Back when I lived in Philadelphia, I used to judge a couple of science fairs every year. It was a discouraging experience.
You’d go through the exhibits with a partner and a checklist, and, for instance, you’d see some kid who’d put together something with duct tape and string and a couple of sad looking plants next to a kid who’d had connections at UPenn and had used a sequencer, a confocal microscope, and a battery of fluorescent probes to put together a gigantic shiny display of images so bright they glistened. Guess who’d win? And it was sad because sometimes the kid with the simple experiment done with homemade gadgets had been more creative and curious and true to the spirit of the science than the kid who’d been fed some high-tech gadgetry and pooped out an answer.
Carl Zimmer is similarly concerned. Too often science fairs get sidetracked into celebrating the mindless use of expensive instruments over the business of thinking like a scientist.
If I were a public school teacher trying to get students involved in a science fair, I know what I would do.