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. ]