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2013 March 10

Santa Cruz County Science Fair 2013

I spent Friday evening and all day Saturday judging at the Santa Cruz County Science Fair, which is always fun, but a little tiring.  This year I was the lead judge for the “Energy and Power” category, which had 14 projects in grades 4–5 and 14 in grades 6–8.  There were no high school projects in my category, and they decided to have interviews but not judging for K–3, so I ended up only talking briefly with the K–3 students and did not give them written feedback.  I interviewed 26 or 27 of the students in my category, and provided written feedback for each of them.  That written feedback is the most important part of the fair, and the judges in my category were all very diligent about providing detailed feedback, so most of the kids got 4 or 5 feedback forms.  In some other categories, a lot of the judges left without providing feedback, and a few kids ended up with no feedback forms. (I heard about it from some of the parents, because the administrator had left before the public viewing, and I was clearly identifiable as a judge—I wear a lab coat for judging science fair.)

The “energy and power” category is where all the lemon batteries end up, which makes it a rather sad category for judges.  Every category has a few projects that appear (usually very badly done) year after year. The lemon batteries are almost always terrible projects, with the students following rote directions from the web (in at least two cases this year, incorrectly) and having no understanding what they are doing.  I think that Science Buddies has a lot to answer for! The students seem to think that the power is coming from the fruit (rather than from the dissimilar metals) and that voltage is the same thing as power.

We also got the windmills, solar cells, wave generators, and thermoelectric devices. Those were generally a little bit better done—we actually had a pretty good solar cell project and a pretty good Peltier-device project. Because our fair does not have an engineering category (other than “environmental engineering”), we ended up with a number of the engineering projects as well (hovercrafts, ducted propellers, and the like).

There is a big need to train elementary school teachers (and to a lesser extent middle-school teachers) in science and engineering methods.  And I don’t mean the nonsense they teach about the “scientific method”, which bears almost no resemblance to any process of scientific or engineering work I’ve ever seen.  I mean that they need to know how to measure voltage, current, and resistance, and to be able to show kids how to compute power (it is not the same thing as voltage, nor is it the product of open-circuit voltage and short-circuit current).  Teachers should be able to show students how to build a simple calorimeter and measure energy from chemical reactions (like burning fuel). A lot of the students I interviewed were quite bright, but no one had ever taught them the basics they needed to be able to do their projects.  Nor have they been taught how to use the tools they have. I don’t want to see another student wrapping the loop for measuring AC current around a wire and claiming that they are measuring resistance, nor claims that lemon batteries produced 9 Amps at 1v.

Things I learned when I was 8–10 years old should be within reach of their teachers. I think that a few hours of professional development that involved them actually doing some measurements and learning the basics of some of the science and engineering projects would improve the quality of their students projects a lot. Every elementary school teacher should know how to use a hand saw, a drill, wire strippers, and a soldering iron, and they should be teaching the kids how to use them also.  (Yes, I can see the safety problems if you try to do it in a large class—but the safety problems in PE classes are far larger, but we haven’t thrown out all sports in schools because of it.)

Even just telling the teachers some basic ideas might help.  Some of the things I see repeatedly:

  • Know what you are measuring (voltage is not power).
  • Measure the right thing to answer the underlying question.
  • Measure inputs as well as outputs (counting colonies tells you how many culturable bacteria or fungi were in your initial sample, which is useless if you don’t know how big the sample was).
  • Don’t culture unknown micro-organisms (except in a lab with proper protection and sterilization equipment).
  • Read (and cite) some material from the web. High school students should be going well beyond Wikipedia in their literature searches, but even a short Wikipedia seach would be a big step up for most of the middle school and elementary school students.  If Wikipedia is too difficult for an elementary school student (as it may well be), see if there is anything useful on Simple English Wikipedia.
  • Good science fair projects take time, often with many false starts. There are way too many 1-week projects at the county science fair.
  • Mentorship is good, but doing the work for the kid is not—especially not the interpretation of the results. This point is aimed more at the over-involved parents than the teachers—but judges have to be very careful, as there are some highly motivated kids doing things that look like adult work, but really are just the student.  (I remember an incident about a decade ago, of a kid in another category who was severely down graded by the judges in who thought they were judging a parental project, but I talked with the kid for 15 minutes later on and I was convinced that the work really was his alone.  I was angry at the judges for not being more careful in their judgements, but there was nothing I could do about it.)

It’s great to see the enthusiasm and talent of the K–3 group (which has been growing so rapidly that the hall that is rented for the Science Fair is no longer big enough), but that enthusiasm and talent seems to dissipate rapidly around middle school—there are still a lot good middle-school projects, but there are also a number of kids just going through the motions and only a few are continuing to do science fair once they are not required to.  I see more evidence of parental over-involvement at middle school than at elementary school (though that may be due to the selection processes at the different feeder schools, rather than inherent in the age groups).  I didn’t see any evidence of over-involvement in my category this year—if anything, I saw the opposite, with students not getting critical guidance so that they could do a really meaningful project.

One very sad part of the county science fair is how few high school students participate.  There are no school-level fairs in our county at the high school level, and little or no encouragement of individual projects.  This year I think we had 23 projects from high school students, out of a population of about 7500 high school students—about 0.3%.    According to the statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the various STEM categories add up to about 6% of the workforce (not counting healthcare, which would double the number, and not counting several related occupations, like high-school science teachers, scientific sales, science and engineering managers, …).  So even with very conservative counting, we’re short by a factor of 20 in this county.  I’d be satisfied if even 1–2% of the high school students were entering science fair, but we’re nowhere close to that number, and the participation at the high-school level is shrinking, not growing, each year.

The problem is not strictly a local one—most places see a drop in participation from middle school to high school, but I don’t think many are as extreme as here.  There are some places in the US where high school science fair is big—what have they done differently?

Lots of organizations have seen the problem of high school students losing interest in science fair, and they have put up cash prizes and other incentives for high school students, but (in this county anyway), no one is taking the bait.  We need to find a way to get high-school students excited about doing science or engineering projects, and I don’t know what would stimulate that excitement.

Many (most?) of the good projects in middle school and high school came from home-schooled kids or kids getting a lot of after-school education from mentors or parents.  This may be related to the point that good science fair projects take time and require passion on the part of the students, and the local schools (public, private, and charter) don’t provide a good environment for projects that take time nor for students to show passion—way too much busywork and time wasted preparing for standardized tests.

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