The Science Fair

Its just hit me that school is set to begin for all of the little childrens [sic] around the country here before long.  As much as I personally and professionally support the notion of the upcoming Science Fair that will be held at your local school, there's something that I need to share.

Full Disclosure:  I have never been asked back to judge a science fair.

I've spent quite a bit of time over the past almost two decades working in schools, especially being an advocate for math and science.  Naturally, when science fair time rolls around, a requests for outside (read: impartial) judges usually lands in my inbox.  At first, I used to be happy to help pick a winner - but that turned more and more into dread.

Ninth graders should not be doing science fair projects about protein isolation and purification.  There I said it.  While in theory, you can teach a ninth grader how to purify proteins the idea is beyond what we would expect from a ninth grade science project.  There may be a few exceptions in the world, but by and large science projects that are done by students not able to legally drive should not contain the words "Western Blot" (Google it).  I honestly believe that we have to rethink the notion of what the science fair is.  It is about discovery and the scientific method.  I have a problem, which leads to a theory and a way to test it.  If your science project involved an NIH-funded laboratory then you would not win with me judging.

Western Blot - Image Courtesy TimVickers

Full Disclosure: When I was a rising senior in high school, I worked in a lab that did breast cancer research for a summer.

Now, given my second disclosure this all may seem hypocritical but there is a method to my madness.  I don't look for the fanciest project, I look for the one where the child has the most understanding about what they have done.  If we go back to my not-so-hypothetical protein purification project and ask the child about protein primary structure and get a blank look you will get an instant zilch.  Why?  Because if you are going to such great lengths to concoct a project about proteins and know nothing of the fundamentals this makes your entire project suspect on my scoring sheet  (Protein primary structure is basically the order in which the building blocks of proteins are placed - day one, paragraph one in the protein book).  It may seem harsh, but I'd rather you get your feelings hurt now than in a journal club or a medical school interview.

Like so many competitions adults have taken the fun out of it for children.  Just because your parents have PhDs (disclosure coming) does not mean you are going to win the science fair if I am judging.  I want to see how you (the child) solved this problem and discovered something.  I am all for parental involvement, but I will not let a parents federally funded research take home a blue ribbon.

Full Disclosure:  My child will do a science fair project and his teachers will probably know both his parents have PhDs.

When science fair time rolls around- help your kids with their project.  Find out what interests them.  Yes, they may need suggestions - but it makes the experience much richer if your child has a sense of ownership.  That is truly what the science fair is all about.