“This was my experiment and I hope you enjoyed it”

November 21, 2005

in Science

For many years, I have judged a middle school science fair at a very affluent private school where two close friends are teachers. I always enjoy it. My fellow judge for eighth grade biological science projects is a riot, and we get to say things like, “I’m leaning towards ‘Bad Breath’ myself,” and “To do this right, wouldn’t you have to, you know, re-boot your nose?”

We judge over 50 projects, but 60% fall into the following youthful themes: germs, plant growth, music, gender, and gum.  Quite a few are combinations of those themes: what music makes plants grow faster? Which gender has dirtier bathrooms? This year, the variation “Are dogs mouths really cleaner than human mouths?” was popular. Many parents are doctors or dentists, evidenced by the number of projects involving sleep labs, blood pressure monitoring, and human teeth decaying in various beverages.

The students are required to have laptops.  No hand-lettered posters here. Participants make full use of the graphical output of their software. One poster utilized nine different fonts. Here’s a creatively lettered project title, which I still can’t read:

Nearly every poster uses multiple eye-popping colors. There is rarely a monochrome, single-dimension graph. You just don’t see results presented like this in scientific journals these days:

So what are tomorrow’s scientists working on?  I’ve assembled a list of materials and a procedure section; these are actual examples from the projects I reviewed this year:

Materials

  • Raw hamburger
  • Three types of shoes
  • Modeling clay
  • Little boxes
  • 15 male humans
  • An exciting paper on anything of your choice
  • 216 beet plants
  • A little bit of sunlight
  • A saddle
  • Loose leaf paper
  • One hamster
  • Three different fingers to test
  • Paper towel (each cheese will be on it)
  • Human source of mouth bacteria

Procedures

  • Put on latex gloves.
  • Dampen your swab with distilled water.
  • Get permission from Mrs. Thayer.
  • Collect urine from my two St. Bernards
  • Stop at Jack’s Party Store and buy the same brand of nightcrawlers every time.
  • Let dry.
  • Wait until the ants come out.
  • Stick the thermometer in the person’s mouth.
  • Bring cheese home.
  • Do this for two weeks.

The projects might be basic, or esoteric, but these young scientists make up for their inexperience with their bald and honest assessments of their own work. Maybe science would move forward more quickly if we quit trying to manipulate results or try to make ourselves look good, and instead submitted the kind of straightforward self-evaluation that this student did in his Discussion:

I will be frank.  This experiment was by no means perfect. Not even close.  At times, I felt sure my hypothesis would fall flat on the ground, the results not at all matching my hopes, but somehow I did succeed. I still can’t believe it, but I know I clearly did something right.  Let’s start with that…

However, plenty of things went wrong, or at least strangely. …I will never really know what those numbers could have been with a different machine.

I certainly hope that the next person to try this test, armed with the knowledge I now know, can achieve more conclusive results than I did.

It might eliminate the need for peer review altogether!

That’s all I have to say about my experiment.


{ 5 comments }

Clare November 21, 2005 at 1:31 pm

"Have you ever wondered what type of soap might get you cleanes(t)"

Sciencewoman November 21, 2005 at 1:51 pm

I've been in and judged a *lot* of science fairs and your description hits the nail on the head. Among the all-time most popular projects, I'd have to add: How effective is your sunscreen?, Which paper airplane flies farthest?, and Does (insert any plant species here) make an effective insecticide?

Clare November 21, 2005 at 10:50 pm

My comment may not have been clear but that, I believe, is what the nearly unlegible project title says.

Nuthatch November 22, 2005 at 7:05 am

Yes — my husband immediately read the title to me and looked at me like I had some sort of disability. Maybe only men can read it!

Stephen Uitti November 30, 2005 at 11:22 am

As a male, I have to say that I couldn't read it either. However, I saved it to disk, and issued the pbmplus commands (from Linux):
djpeg fairtitle.jpg | pnmscale -xysize 640 480 | pnmscale -yscale=0.2 | xv –

and it's reasonably clear. I was real happy when around 1990, the Mac application 'Canvas' included a spelling checker, so my posters had a chance of having good speling.

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