Gas station without pumps

2012 February 20

Google Science Fair

Google is once again trying their international on-line science fair: Google Science Fair. Last year they had over 10,000 entries, and I suspect that they’ll have nearly 10 times as many this year, now that people have heard of it.

The visible portion of the fair is tiny: only 60 of the 7,500 entrants last year became semi-finalists whose projects became publicly displayed on the web, and only 15 were invited to the live Google Science Fair.  Contrast that with a county like Santa Cruz, which has about 3000 students in each grade level (18,000 in the 6-year span of the Google Science Fair), has about 150–200 projects in the corresponding age range, and sends 40 projects a year to the state science fair (and 2 or 3 to international).  The county science fair is already a selection, since each school only sends 10 to county, but some schools have 200 or more projects at the school level.

The pruning of projects in the traditional science fair happens gradually, with about a 10-to-1 reduction at each level, so the noise inherent in the judging process tends to even out a bit.  I won’t pretend that the best projects in the state always win, but the projects that are selected are certainly among the best, according to many different judges. Each project has been through two or three rounds of selection with different judges (generally at least 3 or 4 at each level) and often intensive questioning by the judges to distinguish the kids who just parrot what their parents or teachers told them from those who actually did and understand their projects.

The one-step, over 100-to-1 pruning of the Google list (probably 1000-to-1 this year), based mainly on a 2-minute video, is bound to be much more error-prone. It also selects strongly for those who do a good spiel, rather than those who do good science.

I don’t know whether a video presentation would help my son—he is a good live actor, but the 2-minute limit is rather tight for explaining what is cool about his project, and his script writing ability is not as good as either his acting or his science. The video format favors those who can do fancy pictures (cute animals, catchy equipment) and disadvantages those with more abstract projects (like my son’s computer-science projects).  Perhaps he’d be better off with a 20-slide Google presentation, though I guess from last year’s winners that video summaries are highly favored by the judges.

Google seems to have put a bit more emphasis on the traditional components of science fair this year, with an 11-section template for Google Docs that is similar in spirit to the guidelines for live science fairs.  They do say that  only 5 of the 11 sections are guaranteed to be read by the judges, and one of these sections is the video (or Google Presentations slide show) summary.  The other 4 are “About Me”, “The Question”, “Hypothesis”, and “Conclusion”.  I wish they had put less weight on “Hypothesis” and put it after the background research, rather than before, so that they did not perpetuate the myth that a hypothesis is a random guess (one of my pet peeves with so much of the instruction surrounding science fairs). I also feel that the “About Me” section does not belong in the core judged material, as it should not be relevant to how good the project is.  (It is important mainly for political and public-relations reasons, which is why Google puts so much emphasis on it.)

Given the huge number of expected entries, the rigid format and tight word limits of the Google template makes some sense.  I would rather have seen the word limits on the document as a whole, though, rather than on a section-by-section basis, so that students could trade off brevity in one section for more detail in another.  Some projects need more background explanation, some need more methods description, and some need more room for results, but the Google template forces everyone to the balance that Google thought was typical.

Google gets a lot of positive publicity for a small outlay of money with their science fair and they train a lot of youngsters in using Google Docs, so I’m sure they see it as a big win.  Having another outlet to encourage kids to do good science fair projects is basically a good thing, but the long-odds, single-stage lottery, the dependence on a video spiel, and the judging without being able to question the kids definitely make the Google Science Fair a lower-quality one than the International Science and Engineering Fair sponsored by Intel, or even than the state science fairs.  The one really good thing about the Google science fair is that it brings science fair participation to parts of the world that do not have the infrastructure of local and regional science fairs.  If it encourages those areas to start real science fairs, it will have done a real service.


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