The Science Fair experience

Today, I have witnessed abominations of science. So many experiments shoe-horned into the model of “The Effect of X on Y,” which is fine, but then you discover that they didn’t actually change X, or that nothing happened to Y, so they looked at Z instead. So many exercises in the obvious. Trivial phenomena measured, no thought to the underlying mechanisms considered. Experiments whipped together in a day. Tables of data with no assessment of variation, where you were lucky to see a mean reported.

I gave them all “A”s.

What else can you do when you ask a kid why they even did this experiment, and their answer is, “I don’t know, I like to do X, and I wanted to see what happened.” Gold star, kiddo, you understand science. That was exactly the right answer. Keep doing that!

Also gratifying: the kid who tested different kinds of stain removers, and hypothesized that the one he saw advertised the most would be most effective. They were all the same! Another gold star for concluding that maybe advertisers lied.

Big ups to the kid who had me baffled with his experiment — why would wheel size matter for his mousetrap car, when they are all propelled by exactly the same amount of force? He clearly explained that the design meant the axle would make the same number of rotations no matter the wheel size, therefore…oh, now I get it. Well done.

All of the students were well-prepared and gave solid summaries of their experiments, and I think I have to give a round of applause to the 7th & 9th grade science teachers at Morris Area High School, who really know their stuff.

That was fun! I should do it again next year.


  1. christoph says

    I built an atom bomb for a 7th grade science fair. They wouldn’t let me use real uranium 235, dammit.

  2. jahigginbotham says

    Christoph: Isn’t part of the science fair experience dealing with challenges? Did you consider plutonium or thorium or …?

  3. larpar says

    PZ, are the creationists still running “science” fairs up in your neck of the woods? I remember a blog post or two about them.

  4. Yaron Davidson says

    I get kids measuring, changing, or looking at, the wrong things in experiments. At my school the main problem with experiments was teachers doing it.
    One memorable example was at 11th grade, I think, when we were learning optics, and the teacher decided an experiment would help us understand light changing both speed and direction when entering a different medium. So he brought to class a platform with a slope, and rolled a ball along it. To show, apparently, how the ball moved at a constant direction and speed, until something caused it to change the speed, which also changed the direction, as could be seen by the ball moving at both a different speed and direction at the bottom of the slope. No, seriously.
    This wasn’t the worst example, just the one I think I remembered the most because it was one of the few I bothered to try and (futilely) argue with the teacher about.

    (This was with the same physics teacher who in lessons about kinematics sometimes gave example/exercises that had relativistic speeds in them, for no reason other than him just using arbitrary numbers, and who absolutely did not expect or want anything other than the basic Newtonian calculations that were a part of the curriculum. But he wasn’t alone, we had a lot less experiments outside of physics, but we did have a chemistry teacher who taught history of past models of atoms, going up until the latest and current, apparently, Bohr model of the atom, and who did admit in questioning of having heard about those orbital thingies but didn’t really know anything about them. Or a biology teacher who in a lesson on blood types decided to teach that the common issue with blood donations are antibodies in the donated blood reacting to the recipient’s blood so people with O blood could receive all donations and people with AB are universal donors. And so on…)

  5. whheydt says

    Re: christoph @ #4…
    My son did a science project of designing a nuclear bomb. The physicist on the award committee was impressed and rather worried as (using open sources) he came within a factor of two of the correct critical masses.
    My son also used to observe that there was always one project with a cow’s heart, and it would always win.

  6. says

    PZ: Thanks for doing this. My last entry in a science fair was more than 50 years ago. I would have benefited from a critique from an actual scientist.

  7. chrislawson says

    @12– I wonder if the same creationist home schoolers who don’t care about teaching their kids science also don’t care about teaching them pseudoscience. If their minister says evolution is a lie, then that’s all they need to know, right? No need for details. Why bother teaching what one is doctrinally incapable of examining?

  8. bcw bcw says

    Around here, science fairs are contaminated by the tech children with access to fancy equipment which makes it hard to be fair.
    I wanted to award the kid with all the different settling beds of sand/gravel/mud/clay to test sewage clearing (he used muddy water not the real thing) but the DNA experiment won out.

    There are so many kids who do the phases of the moon but can’t answer questions like what time does a full moon rise? You do have to think about it but prior to clocks I bet most people knew.

    I did like the kid I read about from NYC using Dad’s lab to test Sushi from all the fancy NYC restaurants to see if they were the claimed species of fish – which most were not.

    Here, the judges are all from my tech company with a mix of scientists and executives. Except, one year the executives all sent their administrative assistants and they put research and exec judges on different days. The admins all wanted to anoint the anti-gravity shoes as the big winner but luckily one friend of mine happened to be there and talked to the kid. She then had to go in and demand that day’s judges not give the first prize check to the anti-gravity kid. Bit of a stink, there may have been some nepotism in the admins’ choice also. The kid had a video of just his legs from knees down with these sneakers with batteries,magnets, wires and switches jammed into the soles as his feet lifted off the ground. He refused to “demonstrate” the shoes at the science fair because he said it would “fry all the electricity.” real story. I don’t think the kid’s name was Santos…

  9. simplicio says

    I remember a national science fair from the mid 1960s. A kid had plagiarized an article verbatim from Scientific American about black holes, including professional-grade illustrations. Amazingly, every judge from the local to the national competitions thought the kid’s incredible knowledge of general relativity was astounding — on par with Kip Thorne, who actually wrote the article. The kid was properly rewarded for his amazing insights into finding a black hole, and the high quality of his exposition and illustrations. Nothing at all suspicious about an eighth grader coming up with such an in-depth project.

    Then there were the local exhibitions where a kid would display a gutted radio chassis which was missing a few vacuum tubes with a poster asking a probing question like “Do radio waves cause cancer?”. Nothing more than the title and the radio receiver. At least at your science fair, the kids are at trying, even if they don’t understand the tools they need.

  10. birgerjohansson says

    Boys surprisingly often spend time learning the chemistry of things that go bang. This kind of curiously is not encouraged by teachers, but it happens anyway.

  11. mcfrank0 says

    birgerjohansson at 19:

    My chemistry professor would beg to disagree. At our annual open house he did a presentation on exothermic reactions that never literally brought down the house (he knew what he was doing) but always packed the lecture room. My favorite was the thermite reaction that used layered chemicals that started with a large crucible layered with various chemicals and a drop of glycerin and ended with molten iron pouring from a hole in the bottom of the crucible.

    He was a definite “character” who never smoked, but chewed his cigars, and who demonstrated relative rates of diffusion by pouring various volatile chemical in watch glassed and having students raise their hands as they smelled the various substances. The last chemical was piperidine which, with a large molecular weight, diffused very slowly. Instead of raising their hands, those that smelled the chemical were allowed to move to a seat higher up in the lecture hall. The final flourish was “I’ll leave this out for the next class to enjoy.” I never smelled it as I had entered class from the upper story. But those that did said it reminded them of skunks.

  12. mcfrank0 says

    I forgot to mention that we were responsible for a year long research project (since quadraphonics was big that year, my team investigated the localization of sound). This professor assisted his team of two women in investigating the distillation of ethanol and why other methods are required to obtain 100% alcohol.

    Samples of the various percentage of ethanol purity were provided in small plastic containers. I tried the 100% “shot glass” (I forget the correct name used in the lab) and basically felt that it was impossible to swallow as it evaporated in the back of my throat.

  13. bcw bcw says

    @20 my favorite demonstration of the thermite reaction was in High School. Since it was complicated, they got the all the chemistry classes together in the auditorium to do it once. The teacher had the aluminum and iron oxide powder together in a crucible and lit it with a magnesium sparkler. The crucible promptly cracked and the molten iron burned a hole through the plywood table and down to the floor. It was excellent!

  14. Chakat Firepaw says

    @Yaron Davidson #10

    Or a biology teacher who in a lesson on blood types decided to teach that the common issue with blood donations are antibodies in the donated blood reacting to the recipient’s blood so people with O blood could receive all donations and people with AB are universal donors. And so on…)

    I think I know where that confusion comes from: That’s how it works with plasma donations, as it only has the antibodies and not the antigens. Whole blood has both and the antigens are by far the bigger problem, (this is one of the reasons you want to collect all types, an exact match is best).