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Thursday, March 7, 2013

Great Science Fairs

Dannielle commented, Curious what do you think makes for a great science fair? Top 5-10 elements.

Really good question. The Junior Academy of the Washington Academy of Sciences provides judges for many school science fairs every year. I started as a judge in the program and succeeded the founder several years ago. I am pro science fair.

...so thank you fer askin!’

The science fair is a social ritual of learning, like sports competitions or the prom. Everybody should get to blow something up, that’s education.

Science fairs allow scientists to use the scientific method. Like many good formal processes (say, knowing how to set the table or how to sit out), practice makes improvement leading to mastery, and repeated practice allows people to use a process to improve their results.

Education has changed
Where once finding information was a rigorous, time consuming process, involving travel (from travail, meaning painful or laborious effort), libraries, and reference books, today finding information is easy. Using information for a specific purpose is the new goal of education. Since information is so available, good education should include making something with your information.

A course without a project is a survey course. Making might mean not all parts of a survey course are studied, but what is learned holds together in a larger, project context. Projects provide an energetic context for learning information as well as practicing social skills for achieving results in groups.

I mean, who really cares about Grendel? I spent more time looking at aspects of Beowulf that are never going to matter. A survey course tries to prepare you for any eventuality, and ends up teaching little of value. However, I needed to learn a lot about Grendel when completing a project on SuperVillains.

I asked Jack what he learned in basic training. He said, “They taught us how to march. Never marched after basic. Wished they had showed us how to shoot a water buffalo. That would have been useful.”

Father Guido Sarducci has a video about the value of survey education, discussing what we remember from survey courses five years after college graduation. He offers to sell you the value of a university survey education, five years later for five dollars. Integrated learning comes from projects.

School science projects are like batting practice. It takes several attempts before you start to get the hang of the process. A good coach can greatly improve your results. Parents and teachers can take your batting practice for you, but you’ll eventually have to start somewhere.

An hypothesis is NOT a conclusion
We start the scientific method with an hypothesis, what we think is going to happen. The hypothesis anchors what we are experimenting. However, the results are what is important, and it’s important not to confuse the two.

I was interviewing a young scientist who had an hypothesis that a certain gene would have an effect on lowering Body Mass Index (BMI). She constructed an elaborate experiment, separating the right type of gene, introduced it in the right type of rat, and SHAZAM the only things that lowered BMI were diet and exercise. She was disappointed her hypothesis didn’t match her results. I thought she had discovered something that is very important to me every morning at 6am.

One of my science teachers, Enrico Fermi said, Experimental confirmation of a prediction is merely a measurement. An experiment disproving a prediction is a discovery.

Let the results fit the data
A great coach teaches that science is deductive, that conclusions comes from analyzing data, not inductive, starting with a conclusion and then gathering data to support that conclusion.

St. Bumpersticker wrote, Social Science is Neither. However, I think he was commenting on the amount of inductive reasoning done in social science research. That means that someone trying to repeat the experiment is unable to get similar results. I researched this in The Science of Liberty, by Timothy Ferris, while doing research for a project on improving science fairs several years ago.

The social sciences are about us! This is the good stuff! Reading a dedicated deductive social scientist like Charles Murray may show provocative results, you know where he got his data and you can repeat his experiments. He almost got lynched once for insinuating that half of all children are below average.

So what is a good science fair? It’s setting a date for having as many people as possible try to prove something and then honestly report what happened. It’s using your limited learning focus to create something, and we aren’t attached what you create.

If I had my way, young scientists wouldn’t have a science fair every year, they would have them every month or every week! Of course if they spent that much time blowing things up, they would all end up as fluent practicing scientists.

But then again, what would be the problem?

Tips 4 The Big Chair – Perspective 2.0