Sunday, December 18, 2011

A rant about school science fair projects

It's science fair time at my son's school. He's in the first grade, so admittedly there's not  a lot that he can do without a reasonable amount of *cough* parental*cough* help. But why do we not have a 'mathematics' fair or a 'programming fair ?

The science fair project format is very confining. You have to propose a hypothesis, tabulate a bunch of results, do some analysis, and discuss conclusions, with nice charts/graphs and other such science cultism. Even if you're interested in something more 'mathematical', there's no real way of shoehorning it into the format. A year or so ago, a colleague of mine was asking me about origami-related projects (because his daughter loves paper folding) but apart from experimenting with knapsack-style algorithms to determine how to fold a ruler into a specified length, we couldn't figure out something that fit into the 'hypothesis-experiment' setting.

Granted, it's a science fair. But at this age level, I assume the whole point of participation in science fairs is about learning something about science, rather than conducting rigorous analysis. You could equally well learn about something mathematical and demonstrate that knowledge. But there's no forum to do that in.

1. You just need to pose the hypothesis generally. I've seen what that was something like: "Can you build a metric (i.e. base 10) system for time?"

For folding it could be: "Can I fold an alligator, and how many folds does it take?" Or substitute whatever you want for 'alligator'?
The the experiment can be a nice presentation of how the fold planning works, showing the folded alligator at different stages to demonstrate the process...

2. For many years in junior high and high school, I participated in science fairs with math/programming projects. (This is what got me thinking about research as an actual career.)

At the regional, state, and international science fair level, 'mathematics' and 'computer science' are possible categories that your project could fall under. So doing a math or programming-oriented project is totally legitimate and can definitely be presented in the format, with minor modifications.

3. @Ryan, that's good to know. I've been a judge for local science fairs in Utah, and while they have the categories you mention, there wasn't a clear set of guidelines to evaluate such projects (which means it's harder for them to do well). I guess the limitation at the grade school level is purely for convenience.

Time to get back to writing scratch code to generate fibonacci spirals ;)

4. Well, a "science fair" has just as little to do with science as most first grade "science" courses. That is, most of the projects probably has nothing to do with the scientific method. It is more like an arts-and-crafts, a research project, competition, and show-and-tell combined. However, I am certain your kid could have done some mathematics or programming in the science fair.

(On a side note: It is actually possible to teach some small children programming -- my cousin, a second grader, can program in BASIC pretty well.)

5. A large part of my route into mathematics was through the Junior Mathematical Congress series — modeled after mathematics conferences, but aimed as a kind of a mathematics-fair for high school kids and without a requirement of originality in the projects presented.

I have spent some time trying to find support either for organizing one of these in the US, or to fund a US group to go to one of the JMCs (traditionally organized somewhere in Europe), since I find them a superb way of igniting passion.

6. So just let him do a reasonable, well-organized mathematics/programming project; if it makes the teachers feel better, he can fill in some nonsense boilerplate for the hypothesis. If he enjoys it and learns something from the project, does it really matter (to anyone but him) whether he gets a good grade?

[Ducks.]

7. "Experimental mathematics" might be a way to do something more mathematical that bows towards the science cultism. A project on the descriptive statistics of fair coin flips did pretty well for a third grader, a long, long time ago.

8. I agree with the commenters that at an event like this at this age, kids might as well do something that interests them rather than trying to fit into an overly rigid framework. At some point it makes sense to instill the idea that mathematics is not science (nor is programming) but 7 years old seems a bit young for that. Maybe there should be science and math fairs where students are required to do projects of both kinds...

9. My son has done several math/programming science fair projects.

It is sometimes hard to come up with a hypothesis, but a lot of science fairs also allow engineering projects, where the investigative questions are design choices rather than scientific questions.

See http://users.soe.ucsc.edu/~karplus/abe/science_education.html
for reports from my son's science fair projects.

10. As a science teacher, I also often find great ideas on http://www.experiland.com for my students.