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.
My idea is inspired by those pinewood derby contests we’d do every year in the Boy Scouts. Have an official kit with rules on what you can and cannot do, to limit excess and make the competition fair.
I would put together a collection of general construction materials and tools: cardboard and duct tape, of course, but also balsa wood, string, colored paper, cellophane (different colors), dowels, scissors, a hobby saw, that sort of thing.
I would also assemble some measurement devices: rulers, thermometers, light meters, pH paper, protractors, hand lenses.
I’d have a list of basic supplies: simple chemicals, magnets, 9v batteries, small invertebrates (fruit flies, for instance), seeds, etc.
I would give the students a list of all of these things, and tell them to design an experiment within the limitations of their supplies. Note that electron microscopes and NMR spectrometers are not available. They’d be allowed to purchase some additional special purpose supplies, but with a limit of $10 (too much? OK, $5) — so, for instance, if they wanted to measure the diameter of soap bubbles produced by commercial dishwashing detergents, they’d be allowed to buy a couple of bottles. The whole point would be to keep everything simple and on a level playing field.
Then they’d have to write a proposal with, first and foremost, the question they’re trying to answer, and a description of how they’d answer it, with diagrams of their apparatus or protocol. The emphasis would be on creatively answering a question about the natural world, rather than on getting an assistantship at a well-equipped professional lab.
Unfortunately, I don’t think they’d be able to win a prestigious prize from Google with those limitations, but they’d learn a heck of a lot more about the real core of science.