Tuesday, May 17, 2011

What Kind of Crap Experiment Has No Results? Judging our local Science Fair

If this post sounds negative, it's not. Please keep reading! There have been so many negative things of late in education around here, but I had a bit of a pleasant revelation today. Our very talented coordinator/volunteer convinced about half our college's sciences division to serve as judges for the regional elementary science fair. Sometimes one might see the results as evidence for the decline of scientific knowledge in the society, but actually...not really. These are some talented kids, and many of them worked very hard to learn something new. One can see some of the normal concerns of their young lives (which kind of bike can jump further? How long can glowsticks glow?), but they learn. I was working through my section, and was handing out scores in the 70's and low 80's, until I got to the last two.

I was impressed with the first one. Here was a kid who designed an experiment to test the insulating properties of a variety of substances, by constructing boxes that would hold funnels, an ice cube, and the insulating materials. He or she (names weren't revealed to us) kept a meticulous diary about his/her thought processes, the design and direction of the experiment, and a fine story board showing the results (aluminum foil won running away). Score I gave: way up there (scores aren't announced yet, in the highly unlikely event that someone associated with the event is reading).

Then I sat down in front of the last poster board, and started scanning the results. There were none. There were the pictures of the experiment platform, the planted cups, bags of soil and fertilizer, and a graph of the results. The results? Nothing. Nada. Huh? I pick up the student's diary, and start reading the story. The search for a topic, the selection of the topic, the design of the experiment, the preparations, and the wait. Day one, no sprouts, week one, no sprouts, week two, no sprouts. Growing impatience...even frustration. Doubts about ever completing the science project. And finally, no sprouts, no roots, no nothing. EPIC FAIL!

But no, not at all. No data, but a student unwilling to see failure. He or she drew up the poster board, reported the lack of results, declared an inability to support or disprove the hypothesis, and a presented a conclusion that explored all the things that might have gone wrong (interestingly, the leftover seeds thrown into the garden DID sprout, kind of like Jack and the Beanstalk). Sometimes experiments fail, but we learn so many important things from failure. It's one of the most important lessons of scientific exploration.

I was impressed. Here was a student who gets science, and I hope he or she realizes it. We need kids like this in our society to be doing science as a career 10-15 years from now. Score? The highest I gave today.


meg said...

Sounds like what happened to me during a phys chem lab: epic failure of lab. I had to write about what went wrong and why, and turned out that I learned more by the failure of the lab than any other lab that year. Science is amazing like that.

Philip said...

Sounds similar to the Elementary School Science fair I judged. Mostly the same experiments, probably researched from the same source. But one of the winners was a gal who had tried to grow sunflowers in different enviroments. Nothing grew, but she had a great write up, notes, observations, and a recognition of what to try different if she repeated the experiment.

The judges all agreed that she probably learned more about science than anyone else.