Judging middle school science.

I just spent the morning at the state science fair. Students in grades 7-12 presented their projects, and the winners will go to the international science fair in May.

This was my second year as a judge, but last year I only judged the preliminary rounds. This year I signed up for the final judging, which meant that the students were present.

I was assigned to judge the seventh grade life science finalists. They were so nervous, but overall I was quite impressed with the quality and diversity of projects. The youngest group of scientists really did an excellent job, and I tried to give them constructive feedback on ways to improve their projects. I started out by asking them to tell me what motivated them to do this particular project. They were obviously warned to expect this question, but the range of responses I got was quite interesting. The project that I ended up scoring very highly was by a young girl who wanted to prove her mother wrong; however, she quite reasonable predicted the opposite; and at the end of the day the results clearly supported her hypothesis… and therefore her mother! A few of them had quite personal reasons for choosing their particular experiment; a few of them have been influenced by current events (carbon footprints, alternative energy sources), and a few didn't really have good reasons other than "I like it." But hey, at that age, that is a start!

One thing I learned, though, was that if it seems too good to be true, then it probably is. One of the students attempted a project dealing with a quite complex issue; the idea was good- very impressive, in fact. The execution, however, was only so-so, and unlike all of the other finalists I spoke with he didn't really have answers to most of my basic questions. After conferring with some of the other judges I found out that he had found the idea and protocol published somewhere- probably somewhere like this- and just tried to do follow the directions. His execution of the experiment was so poor that, knowing he didn't design the experiment himself, this knocked him far down on my list. And yet… I still wanted to reward him- to keep him motivated and interested. He is young; if he has a good experience this year, maybe he'll come back with more original ideas and better executed protocols.

I commented to some of the other judges that it is so exciting to see all these kids getting excited about science. You read those
reports about the decline in science education in America, and worry; but then you go to these events and see that science education in this country is flourishing. One of the judges mentioned that it is not necessarily the quality of the science that has declined, but the quantity; apparently last year they had so few entries that they had more awards to give out then they knew what to do with. That may be true at the elementary school, but as we all know, there is no lack of scientists in the job market!

After I finished reviewing my own category, I walked around a bit to look at the projects of the older kids; some of them were very advanced. It is obvious when a student has a parent that is a scientist; it gives them an (unfair?) advantage over their peers who can't use their parents supplies and equipment. My favorite was- quite fairly- not a finalist; but I was curious to look over the experiment that tested the absorption properties of different brands of baby diapers. As it turns out, the least expensive diapers had the largest volume of crystals and absorbed the most water. And to think, I spent all that money on Pampers!


Lisa said...

So yesterday the science experiment I was going to do ended up not happening because I was missing a crucial ingredient and we ended up doing two different experiments from one of my students' science kits that he had brought to school.... and it was the best science day ever. You should have heard (and seen) the excitement in my room.... I realized yesterday that science, at least for third graders, is so exciting because it is still so much about discovery. Asking questions and answering them....they were learning about Newton's laws and they didn't even realize it because they were having such fun doing it.
Made me want to be a better science teacher! :)