Science, Fair?

So this year’s school science fairs are over. Both my kids did very well, and both of “our” projects got high marks. We’re all very proud.

But at the same time, I’m very worried about the state of science education in the schools based on what I saw. I’m going to pick on my 6th grader’s classmates as they are all part of an accelerated program and should represent some of the best students in the grade level. They are also students who have been required to submit science fair projects since 3rd grade, so this is hardly their first time out. Further, many of the projects in this group were elaborately prepared, and clearly involved a lot of effort from the student.

However, despite the obvious good intentions and superb fortitude, the vast majority missed the whole point of science. And therein lies the shame. The scientific process involves conceiving a question, hypothesizing an answer, researching previous work in the area, developing some experimental or observational method of collecting data, and then reaching some conclusion. But the conclusion is not simply the answer to the question, it also includes the why. In fact, often developing the why will result in further hypotheses, which must then in turn be tested. (This is what makes science a career I suppose.) Most of the students completely skipped the why.

One project explored the speed of rotting potatoes in various liquids. The student discovered that potatoes soaked in soda pop stayed fresher longer. (Maybe not as appetizing, but fresher.) However, there was no exploration of the relatively acidic environments being hostile to microbial growth. As if simply knowing that potatoes didn’t mold in Orange Crush was ever going to be useful.

Another student explored which window cleaner worked best. The results were all listed, and I’m sure this student is now a more informed consumer, but where’s the science? Did he learn anything about surfactants or surface tension? No. Would this student be able to predict the ability of a cleaner based on the ingredients? Not likely. But he’d know which brand to pick off the shelf.

It’s understandable that some kids will simply not care. There were an ample number of entries at the fair which clearly had been tossed together the night before. But for the kids that really did put in an effort, it’s criminal that they are leaving thinking this is what science is about. Maybe this is why so many kids “check-out” of science early on. They think it’s just a bunch of boring facts and data. But science is, at it’s core, the quest to know why. To understand the fundamental mechanisms behind nature, technology, and the universe. And then to take the next step. That step could be applying their understanding in a new and novel way (an invention). It also could be to peel the onion and ask “Why?” at the next level down.

At three years old, we all were relentless askers of “Why?”. To be a scientist is to live in defiance of the adult response, “Because I said so.” What teenager could fail to be ignited by that? The one that thinks this is all just a bunch of useless facts he needs to learn to graduate.

NEWS FLASH: We are leaving children behind.

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