In honour of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, which is being blogged about at http://scienceblogs.com/intelisef, I was thinking about my own experiences as a science fair contestant and occasional judge.
I wasn't too creative or elaborate myself when it came to my own projects, so most of my fondest memories are from judging or as a mentor. Anyway, from this, it's clear that there are certain types of participants, some of which I will list out below:
1. The "makings of a mad scientist" participant.
These are usually the projects that tend to make you laugh, maybe make you feel a bit uncomfortable, and certainly the sort where you secretly wonder whether the teacher involved knows what is actually going on.
The project that comes to mind is one I judged a few years back, where a 3rd grade student decided to look into cryobiology: specifically, the cyrobiology of his pet goldfish (his name was Larry, the fish not the boy). Anyway, the project itself involved putting Larry in a tupperware container of water, and leaving it in the freezer for a certain length of time, bringing it out to revert back to room temperature, and then reporting on "how Larry did" ."
I remember the lab book, which was maybe one of the funniest things I've ever read, with notes like:
"Larry is still moving, maybe kind of slow, but he seems o.k."
"Looks like Larry is resting."
"Larry is very still right now."
2. The "my poster is so pretty that Al Gore could use it" participant
Here is the case where the sheer beauty of the poster is what is key. It's like, maybe the student knows that the science project itself is lacking to many degrees, and so heartily tries to compensate for this deficiency by subjecting the project to countless creative hours to make it look like it was either produced by an advertising firm, or maybe barfed out by an arts and craft store.
As well, sometimes, these projects have a slick oral component as well (beware the student wearing a suit and coming up to you with "would you like me to engage you for a moment with a multimedia tour of my science fair project?")
Anyway, I've seen a LOT of these types of science fair projects, although sometimes I wish the real scientific conference poster could have a little bit of this (maybe at the next AAAS meeting could have a prize for the "prettiest poster").
3. The "holy crap, did your parents help you out with that" participant.
You know the ones. Usually easy to pick out.
4. The "are you for serious? Do you want to come work in my lab?" participant.
These are the students that basically make your day and make you wish sometimes that you could go back to being a starry eyed young'un full of ideas. The project itself doesn't have to be that sophisticated, but just centered around an idea that gets you thinking, "that's clever" as well as "there's no way I would've been thinking like that when I was 9 or 13 or whatever."
These are the ones where an 8 year old may try to see if plants grow differently when subject to different forces (as in centrifugal, as in setting up the plant on a bike wheel at a slow and constant pace), or a high school student propsing to use RobotLEGO to build a PCR roboycler which moves a sample from three different pots on the same cooking stove (conceptually doable, although the one I saw didn't work that well). I also remember a young high school student trying to see if she could detect the gravitational constant between two non-massive objects, through a series of mirrors that could amplify the path of a laser from a laser pointer. You know, that kind of stuff which is pretty darn clever, even if at times, incredibly impractical.
Anyway, overall, I salute the students and the folks involved in Science Fairs. Fun stuff, and an important part of scientific education.
Thanks - I'm a science fair judge too, and all of these examples are certainly familiar to me! :) I'd add one more: The "I think your elementary school need an IRB" participant. I had one this past year, a group investigation of the psychological effects of sleep deprivation, in which two 12-year olds kept a friend awake for, oh, I think it was 50 hours before he started acting "too weird, so we made him go to sleep."