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Friday, February 3, 2006
Notes on the Science Fair

Miscellaneous notes on the science fair and the scientific method, and some apt words from Thomas Edison.

I went to the science fair last evening at Barratt Elementary in American Fork -- this after discussing it in my blog the other day. I've done this for several years in a row now, along with the American Fork Junior High fair, district fairs, and the Central Utah Science and Engineering Fair (CUSEF) at BYU. By Thursday evening, it sometimes seems as if I've run out of lucid thoughts for the week . . . but you be the judge. Among my several thoughts were these:

  • As an elementary and junior high student in Idaho, I didn't even know science fairs existed. (At my schools, they didn't.) I wish I had.
  • In high school, I entered a multistate science and engineering contest I heard about and was accepted to present my work during a fascinating trip to Salt Lake City. My presentation skills at that age were quite undeveloped; I think it's a wonderful thing that much younger students now engage in such activities.
  • The trend in average display board quality at the Barratt Elementary fair is definitely upward over several years.
  • A few years ago, a young lady did some sort of comparative test of spot removers. Her board was titled, in large, bold print, "Out, danged spot!" While one appreciates the Shakespearian inclinations, I'm afraid that I smiled, shook my head, and marvelled at the phenomenon of being in Utah. The closest this year's batch of projects came to giving me such a memorable linguistic moment was when I read that one young scientist looked up a particular fact in "a book called an almaniac." Al-Maniac? I think I want one.
  • I'm not surprised to discover that Coca-Cola is a better rust remover than Sprite or Mountain Dew.
  • I saw an interesting project testing the reliability of eyewitnesses over time.
  • Most people, teachers included, don't appreciate that engineering projects and science projects are different. (Both are welcome at the science and engineering fair.) Rather than hypothesizing and testing an explanation for an observed phenomenon, as a science project should, an engineering project starts with a problem and fashions a solution. (How can I design a rocket to launch and recover an unbroken raw egg? Is there a more energy-efficient way to desalinize seawater?) When we shoehorn that into the scientific method, we get the question, "Can I build a rocket to do this?" and the hypothesis, "Yes. I can." That has to seem a little stilted even to a fifth grader.
  • The project most likely to interest Dave Barry involved testing which of several fabrics was most flammable. I don't recall the actual answer, but the important result of the project surely was this: A young person got to burn things with fire and call it science. It's wonderful! I hope the proud parents keep one eye on the pyromaniac at all times.

Here's a longer thought.

When I learned the scientific method in school, it went like this: First, you observe a phenomenon and wonder why or how. Then, based upon your best knowledge, you make a guess as to why or how; this is your hypothesis. Then you devise an experiment to test your hypothesis, gather your results, and report your conclusion. Specifically, does your experiment confirm your hypothesis or not?

The typical science fair project hypothesis is not much of a hypothesis. For example, I have these five paper airplanes of different designs. I begin with a question: Which will fly the farthest? For my hypothesis, I take a wild guess or flip a coin or something. Let's say that my hypothesis is that plane B will fly farthest, for no particular reason. Then I test them and report my results.

This isn't bad -- in fact, it's a decent start --but something's missing. Specifically, I'm asking my question and forming my hypothesis before I have even observed a phenomenon about which to wonder and hypothesize. I would have thought that the observation would want to be, Plane B flies farther. The question would be, Why? The hypothesis might have something to do with surface area or air resistance or something, and the experiment would test that and report.

I wandered the fair, scanning about 200 projects, looking for one with such a solid observation and hypothesis. I found none.

It's not that I question the merits of simple reports on a question, or of the experimentation that comes from wondering if permanent markers are really permanent, or which chocolate melts faster. Nor do I suppose that the scientific method is the only useful or valuable route to scientific knowledge. The science fair exercise would be somewhat useful even if all the information were supplied for the student, and all the student had to do was figure out how to present it effectively, both orally and on a display board.

I finally decided that the problem isn't so much not knowing what the scientific method is or what a hypothesis is. It is failing to realize that inquiry with the scientific method is an iterative process. We might go through the observation-question-hypothesis-experiment cycle over and over again before we get to something resembling useful knowledge. We usually don't get very far the first time, but that's when we tend to stop and write up the project. Note that in the paper airplane example, the missed opportunity in the young student's approach was not that he was headed in the wrong direction, but that he didn't go far enough. The very next step beyond what he did, wondering why the plane flew further, would likely make for a fruitful and interesting experiment or three or ten.

Likewise: Does the temperature of a magnet affect the strength of its magnetic field? An interesting question, to be sure. One young scientist experimented and found that it does not -- which is true for the temperature range tested, I think, but not true at much higher temperatures. Suppose the student had tested at extreme temperatures and found that magnets do fail, and had reported that. It's useful knowledge. But to stop there would be to come up just short of a very interesting question: Why do they fail at high temperatures?

Likewise: We have several types of soil. We wonder which holds the most water.  We hypothesize that soil C will, but we're just guessing. Eeny, meeny, miny, moe. We experiment and discover what the reality is, and then we report our results. But why not go a step further? Why not make our observation that soil C holds more water, and our hypothesis a reasonable guess as to why? Perhaps it has more decaying organic matter in it, or something like that. Then we fashion an experiment to see if that is the reason, and we report our results.

In any case, here's to the junior scientists. I hope they've had fun trying to figure stuff out. It's an excellent thing.

In closing, a few apt quotations from Thomas Edison:

  • "Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up."
  • "I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward."
  • "Results! Why man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know of several thousand things that won't work."
  • "Nearly every man who develops an idea works at it up to the point where it looks impossible, and then gets discouraged. That's not the place to become discouraged."

The quotations are from this site but are available in many places around the Web.

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