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A School Science Fair:
What Are The Kids Learning?

    by Kevin Killion
    July 31, 2001


    A family friend invited me to a science fair their children's school was having, and this sounded like an interesting event. Back in my own grade school and high school years, I was a rabid Science Fair fan. Twice in high school I went all the way to the state science fair in Champaign, and both times I won an Outstanding there.

    But upon years of reflection, and after becoming a parent, I must admit to real reservations about what the science fair experience actually accomplishes for most children.

    Development of a project involves a huge time expenditure, and one must be very clear about what this expenditure is designed to achieve, and whether the time could be better spent.

"Scientific Method"?

    Walking around the fair, I was concerned that so much emphasis was placed on following through the steps of a supposedly universal "scientific method". In some of the papers this artificial structure overwhelmed the science content of the project.

    There is a wonderful book by Brother Guy Consolmagno, Ph.D., "Brother Astronomer". Consolmagno is a Jesuit and a respected astronomer at the Vatican Observatory. In the book, he talks about the methods used by scientists, and it becomes clear that every scientist uses a different method. When it comes down to writing a paper, certain forms are standard, but the background science itself is seldom as predictable as we suggest to children.

    Years ago, physicist Percy Bridgman also wrote about this in his autobiography:
    "It seems to me that there is a good deal of ballyhoo about scientific method. I venture to think that the people who talk most about it are the people who do least about it. Scientific method is what working scientists do, not what other people or even they themselves may say about it. No working scientist, when he plans an experiment in the laboratory, asks himself whether he is being properly scientific, nor is he interested in whatever method he may be using as method. ... Scientific method is something talked about by people standing on the outside and wondering how the scientist manages to do it. ...

    "But ... the working scientist ... is not consciously following any prescribed course of action, but feels complete freedom to utilize any method or device whatever which in the particular situation before him seems likely to yield the correct answer. ... No one standing on the outside can predict what the individual scientist will do or what method he will follow. ...

    "In short, science is what scientists do, and there are as many scientific methods as there are individual scientists."

    (For more observations on a supposed unique "scientific method," jump to the quotes at the bottom of this page.)

    Reducing the excitement of science to a series of formal steps, stripping it of the joys of learning and knowledge for their own sakes, and turning the thrill of discovery into nothing more than a plodding "experiment", well, it's hard to think of a better way to destroy a budding interest in science.

    The downside, then, of science fairs is seeing students who are bored to tears by their science projects, having done a lot of work while learning very little. This was evident at this science fair: it was rare to find kids who spoke with any great enthusiasm and deep interest about their topics.

    Maybe the problem is the science fair structure itself, especially at the elementary level. An alternative concept that is gaining favor is that of a "science expo" wherein kids are free to make a study of some area of science they are interested in, and report on what they discovered and found fascinating. The whole notion of "scientific method" is de-emphasized to a more appropriate level. This gives a child much more opportunity to pursue personal interests, gain real content knowledge, and gain skill in communicating that knowledge (with enthusiasm!) to other children and to adults.

Hypothesis

    A key problem with the "scientific method", as it is frequently stated, is that of the "hypothesis". All too often in science textbooks, the word "hypothesis" pretty much is used to suggest a wild guess. That is, creativity and imagination are seemingly the only factors in creating a hypothesis.

    I've corresponded with David Kirschtel, a Ph.D. at Michigan State about this, and he says,
    "As for the 'out of thin air' issue, this is not just a middle school phenomenon, this is something that I've had to deal with with the entering freshman that I've taught. They come out of high school with the idea that 'hypothesis' is synonymous with 'guess' and thus there is no intellectual foundation supporting it."
    At this science fair, too many of the papers that I looked at had a most cursory view of "hypothesis", equivalent to a guess. I saw the hypothesis stated with little or no background, with no notion of a setting in which intuition based on knowledge would take place. I realize that we're talking about grade school children here, but it questions the whole point of a science fair if kids are led to thinking that science is all about bolts out of the blue rather than knowledge.

    Let's hear again from Brother Consolmagno, Ph.D. of the Vatican Observatory:
    "Given enough experience, a scientist examining a problem can leap to an intuition as to what the solution 'should look like.' ... Science is ultimately based on insight..."
    In other words, a scientist uses insight, based on his experience, that is, his accumulated knowledge.

    Dr. Stan Metzenberg, writing about the supposed scientific method has some terrific comments about the role of real knowledge as a mandatory prerequisite to doing science:
    "It has become fashionable in science education to mold K-12 students around an idee fixe of a modern scientist; formulating hypotheses, observing, measuring, and discovering through hands-on investigations. What has been left unsaid is that real scientists don't actually spend very much of their day 'observing' and 'measuring.' They read! Reading for understanding of content is the core process skill of science, and there is no substitute for practice at an early age. ... Without a foundation in scientific vocabulary and with minimal knowledge of scientific fact, their words bear an accent of ignorance that is impossible to conceal and nearly impossible to remediate."
    I wrote to Dr. Metzenberg about his views on the importance of "hypothesis" in science education and in science fairs, and he wrote back with an interesting view:
    I liked it better when science fairs were not about hypotheses but about demonstrations. A student might demonstrate a way to make a pH indicator from cabbage, or a rocket that could fly to 2000 feet, or might report on observations of his ant farm. They simply followed their interests. There were no bogus hypotheses, and the kids weren't being told "Today you are a great scientist -- tomorrow you go back to the 4th grade".
    So, how important is hypothesis? One of the greatest scientists of all time said simply:
    "I do not frame hypotheses"
    -- Isaac Newton
    The bottom line on all this may be one from another great scientist:
    "In the field of observation, chance favors the prepared mind."
    -- Louis Pasteur
    In other words, the best way to understand and to "do" science is not to go through the motions, but to prepare the mind by learning real science content.

Control vs. Test

    When a scientist defends his or her hypothesis, at that point it must be couched in precise language. Several children at the fair seemed to have problems with this. For example, one student who won a 1st Place wrote this: "My variable in this experiment was the people I tested. My control in this experiment was the tests I did on the people."

Evaluation of Results

    After the hypothesis, the trickiest part of a science project is the evaluation of test results. This turns out to be a nasty problem indeed.

    A glimpse of the problem is seen in several of the projects where kids wrote up an evaluation of how the hypothesis held up, and then went on to long discussions in total disregard of what they just said that their evaluations found. For example, one 7th grader had a project on the impact of subliminal messages, and found that results were "inconclusive" but this didn't stop him from later writing, "I have learned that subliminal messaging can provoke the mind." An eighth grader won a 1st Place with a project on ESP and her test conclusion was that "My hypothesis [that ESP could be demonstrated] was incorrect" but then she followed this with pages and pages of long details that completely ignored her own conclusion, citing specific cases where something seemed to happen (while ignoring those where it didn't).

How Can Grade School Children Test Hypotheses?

    The confusion these children exhibit is more understandable if we think about just what limited facilities they have to examine mixed results. Let's say some test cases run a high score, some others run low. What's a 7th grader supposed to do with that? By and large, the only numeric measure they have available to them to compare groups is the mean, a straight average. It is not until high school, or maybe even college, or often never, that they will get more rigorous tools of significance testing.

    Let's consider this problem by looking again at that 8th grader's 1st-place-winning project on ESP. Her working hypothesis was simple, that ESP can be demonstrated. She had done a number of trials on a number of people of different ages, at different times of day, and so on. As we'd expect, the results were pretty mushy and, on the whole, showed nothing. This girl even wrote, "My hypothesis was incorrect." But following that, she nonetheless went on for pages to describe in great detail when ESP seemed to work and when it didn't.

    Now, no one would expect this 8th grader to know the range of solid statistical tests to be properly applied. But without that, she's utterly failing to understand the nature of scientific proof, and it's leading her into exactly the kind of unscientific nonsense all our rhetoric about the supposed "scientific method" is supposed to prevent.

    Now this particular project was a doozy of an example. But looking around the room, many of the projects fell into this trap: there is a great tendency to claim something happened just because some average numeric value is merely a bit larger than some other average numeric value. How can 6th, 7th and 8th graders ever determine whether a result has statistical significance to confirm or refute the hypothesis? And if they have no tools for testing a result, then what is the point of doing the project?

    Let me suggest a simpler example: suppose that a child does a classic bean plant experiment, with the null hypothesis being that there will be no difference in plant growth as a result of some outside factor, and winds up with these resulting plant heights for six plants:

      Control group: 9, 10, and 11, mean = 10.0
      Test group: 8, 11, and 12, mean = 10.3

    So, was the hypothesis rejected or accepted? Did the test group grow more than the control group? It looks like the test group grew a little taller on average, but not by much and one of the plants in the test group was the shortest of all.

    As adults, we would get out the stat tests and determine whether this apparent small difference is statistically significant. Without these real statistical measures, there really isn't much that can be said about these results. And without the ability to decide a hypothesis, then what is a child supposedly learning here?

Gender Equity

    As a parent of a boy, this struck me: When judging was completed and winners were announced, there were nine girls who received the Outstanding award, but only four boys. This imbalance is alarming, and deserves to be explored further. What is it that is keeping boys from doing better? Two possibilities come to mind: either

    1. boys are not receiving the background in science in the form that they need, or
    2. the judging in some way is skewed towards factors that favor girls.

    Both of these factors are common in schools. For example, it is clear that many boys enjoy direct instruction in lively, meaty, factual content, which many schools now de-emphasize.

    On the scoring question, one challenge in a Science Fair is to ensure that judging weighs scientific knowledge and understanding more highly than the visual appeal of the display or literary quality of the essays.

    (Also see the Illinois Loop page on gender equity for more information.)

Science Fairs: An Anachronism?

    I've come to the conclusion that science fairs on the grade school level are an anachronism. They date from a time back when the everyday science class was all lecture and textbook reading, and if a child was lucky, maybe a film or a demonstration on rare occasion. In that environment, a science fair injected a needed dose of experimentation into the process.

    But times have changed.

    Today, science experiments in classtime are the norm. Many argue that the pendulum has swung too far the other way, and that experiments are now so rampant that they force out instructional time! When a science program becomes dominated by experiments, there is the danger of the class becoming "science appreciation" rather than science.

    In short, the function that science fairs served years ago is no longer needed. Kids are getting plenty of experiments and rhetoric about the supposed "scientific method" -- perhaps too much.

    What's the downside? Well, without a real reason for them to exist, the traditional problems of a science fair become dominant: excessive time requirements, poorly chosen projects, and, very subtly but very importantly, poor or too charitable judging. The time consumed by some of these projects is enormous. Worse, much of the real work is often the result of "helpful" parents rather than students.

    Then there's the biggest problem of all: the lack of substantive learning. Usually, a science fair project consists of "researching" some subject that has already been studied to death and whose result is somewhere between patently obvious or already well-known. Students are often encouraged to obsess over the so-called "scientific method", and are required to keep detailed notes of hypotheses and experiments, etc. The most important component of the scientific method, reading and learning more rich content about the area under study, is often given a poor second-place role. The emphasis instead is too often on nice-looking reports, verbal presentation skill, fancy displays, and process rather than content -- all of which detract from the most important focus: better understanding of real science.

If You Must Have A Science Fair

    Some schools or science teachers do not have the luxury of simply ending the school science fair. The fair may be a dictum from the principal or district superintendent, who sees the fair as a wonderful opportunity to generate good publicity.

    But if a science fair has to be, there are a few steps that can be taken to make it more beneficial and to lessen the problems:

    1. It's crucial to specify just what it is that the science fair is to accomplish. What are the specific learning goals?
    2. In particular, is the goal to deepen one's understanding of science, or instead of a nonexistent universal "scientific method"?
    3. Consider whether a "science expo" or other alternative might meet the learning goals much more completely and much more efficiently.
    4. Kids need to understand that deep and broad scientific knowledge, not groundless hunches, are the basis for all science. Intuition and creativity are vital, but they are only possible upon a base of real knowledge. Perhaps in a science fair at the grade school level the way to encourage this is to encourage evidence of a deep topic investigation through reading, before formation of the hypothesis.
    5. To evaluate what has been found, kids must at least have a good understanding of test and control groups. It remains an open, difficult question on just how grade school children can evaluate their results in any kind of meaningful way.
    6. Adopt judging criteria that emphasize learning and application of substantive science content, rather than artistic or literary flair.


Quotes on a "Scientific Method"

    From our extensive page on education quotations:

    What Real Scientists Actually Do

    "I do not frame hypotheses"
    -- Isaac Newton

    "It has become fashionable in science education to mold K-12 students around an idee fixe of a modern scientist; formulating hypotheses, observing measuring, and discovering through hands-on investigations. What has been left unsaid is that real scientists don't actually spend very much of their day 'observing' and 'measuring.' They read! Reading for understanding of content is the core process skill of science, and there is no substitute for practice at an early age. ...
    -- Dr. Stan Metzenberg, "Reading: The Most Important Science Process Skill"

    "A scientist works largely by intuition. Given enough experience, a scientist examining a problem can leap to an intuition as to what the solution 'should look like.' ... Science is ultimately based on insight, not logic."
    -- Brother Guy Consolmagno, Ph.D., S.J., "Brother Astronomer."

    "The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not 'Eureka!', but 'That's funny...'"
    -- Isaac Asimov

    "In the field of observation, chance favors the prepared mind."
    --Louis Pasteur

    "Research is what I do when I don't know what I'm doing"
    -- Wernher Von Braun

    Prof. Barnhardt: "You have tested this theory?"
    Klaatu: "I find it works well enough to get me from one planet to the next."
    -- dialogue from The Day the Earth Stood Still

    Some quotes from "On Scientific Method", by Percy W. Bridgman, from his "Reflections of a Physicist" (1955):

    • It seems to me that there is a good deal of ballyhoo about scientific method. I venture to think that the people who talk most about it are the people who do least about it. Scientific method is what working scientists do, not what other people or even they themselves may say about it. No working scientist, when he plans an experiment in the laboratory, asks himself whether he is being properly scientific, nor is he interested in whatever method he may be using as method.

    • Scientific method is something talked about by people standing on the outside and wondering how the scientist manages to do it.

    • But ... the working scientist ... is not consciously following any prescribed course of action, but feels complete freedom to utilize any method or device whatever which in the particular situation before him seems likely to yield the correct answer. ... No one standing on the outside can predict what the individual scientist will do or what method he will follow.

    • In short, science is what scientists do, and there are as many scientific methods as there are individual scientists.

    Science Is About Knowing

    Our English word "science" is derived from the Latin word scientia, which means "knowledge". It does not mean "method" or "discovery."
    -- editor

    "Science is the knowledge of consequences, and the dependence of facts upon one another."
    -- Thomas Hobbes

    "Having students formulate and carry out experiments is an important part of their education. That is why schools sponsor science fairs. However, making this the main curriculum is misguided. In doing research, students learn facts at a snail's pace. If they are ever to become scientists, they need to stand on the shoulders of those who came before them."
    -- Sally Levinson

    "There comes a time, starting in middle school or high school, when students must acquire a body of knowledge. How can they do this and still have the hands-on science that everyone is calling for? Hands-on science moves far too slowly for them to acquire a body of knowledge."
    -- Ralph W. Lewis, Professor Emeritus of Biology, Michigan State University

         "Many of the popular hands-on kits in current use provide no reading materials for students at all, and this is the fulfillment of the constructivists' dream. For everyone else it is a nightmare. ...
         "A student who has not developed the skill of learning through reading has no professional future in science. Without a foundation in scientific vocabulary and with minimal knowledge of scientific fact, their words bear an accent of ignorance that is impossible to conceal and nearly impossible to remediate. While young people should be encouraged to enter science, they must also be given the education that will permit them to succeed.
         "Hands-on investigative activities ought to be sprinkled into a science program like a 'spice'; they cannot substitute for a 'main dish'. The best 'hands-on' program would be one in which students can get their 'hands on' an informative textbook!"
    -- Dr. Stan Metzenberg, "Reading: The Most Important Science Process Skill"

Science and Schools

    For more information on the problems and issues in science education, visit the "science" section of the Illinois Loop website at "Illinois Loop: Science"

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