Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Shoulders of Giants?

Shoulders of Giants? : Judging a Science Fair 3

Last Friday (January 27, 2012) I was a judge at a regional science fair of the Chicago Public Schools. Two of my fellow librarians were also judges and share some of the ideas presented here. The College encouraged members of the College community to participate because they see this as a chance to reach out to the community. This was the third time that I have been a judge.

Before the judging we agreed that we would ask every student that we examined what library resources they used in preparation for their experiments. A literature review is required and the evaluation rubric required APA citation style.*  Every student was required to have a paper with their hypothesis, procedure, and results. Data was supposed to be organized in tables, charts or graphs.

Children as young as one or two act like scientists. They are constantly exploring their universe and making experiments. They make observations and test what happens after actions. They don’t have to use an official methodology or write up their conclusions. For example an infant dropping a toy from a high chair is trying to discover what happens. Will the toy disappear or break? As they mature the experiments become more sophisticated or adventurous. They may try mixing ingredients. Eating and food preparation are types of experimentation. Children learn about the world around them by experience such as when they jump up they come down and the floor does not break. Science is a discovery process that seeks to understand that when an action is performed the results are the same. When the results are not as expected the process needs further examination. The formal study of chemistry, biology, physics, etc. is the learning process that understands the work and discoveries of those who came before us.

Science fairs are supposed to enable the marvelous imaginations of children to be used in a systematic procedure that leads them to critical thinking skills. Based on the evidence of the projects we saw, the teachers are not nurturing the imagination or critical thinking skills. None of the papers we read used adequate sources for their literature review. Most used vague Internet searches to find web sites. Very few even knew how to properly cite a web page. The citations were not reversible. That means we could not check the same page that the students claim to have used.

Many of the students claimed to have used the site, Science Buddies ( This site gives lots of great advice for science fair projects including ideas for projects and guides for proceeding with project on the page Science Fair Project Guide ( One subtopic covers the background research and gives guidance for searching for information and proper bibliographic citations. They even offer a pdf bibliographic worksheet ( If the students used this site they would have been able to prepare much better final papers.

When I asked one of the organizers why no one used the library databases that the Chicago Public Schools provide I got the response, “What databases? I didn’t know we had any.”

I examined the databases that the school system offers. None of the database would have helped the students with their projects. They didn’t have enough basic science information. Of the encyclopedias available, the science articles would not have helped the students. The articles were too superficial and without bibliographies. I went to the Chicago Public Library (CPL) databases to search for topics that matched the projected I judged. One project did an experiment with the preservation of food. I found an article: Kroger, Manfred. "Food Science and Technology." Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics. Ed. Carl Mitcham. Vol. 2. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005, p. 775-780 that would have helped this student with the literature review. The article includes a bibliography for further reading.

In the CPL online resources is a book: Experiment Central: Understanding Scientific Principles Through Projects. / M. Rae Nelson. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. Detroit: UXL, 2010 that would help with all kinds of science fair experiments. The book has 90 topics describing experiments or principles for investigation.

Since I work in a college library I didn’t have any age-appropriate books that I could examine on the science topics K-12 students would use for their science fair project. The Science Buddies web site offers help that even college students could use in writing papers. Their bibliography worksheet can be used for any kind of paper.

I really hope that science teachers encourage students to explore and do experiments. They also need to teach students about using the library resources to put their work in context. As I tell my students, “I look at your bibliography to find the shoulders of giants you stand on.” [fn 1]

*. For my opinion on style sheets see June and April 2010 entries of Kol Safran.

1. The aphorism, “standing on the shoulders of giants” was made famous by Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727). It appears in the edge of the UK £2 coin. The source of the aphorism is really from R. Isaiah di Trani (circa 1200-1260) who was an Italian Jewish law expert who wrote extensive commentaries on the Talmud. Shnayer Z. Leiman discusses the concepts and ideas in “Dwarfs on the Shoulders of Giants” in Tradition (Spring 1993) 27:3 p.90-93. “Who sees further, a dwarf or a giant? …If the dwarf is placed upon the shoulders of the giant, who sees further? (see p. 92)

Some of the ideas of this phrase are based on statements in the Talmud. Such as “R. Yohanan stated: The fingernail of the earlier generations is better than the belly of later generations. (Yoma 9b) The phrase passed into Christian thought by the philosopher and theologian, Bernard of Chartres (d. 1126). The aphorism teaches us that the great people of the past are the foundation of what we can accomplish today. We know things that were created after the giants of the past. The study of the past scholar is the foundation. The bibliography is the recording of the sources of the study.

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