Thursday, December 20, 2012

Memory, Music and Beans : Judging a Science Fair -- 4

On Tuesday December 18 I was a science fair judge for the fourth time. By now I have grown to expect what a high school student can do for science fair experiments. Many of the experiments were variations on a theme. I still can’t understand what kinds of guidance the teachers are offering. No one teaches these students how to design experiments that can have good statistical results. I said to myself that I did not want to see another experiment on growing beans.

Cuneform tabletAs I walked in the aisles looking at exhibits one impressed me, but since I was not judging that exhibit I did not even read his board. What impressed me was the picture of cuneiform tablets. The tablet similar to the one illustrated here was a commercial document. I should have examined the experiment more carefully. Some of the story boards just had paste-up of sections of their papers. Some had hand-written titles; while others were computer printed. Some had pictures; other just words. Last year I remembered some presentations included realia connected to their experiments. This time I don’t remember anyone with an exhibit that included realia.

25% of the scoring rubric is for how well the students orally present their experiments and results. One 10th grade girl was very good given that she only arrived from China three months ago. Most of the other 10th graders had exhibits based on research they did in 9th grade. Her name started with and “X” and so I asked her to pronounce her name. Sorry, I can’t remember it and I’m sure that I did not pronounce it correctly. Some of the students had well rehearsed presentations and others were more conversational.

Several students did experiments on music and learning. They wanted to know if background music or even a single tone could affect memory or learning. This could have implications for classroom and individual learning. This is not a new query. In a Winter 1985 article “Background Music and Context-Dependent Memory,” published in The American Journal of Psychology (Vol. 98:4) Steven M. Smith writes:

Background sound is a ubiquitous characteristic of our everyday living environments, ranging from industrial noise to public noise to relative quiet. Background music, for example, can be heard in stores, restaurants, office buildings, homes, and automobiles, even by those who do not use the type of portable music-playing devices that can be taken virtually anywhere. Such background music often plays a part in our everyday memories; for example, people are often reminded of long-past events when an old song is heard on the radio.

These students should have read Smith’s article in order to learn that the musical genre (classical, rock, hip hop, etc.) should not be a variable but rather, music and white noise should be tested against a control consisting of quiet. Most of the students using music labeled soft, calming music as classical. They never heard of full active, orchestral music. One experiment tested a single pitch as a way to improvement memory. One tested age as factor in memory with all of the older subjects related to her.

All of the experiments used too few subjects and trials to obtain significant results. For example one student wanted to test whether to size of a parachute affected the time for descent. He used three different sized parachutes and dropped a weigh from a second floor deck of his house. He concluded after three trials of each size (total of 9) that the bigger the parachute, the slower the descent. He couldn’t complete more trials because the parachutes wore out after three trials. He did not time the descent time for no parachute.

Since the scoring sheets did not have much about the experiment other than the titles, I had no idea that the students investigating road salt use and use of grey water in irrigation were testing growing beans. They concluded that salt was not good for plants and grey water would kill the plants.

I asked all the students about their use of library resources. Several reported using the databases from their school or public library. Very few used books and most had poorly formatted bibliographies. Even those who claimed to use a citation generating program such as Easybib ( ) for help with citations had significant errors. The program is flawed; frequently it reports, “n.d.” or “n.p.” for no date or publisher when the data is quite clear. When I use Ebsco and other academic databases they give citations in several styles. I warn the students that any citations are merely advice. The students still need to make sure the citation is correct according to the style guide and their teacher.

A student investigated the absorptive properties of paper towels, cellulose sponges and a Sham Wow. ShamWow is a super absorbent towel promoted in infomercials. The student never explains what the ShamWow is and spelled it as “Sham Wow.” He carefully cut the experimental materials and measured how much canola oil each absorbed. He found out counter to his hypothesis that sponges were best. Jokingly I asked, “Did you have to get up oily in the morning to do the experiments?”

At the end of the day I was tired and I hope that some of the students learned something from their efforts.

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