I was a volunteer judge at my second science fair here in Alachua County recently. My first fair this year left me disappointed and a bit discouraged, but I am happy to say that this second fair was wonderful. It was lacking a bit on the organizers part, but it was her first year organizing the fair and she did a good job so I'll give her a pass. This time around I was judging the chemistry division.
One of my biggest complaints from Round 1 was that so few of the kids replicated their experiment or included any controls. In Round 2, this was the exception rather than the rule. I complimented almost every child I spoke with on having sound experimental design, including controls, replicates, and multiple variables. One adorable little boy had a demo that explained centrifugal force where he swung a 50 ml conical around over his head. Several projects that at first glance seemed trivial or unscientific turned out to be pleasant surprises. I saw interesting projects featuring everything from getting stains out of baseball pants to the efficacy of ziploc baggies.
For example, one girl was investigating whether cold or room temperature eggs affected cakes. At first I thought this was a bit silly, but apparently this is an actual thing when you're making sponge cake. The young lady in question makes sponge cake for her friends a lot, and noticed a big texture difference when she used refrigerated eggs one time. She observed an actual phenomenon, asked a question, and designed an experiment to test it. She also made six frickin' sponge cakes so that she would have replicates in each condition. She didn't quite understand why there was a difference, but she still approached it scientifically.
Good experimental design and application of the scientific method can make even a trivial subject into a top class science project. Our first place selection was looking at which cup material would retain heat the best. She was an amazing presenter, had relevant and interesting background information, solid experimental design and thorough data collection. She found that styrofoam retained heat the best, and she even understood the science behind it. Top notch.
A lot of the children I spoke to clearly had parents or relatives that worked in science. I saw experiments using a centrifuge, a voltmeter, pH meter and conductivity meter. Some people consider this unfair to children that don't have that kind of background and support at home, but honestly I rated other experiments higher because they understood what they were doing better. That's what really matters, solid experimental design and understanding the science behind what you're doing. Sure you can ask more interesting questions when you have access to better equipment, but a good project needs more than an interesting question. This was especially clear to me in Round 2, where a girl experimenting with sponge cake recipes was more interesting to me than two boys examining water quality from various sources using lots of different types of equipment.
Another big difference I noticed between Round 1 and Round 2 was how many of the top experiments were done by girls. One of my fellow judges at Round 1 lamented how little support and mentoring the girls were receiving in the sciences. At the time I hadn't noticed a huge disparity, though it was true I couldn't think of any solid projects by girls. With that in mind, it was refreshing to see so many excellent experiments by girls in Round 2.
Best Project: Though she didn't make the top four, my favorite project was from a girl who wanted to investigate the role of baking powder in making cornbread rise. She had three replicates in each condition, and included a control that followed the recipe normally. She explained to me how baking powder worked and the reaction that was taking place, and understood why she got the results that she did. It was a fun, well-done project.
Worst Project: A tie.
One little boy was trying to determine if the amount of cocoa in chocolate would cause it to melt faster. He only did it once, and he didn't seem to really understand anything he was doing. His theory on why cocoa levels affected the speed of melting changed a couple times during the interview.
Another little boy was comparing carbonation levels in homemade versus store bought soda. Except he only did it once, and it didn't work. It did not occur to him that maybe he should repeat the experiment so that he would actually have carbonated homemade soda for the comparison. He also didn't seem to understand where the carbonation came from (yeast) or that carbonation meant carbon dioxide gas being dissolved in liquid.
Seriously though, I judged about 22 projects in all and most of them were solid. These kids are doing some great work.