Adventures in Ethics and Science

Well, the school science fair looms (as school science fairs are wont to do). While the actual event isn’t until May, we have reached the point at which the science teacher is vetting the proposed projects.

Presumably the vetting is to ensure that the kids are directing their efforts toward a project that is actually do-able in the available time, and that it’s focused on a question that is “scientific” rather than a matter of opinion.

A friend on the elder Free-Ride offspring’s soccer team had a project idea rejected because it fell in the realm of opinion. I asked, “What was the project?”

The teammate replied, “I don’t really remember.”

Since the idea for the project had been rejected by the science teacher that very day, my sense is that the teammate was not terribly attached to that project.

Undoubtedly, the late-March vetting is also intended to remind the kids that there’s a science fair in May, and that, at least for the upper grades, they are on the hook to produce a project. Maybe this minimizes the number of night-before-the-fair projects.

Interestingly, the kids have been asked by the science teacher to present the questions they will try to answer with their projects orally, rather than in writing. Pedagogically, I haven’t sorted out what I think about this. On the one hand, a fourth grader’s extemporaneous speech can be pretty rambling and unfocused — plus, the idea of “preparing” for an oral report is a hard sell. (“I just have to talk! I don’t need to write anything down ahead of time.”)

On the other hand, it may be harder to tell from pieces of paper with science fair project questions written on them how much the kid understands and how much may be coming from a parent or other science advisor. The feedback you can give on written questions is delayed, and it’s generally delivered in the form of written comments that may not be read, let alone understood. If a kid is telling you about his or her science fair question orally, you can ask for clarification right then and there, not to mention offering ways to refine or broaden the question (depending on whether it’s too broad or too narrow to start with).

Then again, the kid has to be paying attention to benefit from your immediate orally delivered feedback.

I’m not sure just what the build-up to developing their science fair questions has been. I do know that somehow the elder Free-Ride offspring has been left with the impression that every good experiment includes a beaker labeled “control”.

Naturally, I asked, “What’s supposed to be in that beaker?”

The elder Free-Ride offspring responded, “I don’t know!

“Hmmm,” I ventured, “do you think maybe you should hold off on drawing that beaker in your own project plan until you can explain what variable it’s controlling for?”

* * * * *
You may be wondering, after the months of considering so many ideas, what the sprogs think they’ll be doing for the fair.

Thankfully, given the relatively scant time remaining, neither of them wants to do anything that involves growing plants (at least, not this year).

The elder Free-Ride offspring wants to grow some crystals, and so is proposing a project to examine why you can grow crystals from some solids that dissolve in water but not others.

The younger Free-Ride offspring wants to follow up on our initial attempt to dissolve an avocado. This may end up involving figuring out a way to separate different avocado components and then trying to find solubility conditions for each of the components.

I am optimistic that there is not too much overlap between the actual projects, but that they share enough relevant background (on solubility properties and phases of matter) that maybe the home chemistry tutorials can do double-duty.

Of course, we will keep you updated.


  1. #1 Rick Pikul
    March 27, 2009

    If YO does manage to dissolve an avocado, that might lead to next year’s project being thin layer chromatography of an avocado.

    That might even be worth including this year, as part of the “what dissolved in X?” question.

  2. #2 Pat Cahalan
    March 27, 2009

    > On the other hand, it may be harder to tell from
    > pieces of paper with science fair project questions
    > written on them how much the kid understands and
    > how much may be coming from a parent or other
    > science advisor.

    Bing! I bet you got it dead-on, right there. I would hope, though, that while the Q&A is a discussion, the actual feedback from the teacher also comes in written form.

  3. #3 JessSnark
    March 27, 2009

    I love this description, and especially the part about the control beaker!

  4. #4 Jim Lund
    March 27, 2009

    I’ve been liking the idea of bug projects. Collect bugs from a defined patch of ground on different days, or at different times of day and compare what and how many you find. Or compare lawn to weeds to foresty land, etc. You can do surface bugs or dig down 10 cm and sort through collecting the bugs. Or look at what appears over the weeks of spring–which bugs are early and which ones appear later?

    It doesn’t take much equipment or months of sustained effort and it can be fun. Depending on the age and level of interest of the kid, you can categorize the bugs crudely or try to determine names.

  5. #5 Courtney
    March 27, 2009

    It’s just less paper for the teacher to keep track of. It’s also waaaay quicker to vet the projects just to do a quick oral Q and A.

    Funnily enough, my favorite science project that got past a middle school teacher was comparing the speeds of mice through mazes covered with different colors of duct tape. When I pointed out the inherent flaw (that mice don’t see colors), the student didn’t care because the teacher apparently didn’t know any better. *le sigh*

  6. #6 Rick Pikul
    March 30, 2009

    That mice don’t see colours is not really a flaw, it’s a possible conclusion.

    It is perfectly OK to have a result along the lines of “the colour of the maze had no/minimal impact on the speed of the mice.”

  7. #7 shannon
    April 1, 2009

    Mice actually do “see colors” just not necessarily the same ones we do. They do not have a high cone-density macula (as humans do) but they do have cone photoreceptors, one subtype of which expresses uv sensitive opsin and one subtype of which expresses red/green sensitive photopigment.

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