San Diego Science and Engineering Fair

4 May 2015

By Rose Hendricks

Traditionally, students learn the science that their parents and teachers want them to learn. Adults tell kids that they should be able to differentiate cumulus from cirrus clouds, or that they should know the properties of noble gases. If all goes according to plan, the students learn those things. Of course, that’s not the only way for kids to learn about science. They can also drive their own educational bus by asking questions that they find important and figuring out how to find those answers, a model that is rarer in many schools. Science fair projects provide students with the opportunity to conduct their own projects from inception to communication, and I witnessed the results of these processes last month at the Greater San Diego Science & Engineering Fair

As a judge at the fair, I delved into some of the cool projects that students completed and spent time with the middle school scientists responsible for the work. I was part of a team of 6 judges who all viewed the same 12 behavioral science projects. We had three hours to talk to the students about their work and check out their posters and lab notebooks. 

These were 3 productive learning hours for me. I learned that volleyball players make more good serves when they do a ritual like bouncing the ball before they serve than when they don’t. Another student showed that immediately after playing a videogame, people’s heart rate and blood pressure increase from baseline while their reaction time decreases. I also saw that kids as young as 7-13 years old prefer a moderately-priced perfume to that same perfume marked with a lower price (though they don’t prefer an expensive one to a moderately-priced one). Crime rates in Chula Vista do not rise when there’s a full moon. People can correctly identify more jelly bean flavors when their mouth is room temperature than when it’s hot or cold. The amount of exposure to technology that toddlers receive at home does not predict their scores on tests of shapes and colors. During the 3 hours I spent with the students, I learned these and many other things I didn’t know I wanted to know.

On a different level, I also learned that the middle school students were great at telling me their experimental questions, the steps they took in addressing them, and what they could do to make their projects better. It was more difficult for them to explain why they did what they did - metacognitive explanations - but I have no problem cutting them some slack, since I often still need to cut myself some slack in that area. Their experimental designs often fell prey to heartbreaking confounds like order effects, but they were receptive to learning about these problems and were quick to come up with other ways to test their hypotheses. 

At the end of the judging period, my team regrouped to decide on awards. As we started discussing the first project, it became obvious that reaching a consensus would be difficult or impossible. If one person thought a student’s research question was creative, another saw it as bizarre. If one person liked a straightforward design, another found it too simple. It soon became evident that the conversations we had with the students were wildly different as well. The students seemed to tell different judges that they designed their experiments in different ways. Or perhaps the different judges comprehended what the students told them in different ways. This provided a crash lesson in iteration: when students explain their project many times to many people, and when judges talk to many students over the course of a short time, lots of stories get jumbled. This made our job of deciding how to allocate awards to the projects quite difficult. But this civilized chaos ended in compromise, and we did our collective best to assign prizes appropriately. 

The fair may have seemed large because of how full the Balboa Park Activity Center was with projects, students, and judges, but it was really a microcosm of scientific research more generally. The fair was carefully organized, from the schedules, to the information packets, to the free coffee. But as in research, minor unanticipated events occurred - some judges took more or less time to work, information was lost, coffee was spilled. In addition to the blips, the fair also generated some noisy data; single projects sometimes received a top score from one judge and a bottom score from another. This noise, too, is very familiar to scientists. At the end of the fair, a neat story emerged. Each project was awarded a place, from 1st through 4th. In many cases, having a small number of judges decide which prize a project should receive probably resulted in an oversimplified story of the project, but again, most science needs to be packaged into a clean, slightly oversimplified story in order to be communicated. For these and many other reasons, I’d call the fair a success - a perfectly imperfect event for sharing scientific curiosity and excitement.

Related tags: outreach, science fair