Done with science fairs for this school year

Today was the Merrill Middle School science fair, which was my last for the school year. I’m definitely planning to continue volunteering next year, since this has been a lot of fun. And hopefully, I’ll have a better attendance record. This year went like this:

  • Grant Middle School (January) – missed, due to horrible stomach bug that caused 12 hours of endless vomiting
  • DPS district fair (January) – Made it to this one
  • Denver Metro fair (February) – Made it to this one
  • Colorado State fair (April) – missed, due to having mono
  • …so with today, that gives me what, a 60% attendance rate? Oof. And I really could have done without the mono. And the vomiting.

    This was actually the first fair that I’ve made it to that was just for one school. It was also apparently strangely timed, since the district, regional, and state fairs were all over with – any student with a good project in this fair wouldn’t have had anywhere to go. Which is sad for them, since there were some pretty good projects that at the very least deserved to go to the district-wide fair, I think. From what the volunteer coordinator said, the school’s likely to shift their schedule soon so their students do have those opportunities. Which is great.

    The difference between this fair and, say, the district fair was pretty apparent. The projects had a really wide range of quality, from “I just came up with something because I had to” to “Wow.” A lot of the projects were pretty lackluster, but there were some that still really stood out. We actually had a pretty tough time choosing the best in show from among the first place winners; all of them definitely deserved their prizes, and in the end I think the grand prize winner only really edged out ahead because he’d done a little more background research and had whipped out some pretty impressive math for an eighth grader. (Or, as I put it, “Can you guys believe it? An eighth grader, using pi! Voluntarily!”)

    From the three fairs that I actually made it to, these are the things I’ve noticed that really make some of the projects stand out:

  • Actual research having been done. I was pretty surprised how unusual this was. I guess I just sort of assumed that in the age of easily accessible internet (the school library at Merrill had an impressive array of iMacs) that we’d at least be seeing Wikipedia references. And while Wikipedia doesn’t cut it if you’re in college, I’d be more than happy to settle for that from elementary or middle school kids particularly. As it is, most of the kids managed to come up with a question and a reasonably testable hypothesis, but then never took the step of seeing what information was already out there about their topic.
  • A connection to scientific concepts beyond use of the scientific method. I remember how blown away I was by the fifth grader at the district science fair who connected his “fun with fluids”-type experiment to a broader exploration of Newtonian versus non-Newtonian fluids. The grand prize winner at Merrill did his experiment on the speed at which ice in different shapes melted, and made assessing surface area (and surface touching a hot cookie sheet in the oven) integral to that. I suppose that this is something that goes hand-in-hand with the research, since it’s hard to make this kind of connection without doing a little reading. Most projects seem to take a question (“which kind of football can I throw the farthest”) and even come up with plausible explanations in their conclusions (“this one went farther because it was smooth and light”) without ever looking at why their results turned out that way (“smooth things are more aerodynamic and right now a lighter football is easier for me to throw because I haven’t hit my growth spurt yet”). That means that the few projects where the kid takes that extra step and connects their small experiment to a greater body of work really stand out.
  • Repetition of trials and controls. Most experimental design for these projects is extremely simple, which is how it should be. Unfortunately, that also tends to mean that the kids either forget about (or perhaps haven’t been told about) keeping proper controls or doing multiple trials so that the results can be averaged. This is another thing where when it does happen, it really impresses the judges because it’s so unusual. It’s even more impressive when the student can explain why they did it that way, since that lets us know that they didn’t just do it because an adult told them to.
  • The student can tell you what they would have done differently. My favorite question to ask a student always comes at the end; I ask them, “Knowing what you do now, if you could go back in time and re-do your experiment, what would you change?” Most of the time, the answer I get is a shrug or some variation thereof. But sometimes, I get a great answer from the student, detailing how they would avoid mistakes, or fix a flaw in their methodology, or even redesign the entire experiment because their first shot didn’t produce data that was useful to answering their question. Those are the answers I love, because it proves that the student does have a grasp of how experimental science works – it’s all about seeing your own mistakes and refining your process. I admit that I also love it when students find out their hypothesis was wrong; most of the time they ask a question that they already knew (or thought they knew) the answer to and use the experiment as a way of proving themselves right.
  • So, I’m looking forward to the next school year, when the science fairs start up again. Hopefully I’ll be able to work volunteering in around my grad school schedule. One unexpectedly fun thing is that I’ve started to get to know the little community of local science fair judges. You see a lot of the same faces from fair to fair, which is neat. The smaller fairs seem to be dominated by geologists and engineers, though with a sample size of only two I can’t say that for sure. We’ll see in the fall!

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