Science Fairs Make Scientists

Guest Essay by Kip Hansen

I complain a lot about poor science being done by what I assume to be professional scientists. I’d like to think that if I were in their labs, I would do better. [ *** see note ]

If we want good science, and we do, we need good scientists. If we want good adult scientists, we need to get the kids – junior high and high school kids — started off in the right direction and on the right foot.

I spent the last two days judging a science fair here in Cape Canaveral, Florida, along with 50 or more other dedicated people.

Judging these types of events is exhausting work, physically and emotionally. The fair I helped judge was set up in the center aisles of a large sprawling shopping mall and judging involved miles and miles of walking on those hard, hard floors.

The kids are great. You get all kinds. Some are so enthusiastic –– some so shy they can barely speak to the judges – some so outgoing you can’t get them to stop talking. The projects range from the truly dopey (one wonders where the science teacher was when the proposal was made or, on the other hand, one worries that the teacher thought it was a great idea too) all the way over to really important scientific ideas needing research.

One student bravely picked a rather eclectic idea out of a blog comment – that Interval Training (the kind athletes do for muscles) might be applied to attention span – and tested that idea. The results were a little “iffy” but he’ll go on to improve the testing protocols next year and see if he gets similar results.

Another student tested soils exposed to the rocket exhaust clouds from the rocket launches at the Kennedy Space Center on Cape Canaveral – important because there are plans afoot to build a new private launch site just north of the federal launch site which plans are being opposed by environmental groups – expecting to find the soils contaminated to the point of being toxic. When her extensive tests found the soils to be no more toxic in high exposure zones than in low exposure zones, a “helpful” ecological scientist from a local environmental group suggested she run various statistical regressions on her data to find some toxicity. This serious student taught herself enough R-language to run the regressions, and still couldn’t get a “small enough P-value” on anything to make a point. I was so proud that she concluded that the rocket exhaust cloud simply was not toxic in the surrounding soil after all. This young lady may someday be another Judith Curry. She does the work, and finds what she finds – no shortcuts, no hedging. I privately recommended her project as a special project to represent her county (which includes the space center) at the State Science Fair. I have no idea if such a thing is even possible – but I had to make the special effort on her behalf.

I was gratified by the number of students whom I judged (a very small percentage of the total projects at the fair) that stuck by their original hypothesis and found “negative” results. I don’t know if this is a result of more careful monitoring of the science fair project process or if there has been an improvement in teaching the scientific method – but many conclusions included the statement “My hypothesis was rejected”.

One still finds goof-ball mistakes that call into question the qualifications, not of the students, but of their teachers ==> in one project, “exposure to radio waves” was accomplished by placing the petri dishes next to an FM radio playing NPR – which could, admittedly, have deleterious effects, but not from exposure to radio waves.

A common fault found was that advisors were forcing the students to work in units, with concepts and in languages that they were not familiar with. Temperatures in centigrade, plants with Latin names, statistics that were meaningless to them except as a button to push in Excel – P-value and ANOVA. Sure, kids today should know both °F and °C. But, I gave many mini-lectures on using terms in their lab notes that they understood with a column next to it in the “required “ language – always to know what they were doing when doing it. This confusion led one student to think that he could maybe raise the temperature of a human body to 90 °C therapeutically!

What are the kids interested in? Cancer and its prevention and treatment. Pollution and its mitigation. Water and water purification. Diabetes and lowering blood sugar levels (many of these based on family situations). Engineering projects focused on energy production: geothermal, solar, wind. Biology: Hydroponic and aeroponics , aquaponics, aquaculture. This list goes on and on – they are interested in everything!

The surprise was that there were so many projects, here at our county level. They are not easy, they take a lot of student time and effort and don’t return much social reward. Only a few students get the ‘golden ring’ – a First or Second Place – and get to the State finals or get to fly to Los Angeles for the Nationals. I tried my best to give each kid I judged enough personal attention and validation for the parts they’d gotten right to make their efforts worthwhile. (Even projects with silly errors were terrific work at their own levels – and get credit due.)

So, what can you do? If you have any kind of a science degree or work in a scientific field (active or retired), do an internet search and find out where and when the Science Fair cycle is in your locality. Find the email contact. If it is still in the future, see if they need help. (I signed up as a judge only one week in advance – they were still desperate – the more judges, the faster it goes.) If this year’s Fair has gone by, see if they need mentors in your specialty to help the students on next year’s projects. Get involved.

If you know how science really should be done – you can help train the scientists of the future — Science Fairs in your area are an opportunity for you to help.

# # # # #

[ *** In my own field, which was IT, I held myself and my co-workers to a very high professional standard, to the point where I was named the “Czar” for the type of code we were writing – not a line of code could be pushed out into the real world without my approval. The actuality was I helped the team write what we hoped to be perfect code. The upside was that I knew the code would be bullet-proof – the downside was that if anything broke, it was always my fault. I didn’t mind. ]

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Paul Westhaver
February 15, 2014 8:39 pm

Kip Hansen, I enjoyed reading this posting very much. Thanks for taking the time to write it. Science is the natural offspring of a curious mind immersed in a rationally intelligible universe.

Mike McMillan
February 15, 2014 8:42 pm

Yet the Telegraph reports that “One in four Americans ‘do not know the Earth circles the Sun’

February 15, 2014 8:45 pm

My daughter was working on her science fair project recently, and she was upset that it wasn’t matching her hypothesis. It was important to get her to understand that it’s still valid work and not a failure to have the wrong hypothesis. Thank you so much for giving your time to judge these fairs; it truly enables our budding scientists to keep going.
I also agree with your suggestion to mentor. My kids and the other kids at their school are lucky to have access to great people who can guide them and teach them. Not all kids have that. Seek them out.

Jimmy Haigh.
February 15, 2014 8:51 pm

Mike McMillan says:
February 15, 2014 at 8:42 pm
I wonder what the other half of Obama’s supporters believe?

Robert Clemenzi
February 15, 2014 8:52 pm

I wanted to see the details of the climate project in the picture. Unfortunately, there is nothing at

February 15, 2014 9:07 pm

There’s a hilarious climategate email in which a high school kid’s project falsifies the hockey stick.
Let me tell you a story. A few years back, my son Eirik did a tree ring science fair project using trees behind NCAR. He found that widths correlated with both temp and precip. However, temp and precip also correlate. There is much other evidence that it is precip that is the driver, and that the temp/width correlation arises via the temp/precip correlation. Interestingly, the temp correlations are much more ephemeral, so the complexities conspire to make this linkage nonstationary.

February 15, 2014 10:06 pm

ha, so funny, just watched big-ears (have cash, will travel) and roving teleprompter just get through saying the drought in the US west, “…is undoubtedly due to climate change …”.
Remember that game when you were about 3 or 4 years old where you and your friend repeated a word, over an over again, until you both began to get the distinct impression it had been drained of all meaning, then you’d look at each other and burst-out laughing at the silly noise and strange you were both still making … then we’d select another word and destroy it also while fighting back the waves of laughter, at the sound of the word, that this always resulted in? And how mum was not as impressed by the wonton total destruction of perfectly good words … but you could tell that she knew about it too?
Well, I had a little re-run, while watching that ‘news’ … maybe the autocue is overdue for servicing or something? Maybe we’re really reaching the unseen tipping-point where the rest of us just look at each other and burst out laughing at the sound of “climate-change” being mouthed, over and over again?

February 15, 2014 10:19 pm

@ Kip Hansen; Good for you to help out as well as thank you for your essay on our budding young scientists. The honest ones that try need to be encouraged and at times helped.
Good minds are hard to damage, Those that can,will learn. Those that can’t, must be taught. The ones that must be taught are easy to brainwash into Liberal Progressive thought patterns. When I was involved in county science fair in Jr high my Newly minted teacher insisted that I adopt Liberal Progressive Ideals or I would not be permitted to advance in science. Later in high school another teacher said he would see that I did not graduate because of my rejection of his Liberal Progressive ideals. Good thing another teacher protected me so that I could at least graduate. pg

February 15, 2014 10:27 pm

My oldest son got to the state level (Massachusetts, Honorable Mention) in the middle school science fair last year. My experience going through the 3 levels of competition (school / region / state) inspired me as well. At the lower levels the cream is separated easily. But seeing the state competition, my first thought was if I could bring my 2 MIT degrees and the education behind them to bear and be a judge in the future to do the kind of pure-science critiquing you are talking about.
I lost track of that idea so I am glad you brought it up. I certainly applaud your efforts!

February 15, 2014 11:23 pm

Thank you for the time you invested!
And, my belated thanks now to my Algebra I and Algebra II math teacher back in Roosevelt HS in San Antonio TX (Mr James Anderson) who served as the competitive mathematics coach for UIL interscholastic slide rule, number sense (mental mathematics – nothing written down but the answer, and no erasing!), and science in 1972, 73, and 74. Turns out he had the sense to realize I was “pretty good” at 30 minutes of slide rule calc’s in the junior divisions, but just wasn’t fast enough to be winning any more in the senior division, but he was the one that saw I could sit and concentrate for three and four hours straight on the longer science competitions each weekend. His advice was a winner, and his many hundred hours of travel, driving, coaching, grading, and mentoring helped many dozens of teams win at the state and regional levels for many years.
Also important at Roosevelt were my Physics I and II teacher (Mr Perkins), and my Chemistry I and II teacher.

February 15, 2014 11:59 pm

Kip, an excellent article, I enjoyed reading it.
It is so, so important that we have new generations of scientists. When I was a child, I loved science, I would make my own rockets using sodium chlorate and sugar as a fuel and carry out all sorts of interesting experiments. When my children were 5 or 6 years old (they were born in 1987, 1989 and 1995) I bought them chemistry sets. What a waste of time and money, the spectre of health and safety had taken over, goggles, a polythene apron, boring chemicals and more disclaimers than interesting experiments. I managed to get hold of some sodium chlorate and they were impressed with my home made rockets, but by the time my son was born, the EU had banned its sale. The result is three grown up children with absolutely no interest in science.
I hope things are different in the USA to how they are in the UK!

Steve C
February 16, 2014 12:46 am

Thanks, Kip, for an uplifting start to my Sunday. From what you say, maybe there’s hope for the future of science yet – the children with the less rigorous experiments will perhaps learn something from the more rigorous ones, and learn better how to do it.
Unfortunately, I have to agree with andrewmharding about the lack of such scientific activity in the UK: as a practical person myself I am unable to buy even (what used to be) common chemicals when I need them, and it would no doubt be that much more impossible for a child. European “Health and Safety” fantasies now dominate the remains of the UK, so no-one can be allowed to do anything that might conceivably hurt themselves or anyone else. The globalist drones have damaged this country beyond recognition, and I look very enviously at quite a lot of what US citizens are still permitted to do.
I’d add Maker Fairs to Science fairs, too, since the science needs developing into technology if it’s to be of any use to humanity – maybe not so child-oriented but certainly something for junior R&D enthusiasts to look forward to. All told, “Go, America!” and “Non Illegitimi Carborundum!”

February 16, 2014 12:52 am

Whilst the “Mail” also carries the story that the National Science Foundation found that only 74% of Americans know that the Earth orbits the Sun, I question the validity of such a conclusion when I read that the population of 350 million people is judged on a sample of 2,200. I am forced to conclude they were the wrong 2,200!
OTOH, the confusion between astronomy & astrology, prostate cancer & “prostrate” cancer or the dumb use of the word “energy” instead of “fuel”, all serve as examples of how advertising, commercialism, and cultural anti-intellectualism have run rampant and dysgenic pressure has resulted in a uniformly unthinking society devoid of intellectual curiosity, social responsibility, and coherent notions of justice and human rights. Read, mark, note & inwardly digest.
Disclaimer: I freely acknowledge most of the penultimate sentence above, may be found in the Wikipedia entry about the film “Idiocracy”.

Rhys Jaggar
February 16, 2014 1:10 am

I think you’ll find that if you think that ‘science fairs make scientists’, then all you are doing is a Darwinian selection of those, whose scientific interest is fired by science fairs.
I’m not saying it’s not one piece of the jigsaw, what I’m saying is that it’s only one. It’s a suitable approach for one segment of the young population.
Some people will be fired up by doing things themselves for 5 years. They are feet-on-the-ground realists, not starry-eyed dreamers. They are actively turned-off by dreaming bullshit, as they see it. It’s not saying ‘aim for the moon, land on the roof’ doesn’t work for some, it’s saying that some think you can get onto the roof with a ladder rather cheaper than you can paying for a defective space rocket. A point worth mentioning in bankrupt western economies…….
There are other segments too.
Think about how to engage with different segments too rather than sticking to tired formulae.

Stephen Richards
February 16, 2014 1:23 am

Rhys Jaggar says:
February 16, 2014 at 1:10 am
ANYTHING that educates our children is good. Science fairs are not just about science. They teach the kids lifeskills. Meeting people. Explaining themselves without, ‘larke larke, larke, know what ar mean’
Kip is on the button. A great piece of community interaction to help the local schools and their pupils.

Greg Goodman
February 16, 2014 2:14 am

“I was gratified by the number of students whom I judged (a very small percentage of the total projects at the fair) that stuck by their original hypothesis and found “negative” results. I don’t know if this is a result of more careful monitoring of the science fair project process or if there has been an improvement in teaching the scientific method – but many conclusions included the statement “My hypothesis was rejected”.
Very encouraging. When we see what is getting into published literature and see what some of those involved in the highest levels of education are producing themselves, I wince.
I get the impression its downhill only from now on.
Thanks for this rare note of optimism that science still has a future.

Dr. John M. Ware
February 16, 2014 2:36 am

Excellent post! As some others have done, I salute my high school science teachers, who in the 1950s made impressions on me that I still remember. My chemistry and physics teacher, Mr. Diffenbaugh, was insistent on probing what was really true, or what something actually meant: not getting to the bottom of your scientific question or hypothesis was as bad a prejudging a person. “She may look like the wreck of the Hesperus and have the personality of an oyster, but you just may not know what makes her tick. Find out!”

February 16, 2014 2:47 am

F/C you choose but for science, and using SI units, degrees C must be used. SI unite are global, except the good old US of A which is backward in this.
If doing thermodynamic science, climatology, degrees K must be used.

February 16, 2014 2:50 am

I should have started with- Good to get children into science and the scientific method. But this requires teachers who actually know what the scientific method is.

February 16, 2014 2:51 am

don’t know if science fairs could help these journos, politicians & academic:
16 Feb: Guardian: Toby Helm/Jamie Doward: Climate change is an issue of national security,
warns Ed Miliband
Labour leader says UK is ‘sleepwalking to a crisis over climate’ as storms bring more major disruption and flooding
“The science is clear. The public know there is a problem. But, because of political division in Westminster, we are sleepwalking into a national security crisis on climate change. The terrible events of the last few weeks should serve as a wake-up call for us all.”
With the Tory party divided over whether extreme weather can be linked to climate change, a leading independent adviser to the government has also joined the fightback against the sceptics. Lord Krebs, a member of the Climate Change Committee, described those who question the science as “the flat earthers of contemporary society who show a flagrant disregard for the future needs of our children and grandchildren”…
An Opinium/Observer poll shows more than half of voters (51%) believe the recent floods are a sign of climate change and global warming while 24% do not and 20% are neutral. Among young people aged 18-34, 60% blame climate change, while 44% of those aged over 55 take the same view…
Miliband said he was ready to work with politicians of all parties, including “green” Tories such as Zac Goldsmith, to rebuild the consensus around climate change…
He said that “dither and denial” would be disastrous for the country.
Lord Krebs, Jesus College, Oxford University

Shub Niggurath
February 16, 2014 3:14 am

Oh my God, who let the global warming denier get close to ‘the children’?

Doug Huffman
February 16, 2014 4:31 am

Thank you for your encouragement of these great students! What a wonderful intellectual environment in which to mature, full of people with demonstrated accomplishments. “Look, I built a little tiny part of THAT.”

February 16, 2014 4:56 am

Yet the Telegraph reports that “One in four Americans ‘do not know the Earth circles the Sun’“”
I think it’s obvious that the kids intellectually curious enough to want to participate in a Science Fair are much more likely to be in the top 10% than the bottom 25%. The kids in this fair probably represent less than 1% of the school populartion.
That is to say, no matter the heights a culture climbs to, there will always be idiots at the bottom.

chris y
February 16, 2014 5:13 am

Kip, thanks for writing this post on Science Fairs. I help judge the Pinellas regional Science Fair almost every year, including just last week on the west coast of Florida, and had similar experiences to what you described. I judged the middle school (grades 6 thru 8) physics category, but also browsed the (far fewer) high school projects. I was surprised to find that, even on an absolute quality scale, several of the projects presented by 7th grade kids were superior to projects presented by 11th and 12th grade kids. One 7th grader used his iphone to measure tennis racket vibration amplitude as a function of string tension and racket head weight, imported the data into Excel and generated some plots. His unadjusted data showed that his hypothesis was incorrect. He decided not to adjust the data!
A few years ago, the junior engineering category was littered with environmental projects. This year, there were almost no environmental engineering projects, just a smattering of solar and wind energy efforts. Only one student understood the difference between voltage and power.

February 16, 2014 5:40 am

Reply to all those encouraging comments ==> Thank you for your support. Science Fairs are not, of course, THE solution to the current seeming epidemic of poor science. I suppose we only see the poor science and that there is much more good than bad being done. If I could keep this life and be given a chance at another parallel life, I’d choose to be a junior high science teacher in the 1940s and 1950’s.
Reply to p.g.sharrow ==> Reminds me of a personal friend who returned a New York State public university at age 50 for a masters degree in social sciences as a staunch conservative. He had a difficult time of it.
Reply to Steve C. ==> I have vaguely heard of the Maker Fairs and movement, but don’t have details. Could someone provide links?
Reply to Perry ==> I have felt recently, amongst my adult children’s friends (not my children though) a movement towards intentional ignorance.
Reply to Rhys Jaggar and Stephen Richards ==> I tend to agree with Stephen. The sciencey kids are more apt to continue with science studies if they are encouraged and have positive experiences in science fairs. It is not that they need to win prizes — they need to have personal wins — internal rewards that make it somehow satisfying to have done science. That’s the way it was for me at that age, and still is. I get a huge internal reward for finding out something new to me — it always makes my day.
Reply to johnmarshall x 2 ==> Yes and Yes, of course to both. On F/C, the point is, at this age, they must work in something they really understand — at the moment the work.
Reply to all those thanking their past science teachers ==> May all the blessings of all time be poured out upon them where ever they be now.

February 16, 2014 5:59 am

Memories, memories, thanks for the memories…

February 16, 2014 6:08 am

While I’ve never judged a Science Fair, I certainly participated as an entrant in high school back in the early 1970’s. And I helped out with the logistics of some of the events as well. One of my entries had to do with recording weather events, temperature, barometric pressure, cloud types, etc. I can’t remember exactly what my goal was for the project, other to show how these factors can vary wildly from one day to the next. I applied no smoothing. 😉 Another of my science fair entries was more of an engineering/electronics project involving a laser diode that could, theoretically, send a message via light through the air or through a (then new) fibre optic cable. Unfortuantely I couldn’t get the thing to work in time for the science fair, but at least I received a good mark for explaining how the thing was supposed to work. Great fun. 🙂

February 16, 2014 6:37 am

I participated in three back when I was in high school… the first I did I thought was a lot more valid and interesting than the second one, and the third was pretty pointless… I think I only did it because the school was requiring it that year.
1) passive nuclear-decay powered battery… basically used the properties of alpha and beta particle emitance to strip or add electrons to two successive plates… the aluminum sheet gets hit by the alpha particles and gets electrons stripped from it. Past that was a lead block that would absorb the betas (electrons). Because of the charge differential you had voltage. Granted, my access to radioactive sources was tiny, so I could only generate milivolts, but I thought it was very cool. 🙂 Research in books and a guy at the DoE who could let me use small radioactive samples, etc. A great experience.
2) construction of electric/optical hybrid logic circuits, using a laser, photodetectors, and LCD displays with the silver backing removed. I nearly didn’t get that one to work in time as I threw it together last-minute when I changed my mind about participating. Alignment was tricky, then it suddenly worked.
3) a rather lame AI program. Ironically, got a second place in that one, where the better projects got looked over. *shake*
All told though, none of these were really Science. They’re all examples of Engineering (Applied Science), which is what I went on to do. 🙂

Johna Till Johnson
February 16, 2014 6:42 am

Hi Kip,
Thanks for this. Each year I judge a science fair out on Long Island, and you’re right, the students are so refreshing! I’m still chuckling at the following exchange:
Finished with my judging in the Engineering section, I wandered over to the Biology section, and became intrigued by a project that purported to discover whether aspartame was toxic to fruit flies. The hypothesis was of course that it was.
Me (to student): “So what did you find? Was it?”
Student: “Nah. There was a tiny correlation, but not enough to be statistically significant. The experiment didn’t uncover anything.”
Other student to student: “You shouldn’t say that, she’s a JUDGE!” (Implication being that the boy should have pretended the experiment was more meaningful).
Student: Looks at me, shrugs, and laughs.
Me: “So would YOU stop drinking aspartame? On the basis of what you know from your experiment?”
Student: “Nope.”
I laughed and told him his career in science was off to a great start.

February 16, 2014 6:49 am

The world of Science is changing, and we must resist that change. This post gives me hope that a younger generation is still trying to get it right.
Today’s science appears to be little different from today’s music industry: instead of doing the hard work, understanding theory, working with others, everyone wants to be the lead singer, the diva, the center of attention, the star… while not actually knowing much about details and hard work. To continue the analogy, people will do anything they think will get them on the radio, sell a cd, or get a paper published with “peer review”, even if it’s utter crap that is debunked days later.
I never did the science fair thing, my teachers were far too lazy to actually work with any of us. But I so clearly remember the optimism and excitement of computer fairs back in the late 70s, when it was all new, with so much yet to come. All of the computer industry’s movers and shakers were kids in that era too, and all just as excited for the future as I was, including young Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Jobs and Wozniak.

February 16, 2014 6:49 am

Thanks Kip for the encouraging story!
Our youngest daughter had the opposite experience, meanwhile some 20 years ago. After here study of geology, she was invited to do a Ph.D. work for the detection of the small personal mines which were used by the hundredthousands in countries like Cambodia and several African countries in several civil wars. The study was done partly in Belgium (KUL), partly in the US and partly at King’s College in London.
That type of mines is small and without metals, thus can’t be detected with metal detectors. Radar is problematic and time consuming if a lot of stones are present in the soil. But the common main chemicals present in all explosives are nitro (-NO3) components, which can be detected via their response to ultra high frequency magnetic resonance (NMR).
After a lot of tests, several of which with negative results, at last she had a good working prototype which in combination with radar could detect all mines (without the ignitors!) in an experimental field within 15 minutes.
In her final work, she described all methods and results, negative and positive and the reasons of failure. That was not what the English professor did like (but the professor in Belgium did support here). She refused to remove the negative results (she has some of my character…) and here Ph.D. never was honored.
This experience turned her away from science and now she is an experienced helicopter pilot…

February 16, 2014 7:01 am

I still wanted to hear about the “tall tales” the student from the picture had identified. Was he able to correlate them with the scientific method?

James Strom
February 16, 2014 7:01 am

Kip, this does sound encouraging. I took a first place in a science fair many years ago, but virtually every project you describe is better science than what I did, and in fact better than most of the projects on display near me. It encourages me to expect higher quality science and, dare I say it, more skepticism from the up and coming class of scientists.

February 16, 2014 7:36 am

Thanks Kip, good story.
I enjoy and suffer doing science outreach in South Miami; weekly star parties, an annual science fair. An astronomy website with meteorology and climate pages.
All these are sand grains to build a mountain. Much has been destroyed, more has to be rebuilt.
And yes, thanks to many good teachers along the way!

February 16, 2014 7:56 am

Ferdinand Engelbeen says:
February 16, 2014 at 6:49 am
Our youngest daughter had the opposite experience, meanwhile some 20 years ago. After here study of geology, she was invited to do a Ph.D. work for the detection of the small personal mines which were used by the hundred thousands in countries like Cambodia and several African countries in several civil wars.

Some mines are set to explode if they vibrate or are tilted. I wonder if a sonic boom from a low-flying fighter jet could make many of them harmlessly explode.

February 16, 2014 8:11 am

Science fairs have been popular in my area (Manitoba, Canada) for decades. Most of the judges were volunteers from the local university, which allowed coverage of most “subject areas”. My responsibilities covered the earth sciences (geology and physical geography). As judges we worked together and met several times a year to discuss rules and provide feedback to teachers before students began their projects. This worked for years. Some things we noticed were the slow progression with student age of the concepts of testing hypotheses. Because of this we encouraged teachers to emphasize proper data collection during early years, especially since many elementary teachers were poorly trained in science, but could help students log data. Over time the poor data that plagued middle year projects decreased, and data analysis increased with better results. The only downer has been mentioned- the number of projects decreased rapidly after about grade 8. I’ve been retired for 10 years and my colleagues tell me interest in declining, which is sad indeed. If you are interested, please get involved.

February 16, 2014 8:26 am

Dear Kip,
One of your commenters asked where the image came from. I think when you grabbed this one, you didn’t know that it had been a humor image floated around for several years, with people substituting various slogans for the young man’s project. For example, this one from 2010:
I found the original; it was a project on a variant of Silly Putty called Thinking Putty, and was featured on the Thinking Putty company’s blog in 2007:
I actively support the science fair concept, and enjoyed your article. I just did a write-up for a school’s program called “Every Child a Scientist!” — and as a result, the school is being considered for a “Distinguished School Award.” They deserve it.
===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle

February 16, 2014 8:28 am

Hah. The image is trimmed out by your settings. Here was the joke link to the image:
===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle

Peter Foster
February 16, 2014 8:41 am

Interesting post, however, with respect to °C and °F it is long past the time when the USA joined the rest of the world. The Fahrenheit scale has no relationship to anything today and is simply a carry over from a time (300 years ago) when they thought 0°F was the coldest you could get.
In contrast the Celsius scale is related to the Kelvin scale and the size of the unit is the same for both. The SI units were published in 1948, some 66 years ago and have since been adopted by every other country of significance in the world except the USA.
While we are at it, why not change the date system as well – months/day/year who came up with that cranky system. The rest of the world uses progressive time intervals day/month year.
Come on US get your act together

February 16, 2014 8:52 am

Reply to K DH and all curious about the image at the top ==> This image was added by our WUWT editors. It should be received in the spirit in which it is offered — in jest.

Lady Life Grows
February 16, 2014 9:29 am

A theme which I see appearing here over and over is that those who are older, 50 or 60 and up had superior high school science teachers. I also had a superb high school physics teacher who taught me what science really is. The teachers of that generation tended to have been A and B students in school themselves. Today’s teachers of all subjects tend to have been C students who barely made it into or out of college.
The reason for this shift is found at
in a great change in educational methods. Today’s methods also produce irresponsible adults which is why we see our freedoms plummeting. Many of you have expressed concern about that.
I have a book called “Catholic Home Schooling,” which discusses the last American One-room Schoolhouse. This was 1962, Tennessee, and it produced 80% National Merit scholars. That is one in 10 000, I believe, so we are talking proven educational technology.
Most of you on this site care deeply about the consequences of these things. Go to that site, print out that article and research farther. Then find a local group (churches with a private school would be especially good) and volunteer to teach them all something, using those methods. Your aim is first to experience this for yourself, and then to expand in your area, getting this method applied in parochial schools first. The public schools will listen when they have lost enough pupils to cheaper and far better private ones. This will be how they can get the kids back.

Jim Clarke
February 16, 2014 9:45 am

The science being done at school science fairs is often superior to the science being done by professional scientists, and the reason is simple: The students are only being judged on their ability to do science. The professional scientist is usually judged on his ability to get more funding for his work, either by providing the money-men with the answers they want, or scaring them half to death.
Imagine the progress we could make if professional scientists were only judged on their ability to do scientific research correctly, like at a science fair. We would probably have cures for cancer, virtually unlimited clean, cheap energy and flying cars in every garage by now.

Jim Clarke
February 16, 2014 9:48 am

Oh…and the hockey stick temperature graph would have never existed.

February 16, 2014 10:06 am

Would have been nice to acknowledge the photo was manipulated, It is misleading to make it look like this was a kid at the the science fair you judged.

Joe Dunfee
February 16, 2014 10:42 am

In regards to teaching science in “foreign” units from a U.S. perspective; At age 47, I was working on a mechanical engineering degree. I was unhappy with the very large percentage of space that modern engineering books devote to metric units.
When I took physics, it was virtually 100% metric. But, being an older man in a class room of younger students, I figured it was just me that had a problem with this. So, I took an informal survey. I asked the class if something weighs 20 grams, is it more likely to be a paper-clip, a baby, or an elephant. While a few U.S. born students had a guess, the only students who were confident of their answer were foreign born.
They were required to learn new concepts in science and engineering, using units they did not really understand in real-world units. They will need to go and get jobs at companies using U.S. standard units, which were largely ignored in their college education. All the engineering firms where I had been were nearly 100% English units. And Metric was only done for projects dealing with other countries.
I do think it is important to cover both unit systems in education. But, I wonder if this extreme academic push to be metric, is a factor in the decline of science and engineering in the U.S.
-Joe Dunfee

February 16, 2014 11:29 am

Reply to Peter Foster ==> On F/C , historically, according to the venerable Wiki > “On Fahrenheit’s original scale the lower defining point was the lowest temperature to which he could reproducibly cool brine (defining 0 degrees), while the highest was that of the average human core body temperature (defining 100 degrees).” The US should, of course, have switched to the centigrade system with the rest of the world post WWII, why the effort failed is anyone’s guess. Do any of you readers have any insight? I remember being required to convert back and forth willy-nilly in grade school, jr. high, and high school — and can do rough conversion mentally, but still think in Fahrenheit.
For the dates — I prefer the year-month-day, all numerals, that I use in IT — such as today being 2014_02_16, which makes the operating systems always sort the entries into numerical date order auto-magically.
Reply to Lady Life Grows ==> My older brother actually attended a one room school house for first grade in rural Wisconsin. I was six months too young to share the opportunity. In the same vein, all of my children save one received some part of their education at home — all received much of their science education extracurricular both at home and in the woods, mountains, valleys and rivers of New York State.
Reply to kindlekinser ==> See my earlier reply on the image. The image was supplied, unbeknownst to me, by the editors at WUWT, and was meant in jest. In their defense, which is totally unneeded, it is quite clearly marked HumorChronical.Com, twice, once in white type on the image, and once in black type, as a caption.
Reply to Joe Dunfee ==> The only beef I had with the metric/English problem was when the kid was forced to work with units he didn’t really understand, when he was alone with himself, in his own lab. So when he is measuring plant growth or a temperature, or planning a tubing size or a heating element, does he know how big it is going to be or how hot it is going to get? In his own little world? When decides to heat an oil to 90 °C does he know he means 194 °F (nearly boiling water temperature)? When he decides to order tubing 2.5 cm in diameter, does he know it will be 1 inch diameter tubing? Both of these instances came up in my Science Fair judging – 90 °C was way too hot and 2.5 cm was way too big. Yes, the time to learn these things is before they hit the professional world – and before they have to work with them. If we start them early enough, elementary school, it will be like being bilingual – they’ll actually think – hmm, 2.5 cm/~1 in .

Joe Dunfee
Reply to  Kip Hansen
February 16, 2014 4:35 pm

Mr Hansen; While I think part of the reason for the U.S. not adopting metric, is that it didn’t need to, I think it primarily a political statement by its citizens. I can see a similar political component back at the time the metric system itself was created. There already was a world-wide standard, but the creators of the metric system wanted to create a standard that was as un-British as possible. There was no scientific reason for choosing many of the metric standards, even if that is touted as the reason.
I just don’t see the U.S. accepting the metric system for the same reason the metric system was created. I.e. to assert our independence.

February 16, 2014 11:51 am

I also have been a high school science judge. I have seen some very good research. Perhaps the most significant was a study of the dispersion of fresh water bacteria, much of it extremely dangerous, upon entry into beach swimming area via steam flow. The conclusion was that it was quickly rendered equal to natural background. Without going into the specifics, the findings were so important that the State Board of Health continued the study and adopted guidelines.

Ian W
February 16, 2014 12:49 pm

Rhys Jaggar says:
February 16, 2014 at 1:10 am
I think you’ll find that if you think that ‘science fairs make scientists’, then all you are doing is a Darwinian selection of those, whose scientific interest is fired by science fairs.
I’m not saying it’s not one piece of the jigsaw, what I’m saying is that it’s only one. It’s a suitable approach for one segment of the young population.
Some people will be fired up by doing things themselves for 5 years. They are feet-on-the-ground realists, not starry-eyed dreamers. They are actively turned-off by dreaming bullshit, as they see it. It’s not saying ‘aim for the moon, land on the roof’ doesn’t work for some, it’s saying that some think you can get onto the roof with a ladder rather cheaper than you can paying for a defective space rocket. A point worth mentioning in bankrupt western economies…….

I think you are confusing ‘scientist’ with ‘engineer’.
A scientist may research ideas some of which may be real lateral thinking that are not expected to work but might do.
An engineer takes an idea that looks like it might work and implements it ensuring that all the life-cycle issues are covered too.
Both capabilities are required

Paul Westhaver
February 16, 2014 2:11 pm

Ian W,
I am in rebellion against your narrow definitions of scientist and engineer. Having done both science and engineering at graduate levels and practiced both science and engineering professionally I would say that science isn’t confined to what people do. Science, I believe, is a method of studying an unknown. It is a method of proceeding through a problem. Good engineers often apply this method to assist them in achieving a solid solution to their needs.
Timoshenko comes to mind here.
Some engineers don’t use scientific reasoning, but that is true for chemists and physicists etc who ignore the scientific method. Many climate scientists for example. Science is a manner of reasoning. Some engineers are very good scientists. So in terms of set theory, there is a big overlap between the scientific method and the practice of engineering.
In my opinion.

February 16, 2014 4:06 pm

Yet the Telegraph reports that “One in four Americans ‘do not know the Earth circles the Sun’“
I wouldn’t worry about it, the DT is rabidly anti-American anyway.
Anyway, according to this, 56% of the French “who wants to be a millionaire” audience believe the Sun circles the Earth.

Jim Brock
February 16, 2014 5:01 pm

A few years ago I acted as a judge at a science fair. The kids were marvelous and some of the exhibits were really interesting. Since many of the kids’ parents were connected with NASA, it was no surprise that the quality was outstanding.
The problem was that it was very tiring for an octogenarian, so I had to decline invitations to judge for the last three years.

Robert Clemenzi
February 16, 2014 6:10 pm

I have vaguely heard of the Maker Fairs and movement, but don’t have details. Could someone provide links?

Search youtube for “Maker Faire” – there are hundreds of videos.
I like to think of these as science and technology fairs for adults. Home made 3D printers, home made drones / quad copters, home made jewelry, and any other adult hobby that you want to get kids interested in. The group I’m with provides an unusual physics table, most of it is hand-on.
Short ad – Northern Virginia Makers Faire, March 16, 2014. Over 80 presenters.
If you get a chance, stop by the Gravity is Optional table and say “Hi!”

February 16, 2014 6:16 pm

Lady Life Grows —- Just so you know, the Northwestern University of St. Paul (Formerly Northwestern College) has about 27% “home schooled” students. Having performed difficult choral works with the NWU college, having sat with the students at lunch breaks, having discussed MATH, Chemistry, Biology, pre-Med, Nursing, co-operative Engineering Programs (with guys getting Engineering degrees and MUSIC degrees over 5 years…) All I can say is the PUBLIC SCHOOLS obviously have some “lacks”.

February 16, 2014 6:37 pm

occasions like this are great for recognizing and correcting a major un-scientific view being pushed in public education: that “science” = “progressivism.” Children are being taught that “science” is a matter of figuring out how to optimally organize and manage society for some utilitarian optimum.
So, “science” = being healthy by eating correctly and exercising. That is not science.
So, “science” = reduce, re-use, recycle. That is not science.
So, “science” = going home and telling your parents how to behave: what to buy and not to buy, what opinions to have, and so on. That is not science.
People with education degrees, and teaching in public school, are not necessarily an educated crowd that could actually tell the difference between “science” and “progressive social policy.”

February 16, 2014 6:48 pm

Good for you, Kip!

Baa Humbug
February 16, 2014 10:42 pm

I really enjoyed reading this. Thank you Kip, you cheered me up.

February 17, 2014 2:20 am

At a science fair in New Zealand there was a project on ocean acidification. The student showed a graph of pH from 1 to 7 and how that affected the growth of shellfish. There was a world map that showed an average pH of about 6. What a pity that ocean pH is around 8 and is not acidic at all. The student got a merit award. I was very tempted to leave a note on the project asking where they got the map from. The judge should be sacked.

Mike H
February 17, 2014 8:33 am

Kip, your comment on your code mgmt method was interesting. I would think you would be the constraint and that would limit code production rate. Yes? No?
That lead to the next thought “how to lean the coding environment?”. i.e. how does one move policy implementation to the individual or team level and still maintain the quality levels you enforce?
Also brought back some thoughts. I was teaching basic proj. mgmt. to some first year media development students and we had some conversations about what would be good objective KPIs to use to measure programming progress. Out of curiosity, how do you measure?

February 17, 2014 9:03 am

Reply to Pat ==> Beauty — similar to my student with the rocket exhaust clouds at Kennedy Space Center — a real world result that can be translated into use by the community.
Reply to Ian W and Rhys Jaggar ==> The Fair I judged was officially a Science and Engineering Fair. I judged only Science projects, but there were engineering projects as well. BTW — The young man who had trouble ordering tubing sizes in centimeters from a catalog was for an engineering project — he should have ordered millimeter tubing — he was making nozzles for his steam-powered turbine for a [micro-]geothermal steam powered generator.
Reply to Paul Westhaver ==> It is the Roadrunner vs. Wiley Coyote, we have the endless Engineer vs. Scientists sniping. Usually the Engineers seem to think they are superior. I think it is usually meant as collegial good fun. (I hope, at least.)
Reply to catweazle666 ==> All I know is the “The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, round and round…”
Reply to Jim Brock ==> Many of your old NASA hands still in the judging pool, like my sister-in-law. Even as a hexagenerian, it is an exhausting two day slog. There are hats you could wear that don’t involve all that walking around, in the Community Room, keeping track of things, that are just as, if not more, important if you still wish to participate.
Reply to Robert Clemenzi ==> Thanks for the pointer and links to the Maker Faires. Working with Arduino and Raspberry Pi projects is on my list to do when my wife and I can no longer live on the sea and are forced to be landlubbers — no room for a workshop on the sailboat.
Reply to jaymam ==> Science Fairs expect the public to interact with the students in appropriate ways. It would have been perfectly fine at ask the student where he found a map showing the average pH of the worlds oceans to be “6”. You may have been misled by poor labeling. There is a map used in the Wiki at that features the number -0.06 supposed to represent the change in pH caused by the increase in atmospheric CO2 increase since 1700. How this number is thought to have been discovered is beyond me, but there it is. Many of the graphs in the show I judged were “less than perfectly” labelled.
Testing how shellfish react to truly acidic waters is a common error, made even by real adult scientists, refer to the current climate change literature — they just can’t seem to resist the temptation to go beyond the mark.

February 17, 2014 12:51 pm

Reply to Mike H ==> We were building high impact, high page view (measured in millions per day) live sport event web sites. I controlled all HTML coding. If this is still of interest to you, contact me at my first name at the domain i4 dot net.

Robert Clemenzi
February 17, 2014 1:46 pm

no room for a workshop on the sailboat

Then find a local maker space! These are basically hobby spaces with way more equipment than a normal person can find room for. The Northern Virgina space has a metal shop (with a mill), a wood shop, 2 laser cutters. Regular meetings include building your own – arduino projects, 3D printers, quad-copters, robots, costumes. Classes are available on all the shop equipment with special classes on all types of technical subjects.
Since you are near Cape Canaveral, you should check out the Melbourne Makerspace.
Last year, Mini-Maker Faires were held in Orlando and Tampa. (There were about 100 world wide.)

February 17, 2014 4:09 pm

Reply to Robert Clemenzi ==> Thanks for the encouragement re: Makers work and Faires. I just may stop by the Melbourne MakersSpace! I was a Maker-kid when I was young – built my own stereo amplifier from a kit, built my own hi-fidelity speaker boxes, my own furniture (with secret drawers and hiding places), and, being a Southern California boy, my own surfboards. My friends were mystified by all this.

February 17, 2014 4:17 pm

“There is no such thing as a failed experiment. Only more data.”

Walter Sobchak
February 18, 2014 8:41 am

The kids are great:
“12-year-old builds low-cost Lego braille printer: A seventh grader’s science fair project turns into a quest to develop a customizable low-cost printer for the blind.” by Amanda Kooser, February 14, 2014
“Shubham Banerjee, a California seventh grader, is one of those kids whose heart and mind extend well beyond his own life and into the the wider world beyond. For a science fair project, he contemplated the issue of braille printers, which can cost upwards of $2,000, and decided there must be a better way. The better way he came up with involved the clever use of a $350 Lego Mindstorms EV3 kit along with a few bucks worth of hardware from Home Depot. He took a basic, preexisting pattern for a printer and reworked it with new software and hardware enhancements to print out letters in braille. …
“Banerjee isn’t content to just sit on his creation. He is in the process of making it all open-source so people anywhere can create their own Braigos and advance the software to extend its capabilities. He hopes it will be particularly useful in developing countries where it’s simply not practical to buy an expensive braille printer. …
“The Braigo Facebook page is constantly updated with details of the project. Banerjee’s work at such a young age is just the start of what should be a promising career in science and engineering. He’s just taking it one Lego bump at a time.”

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