Sunday, January 30, 2011

Judging a Science Fair

Last Friday (January 28) I was a judge at the Central Region Chicago Public Schools Science Fair. This was the first time that I was a science fair judge. I went to the science fairs at my children’s elementary school, but not to the high school ones. Sometimes one hears about some outstanding science fair projects that were award winning, but I was sure most of the projects would be unexciting.

I have seen many CPS graduates as students, who needed help with high school level English and math skills when they enrolled at Wright College. Before Friday I wondered what high school students really know. My daughter’s science fair project was carefully prepared, researched and written up, but she did not win a place in a regional fair. One part of science fair projects is a literature review. The student must not only learn about the scientific method, but also read what others have written on the subject. As a librarian I am always careful about citations of materials and how these sources are used as a basis for the student’s project. While the citations only accounted for 2 out of 99 points, those who had a weak review of the literature had experiments that were not solid. I pointed out some problem areas in the research and frequently the students didn’t understand why I questioned their methodology or hypotheses. For example one project concerned what liquids would dissolve an allergy pill better. I asked why this was important or worthy of investigation. The student said that she has allergies and wanted to know the best liquid to drink with the pills. She could not adequately explain why it was important to dissolve a pill faster. She did not concern herself with how stomach acids would dissolve a pill or even if it was a good idea to dissolve faster. She did not mention time release pill or the fact the same medicine could be in pills, capsules, liquids, etc. Indeed this type of investigation was not well conceived and did not have any indication that the problem was understood. If the real question was, “What is the best way to take allergy medication?” this would be beyond the ability of a high school student to measure and test.

Another project concerned measuring the sugar content of carbonated soft drinks (Experimenter called it “soda pop”). The experimenter carefully weighed 10 ml of distilled water and then made standard solutions of 5%, 10% and 15% as made of chart of their weights as base to compare the soft drinks. The experimenter could not explain why 10 ml of distilled water weighed 9.9 grams [1] or 10 ml of diet soda weighed 8.9 grams. He should have measured the 10 ml of water several time to determine why there was a 0.1 gram error. The diet soda could have been less dense than water due to the dissolved carbon dioxide. These two measurements should have triggered additional investigation and a revision to the experiment. He should have also measured plain carbonated water and compared that weight to distilled water, diet soda and sugared soda. My high school aged daughter picked up this error immediately. I had not asked the experimenter why plain carbonated water was not measured. The bibliography to this project consisted of: Google, Wikipedia, and Glencoe Science. No exact source was mentioned. I gave no points for the review of literature or citations. I can’t believe a teacher signed off on this project. While the student did a lot of work, it was not done under the guidance of a skilled teacher-scientist.

I discussed my experience with a fellow librarian, who was planning to judge the science fair, but was unable to make it. She wanted to ask every single exhibitor what library resources were used in preparation for their project. I didn't think of asking everyone this question, but I wish I did. None of the projects I judged seem have used the library or its resources. Is that saying teachers aren't guiding the students to the library? I know that Chicago Public Schools have subscriptions to library data bases, but do teachers and students know how to use them?

The projects were judged on rubric with points awarded for each element of the rubric. They were not in direct competition with each other. Any project could obtain a perfect score or no score at all. For a librarian this event just confirmed what I knew about teachers not knowing how to search for reliable sources, incorporate research in the learning process, and how to cite sources. However, it was a worthwhile learning experience for me.

1.A milliliter of distilled water at room temperature should weigh exactly one gram. Since the experimenter used an electronic scale this error was not due to imprecise reading of a dial.


Tom Kaun said...

Great posting which confirms my experience with science fair projects. All our 10th graders do an experimental projects which they start in the 9th grade. I've never been asked to judge (although I'm a former high school science teacher) but I expect that the same issues you found with your science fair projects would apply to ours as well. I have had the experience, when teachers bring kids to the library to determine a topic and start their research, of helping students clarify what their actual experiment will measure or test. It is a challenge for many of them and I feel good being able to help them to get started. I know teachers in upper division classes do take citation and peer-review seriously.

belann said...

I have to judge science fair projects tomorrow. I went over what sources would be considered reliable for the literature review prior to the project. It will be interesting to see if the students listened.

Daniel Stuhlman said...

Received via e-mail from: Mary Carroll on Feb. 1, 2011

I couldn't agree with you more. I gave several zeros for the sections
having to do with proper format. I had one child who had no endnotes atall. It should make you feel better, though, that I judged Science Fair Symposium Papers on another day. In that group, I had two students with eight pages in their Reference List--and at least half of the references were for REAL BOOKS! I was thrilled.

Dave Schoeff said...

I'm judging a regional High School Science Fair this weekend. Your comments were very interesting. I was intimidated by technical aspects (judging computer science projects) and hadn't thought about the lit review. Obviously, that's an important part and it is something I do know about. Thanks for your thoughts.