I spent the entire day today judging the Southeast North Dakota Regional Science Fair. I had never been to an actual science fair before, so it was interesting (although I have done many presentations for 4-H that were similar to a science fair exhibit). A few highlights:
- One school has a coach who heavily influences the work of the students. That coach also has them do an unbelievable amount of work. By and large they follow the proper scientific method, but they never seemed to have a hypothesis and hence never really came to a conclusion at the end. So here was all of this excellent work but they didn't really have a clear message of their discoveries for us.
- The simplest exhibits were some of the best. The school I speak of above had large (and I mean large--all of the high school students from that school had towering 5-foot tall three-sided presentation boards) boards cluttered with scores of overlapping graphs and pictures illustrating the methods they used. The kid who got first place built a really simple project based off of something he saw on the Discover Channel called a Baghdad Battery. He had a small simple poster board with just a few graphs showing the voltage produced by different electrolytes. He didn't have a spectacular exhibit with hundreds of sample points, but because it was such a very controllable experiment and it was well thought out, he walked away with 3 or 4 different awards (1st place and several other awards from organizations). Probably the biggest thing was that he simply knew his stuff. This kid knew everything about the experiment and electricity and how it could be used to anodize materials. Judges like that.
- One student measured electrical conductance to find out the amount of electrolytes in energy drinks. Here is a sample of the conversation:
- "So tell me about the container you measured the voltage in."
- "Well, it was a measuring cup."
- "Yes, but..." (interrupted)
- "I think it was 1/4 cup."
- "What material was the cup made out of?" (I really was fearing the worst here, and my fears came true)
- Another student (who was obviously from the school of the afore-mentioned coach) tested dish soap. Notice that I didn't say test the effectiveness, or which one would be the best to buy. Basically she just ran a bunch of tests to determine the solid content, ph balance, and viscosity of the soap, but didn't draw any conclusions. This frustrated me and I snapped, putting forth my best effort to point this out in a very destructive manner. Not exactly my best move of the day. But it was so frustrating to see all this work and no hypothesis that might drive a conclusion at the end of the experiment. You don't do a science fair exhibit to find out a bunch of parameters about 11 different soaps (yeah, she did 11!), but rather to find out which one is the best for its intended uses.
- One display was about natural fungicides and pesticides, but the student was unaware of the commercial product that is based off of the exact same idea she was using.
So, if you are a soon-to-be science fair participant out there reading this, keep a few things in mind:
- Don't use a metal cup when you are measuring electricity.
- Have a hypothesis and decide whether it was true or false (it really doesn't matter if your hypothesis was wrong as long as you made reasonable guesses in forming it).
- Know your subject matter like the back of your hand. Research other things even remotely related to your project.
- Speak up and be confident, but don't have a 10 minute rehearsed speech (just a 30 second summary is fine, after that just share your knowledge).
- KISS - Keep It Simple Stupid. A couple graphs are fine, and some pictures. You can stuff all the actual data in a folder and have it on the table.