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Tuesday, January 31, 2006
It's Science Fair Season

It's that time of the year again. You may wonder: Have the PC police, those self-appointed gurus of unfounded self-esteem, had any success denaturing the local science fair?

It's that time of the year again, the season of school science and engineering fairs. Our oldest is taking a break from his five-year string of award-winning projects. (I get to brag just a little, right?) But our sixth-grader had us up late last night helping with her display. It's a confirmed geek household, so this is fun for us, at least until 10:30 p.m. or so.

Her elementary school science and engineering fair is this week. A few weeks later, for the winners, is the district fair, and those winners eventually go to CUSEF, the Central Utah Science and Engineering Fair at BYU. CUSEF is a lot of fun for students and their parents. (The geek glory and the cash awards are nice, but the society and the fun -- much of which involves actual learning -- are the best parts.)

I just used the word "winners," so the astute reader is already detecting possible trouble with public school teachers, administrators, or even parents who care more for political correctness than for science education. You may wonder: Have the PC police, those self-appointed gurus of unfounded self-esteem, had any success denaturing the local science fair?

I have good news and bad news, but mostly good.

The bad news is, yes, they have had a little success. The good news is, they've had a lot less of it so far with the science fair than they have had with dumbing down the math curriculum. Better still, some of their recent success was promptly undone by an alert teacher. There still are actual winners at the science fair, but (a) the school is acting embarrassed about it, and (b) a sort of affirmative action has crept in at least once in recent years at my children's elementary school.

Ideally, the whole family would go to the fair at our elementary school of choice, Barratt Elementary in American Fork, and study especially the projects the judges thought were best. It's an educational activity, besides being of practical use to any student who might want to win next year. "Look, son, see how she built her own apparatus, collected her own data, and actually interpreted the data correctly?" "See how this display's design invites and guides your attention, and you don't even want to look twice at this other one?" "I like how he clearly identifies an actual hypothesis, explains his experiment, and reports the results." "See, this is an engineering project, not a science project, so it appropriately has a problem and a solution, not a hypothesis and an experiment." You get the idea.

But at Barratt Elementary, lately, only the experienced science-fair-goers are able to engage in such activities freely. Novices are severely handicapped by the fact that the school won't announce any winners until the day after the science fair. Visitors just have to guess which ones were judged best. Presumably, this practice has two advantages, in the PC mind:

  1. It mostly shelters the judges from having their work scrutinized. They could be complete clowns, and few will ever know it, because you can't look at the projects themselves and see which ones they picked. Most of the parents will never even hear who were the winners, unless their child was among them. The beauty of this, to a certain mindset, is the utter lack of accountability on the part of the judges. (Public institutions studiously evade accountability.)
  2. When he's at the science fair, looking at his own project and others', Junior won't be encouraged in any way to learn to distinguish excellence from mediocrity. If he figures it out on his own, he'll get no outside confirmation and no encouragement to emulate excellence. (At the average public institution, excellence is bad and unfair, and mediocrity is good and satisfying.)

Despite #2 above, in my several years at local science fairs, I have thought the judging to be generally competent at every level and in nearly every case. The one glaring exception may be instructive.

Several years ago at Barratt Elementary, there was a certain quantity of blue ribbons to be given to the best projects. These would then advance to the district fair. In fact, that quantity was unusually but justifiably large at Barratt. It is one of the homes of the district's half-hearted but excellent gifted program (itself a huge offense to PC sensibilities). The judges dutifully evaluated all the projects (no names on any, of course, for the sake of objectivity) and awarded their 20 or so blue ribbons to the best ones. Then, when officials looked up the names of all the winning students, they discovered that all of them were from the gifted classes.

It doesn't have to be that way, of course, and it isn't always. There are good students and future science geeks in the regular classes, too. But is it so unlikely that, in any given year, most or all of the 20 best projects come from among the 60 students in the gifted program? That program's presence, with the resultant unusual concentration of particularly fine students, is why Barratt was allotted an unusually high number of blue ribbons in the first place. (Someone may think that isn't fair.)

On this occasion someone decided that students from other classes had a right to blue ribbons, too, even if the best of their projects didn't quite measure up to the competition that year. So they took the blue ribbons from the projects of the two students who had won high awards at CUSEF the previous year -- I suppose they had "had their chance" at the higher levels -- and gave them to two students from other classes, who had initially been awarded red ribbons. Those two surplus red ribbons, of course, went to the two proven science geeks. Their two fine projects, therefore, weren't going anywhere, no matter how good they were, and they would go home wondering what their projects lacked.

The following Monday, a certain teacher returned from a brief vacation and learned of this offense to science and reason. She -- presumably in a dignified and cheerful way -- "hit the fan," as someone put it, because she already knew that the two projects which "donated" their blue ribbons were among the very best. She managed to find out what had happened and get those two advanced to the district fair with the other winners, where they won awards. Later, at CUSEF, the judges affirmed her judgment yet again.

What these two students learned is that their school as an institution cared more for some arbitrary, quantitative "fairness" of outcomes than for rewarding actual excellence and hard work. They learned that social engineering is sometimes a far greater force at school than actual education. If they learned anything from the experience about justice, excellence, courage, or loyalty to person and principle, it was from the teacher who saw what the institution had done and wouldn't stand for it.

Here's hoping that our schools, in spite of themselves, will always have a few such teachers in them. A lot of things need defending there, not just the integrity of the science and engineering fair.

Well, I'm off to the fair soon enough. I almost always learn something there and encounter new thoughts I haven't thunk before. (Did I just disqualify myself from the Grammar and Diction Fair? If only there were such a thing!)

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