Last week, I went (with Scientific American) to Intel's International Science and Engineering Fair in Atlanta. I did a lot of live-blogging from the site, and I encourage you to visit the Scientific American website to read some of my postings.
My job there was to point out some of the more cool projects. Here at Gifted Exchange, I'd like to talk a little bit more about the whole science fair concept, and how bright children often encounter science these days.
On some level, the ISEF was a lot like a normal science fair. Everyone hung out in a giant hall in front of their tri-fold poster boards, which contained a lot of grainy photos of (often) a gloved hand pouring some liquid into a container. On the other hand, there were less props than you normally see at a science fair. Few plants. No vinegar volcanoes. With people traveling, and with strict rules, it's just easier not to put a pea plant on a table to indicate that you put certain compounds on said pea plant.
The students were often undertaking interesting experiments. They measured wave patterns in a tsunami simulation. They gave people spatial reasoning tests after they played Tetris (a concept I will write more about later). I was glad to see that a fair number of high school students are really interested in science. It makes you hopeful about the future.
On the other hand, was a certain humorous innocence to some of the projects. For instance, my editor, Ivan, blogged about an experiment in which a young lady photo-shopped pictures of her mother and her science teacher's husband to change various features, and then asked people who they would vote for for president. The results indicated that appearance did affect how people would vote but, on the other hand, what else were people going to choose on? They had no information about these candidates' platforms, history, etc. A much better experiment would create platforms and histories and rotate them through the photo-shopped candidates, all the while asking who people preferred. If you could see that even people who supported gun control were quite willing to vote for a gun-rights candidate with a stunning nose, you might reach the conclusion that people were more interested in nose appearance than they probably should be. But, of course, this is high school. I was reminded of my own science fair project once which looked at "Probability and Pascal's Triangle." I "discovered" that, when you toss x number of pennies a certain number of times, the number of times you get each quantity of heads does work out to look like Pascal's triangle. In other news, I hear that mixing vinegar and baking soda makes a volcano.
For all their re-discovery of the known, though, the good thing about science fairs is that they change science from a subject in which you memorize definitions for a test to a subject in which you think up questions and try to answer them. I suspected many of the students at ISEF did not actually think up their own questions. They worked with professors who suggested the problem; they had parents in the particular field they were looking at. But they did think through the investigations. Science fairs also give students hands-on experience with science. Some young people did experiments at home, others learned to use lab equipment -- a fun experience which no doubt keeps many people interested in research.
I also realized that certain schools make a point of teaching kids about lab research, and encouraging students to do independent research projects. The existence of science fairs like Intel's (and the Intel Science Talent Search, and the Davidson Fellowships) do dangle a carrot out there for schools and kids to leap after. What may be more amazing is -- given the scholarship money out there, and the prestige that comes to a school from having multiple winners, or even one -- is why more schools don't encourage this. All you have to do is free time up in the schedule, or schedule a research class, and hook people up with a local university. My own excellent high school -- the Indiana Academy -- required everyone to take a "research" class, but I recall no one actually winning anything major as a result.
But as college admissions becomes more competitive, I'm sure more schools will figure this out. It's all a little packaged, perhaps, but it does encourage kids to work hard, and spend their time on independent science projects. I'm curious about readers' experiences with science fair projects, and what your children have learned from making a tri-fold poster board display.