Thursday, November 17, 2011

Science Fair 2011: Round 1

I've been a volunteer science fair judge in my area for about five years now. The school administrators try really hard to get actual professionals in scientific fields to come in and judge projects in their area of expertise, and as a grad student I have a pretty flexible schedule. I usually end up judging microbiology or biochemistry projects. It's fun to see what the kids are up to and talk to them about science and see all the projects. This year I'm judging four different fairs, and I thought it would be fun to recap them on my blog. Yesterday was the first one I signed up for.

I've judged a lot of fairs over the past few years, and some are better organized than others...but this was the worst by far. The gentleman in charge admitted from the get-go that this was his first time in charge of the fair, and apparently the guy who did it before him didn't leave any notes. He basically gave all of the judges a list of every single project (or tried to...the printer wasn't working properly, and of course he waited until five minutes before the fair to start printing) and told us to split into groups of three and make sure every project was judged enough times, especially the physics projects because there were a lot of them.

First rule of managing volunteers? Don't make them responsible for figuring out what they're supposed to be doing. Eventually us judges determined who the other experts in our fields were, picked the categories most relevant to us and got started. Never mind that all of that information was available to the organizers in our applications and it would have taken all of twenty minutes for that to be established before-hand. We kind of had to hope all of the categories were adequately covered. I think I ended up judging around 25 projects in Human Health and Microbiology...which is a lot, especially since we had to get everyone judged before the kids' lunch time.

The projects themselves weren't very impressive for the most part. Not to be too harsh on the middle schoolers, but like I said...I've been around the proverbial scientific block, and I know what these kids are capable of. I've seen some amazing projects, but this fair had a redundancy problem. As a science teacher, how do you not notice that 7 or 8 of your students are doing the exact same vitamin C titration experiment? Isn't that a problem? They were using an iodide solution to determine which fruit juices had the most vitamin C in them. By measuring the volume of the juice needed to trigger a color-change reaction in the iodide, they could plug some numbers into a formula and figure out how many milligrams of ascorbic acid were in each milliliter of juice. Only one of the kids actually understood that they were doing a titration and that a chemical reaction was happening. She got third place.

The other big project, with at least five entries, was determining what brand of toothpaste worked best at whitening hard-boiled eggs stained in coffee. What do eggs have in common with teeth? Why, they're both white! Seriously. I asked that question every time, and that was the only answer I got. None of them knew how the toothpaste whitened the eggs, and the hypotheses were basically 'this is the brand I use, so it will be the best at cleaning the eggs'. When I tried to get them to understand that the universally subjective measurements of 'how white is this egg on a scale of 1-5' might not be that scientific, I got blank looks.

There were few controls, and only a handful of kids repeated their experiments. One of the girls argued with me when I tried to explain to her why the 12-hr pain relievers she used in her experiment dissolved slower that the 4-hr pain relievers, and how that just might be a confounding variable in determining how effective they are based on solubility. She was quite certain she understood it better than I did, though. Another girl, when asked why she chose to perform her experiment, responded - and I quote - 'I wanted to do something unique, so I found this project on the internet'. Without a trace of irony. My fellow judge barely stopped himself from bursting out laughing.

Best Project: A surprisingly eloquent 11-year old attempted to make self-cleaning bathroom tiles by mixing methylene blue, an antimicrobial, into a glaze and applying it to ceramic tiles. He even created a built-in control by applying the anti-microbial glaze to half the tile and untreated glaze to the other half. He inoculated the tiles and counted colonies that grew on them. He didn't have nearly enough replicates and the firing process may actually have rendered the methylene blue inactive, but I was still super impressed. His uncle worked in a lab and helped him with the project, but he actually understood it and did something really cool and interesting.

Worst Project: A tie.
One kid wanted to determine what conditions were the most conducive to growing mold...but he used a different kind of bread in each condition. There was wheat, rye, and white bread...some containing preservatives (Which, surprise, didn't grow mold during the three day experiment), and some fresh from the bakery. He actually did replicate his experiment once, but he switched types of bread for the replicate too.

Two girls working together wanted to see what liquids would dissolve skittles and m&ms the fastest, because they wanted a project where they could eat candy. They actually told me that was why they picked this project. It took two of them to figure this out. Neither of them knew what solubility meant, and the first trial where they dissolved the m&ms didn't work because they used peanut m&ms and peanuts don't dissolve. They still recorded and presented the data, though. It was painful.

I don't expect these kids to know everything. They're in middle school, after all. If they don't know the answer to something I drop a few hints and eventually explain it to them. If they say something really dumb I try to just smile and move on. But I was doing an awful lot of smiling at this fair, and my dropped hints just kept falling for the most part. They aren't trained scientists either, so they don't always have controls or understand about subjective measurements or why replication is important. As a judge, it's my job to help them understand the strengths and weaknesses of their projects so they can improve them and get a better understanding of the scientific method. I have never had such a difficult time getting those concepts across. Here's hoping the next fair I judge is more satisfying.

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