal creative. Also, try stuff that you really think of. I think it is ok if everything doesn’t work out perfectly (it is science after all).
- Data Analysis. Do it.
- Don’t change a whole bunch of variables at one time. Ideally, just change one thing.
Note to parents
I know you want your child to win and I know you want to help. However, let your child make mistakes and try things even if you know it won’t work. That is how they learn about science. Hopefully, their grade won’t be effected by their performance – but who knows.