Wednesday, June 18, 2008


Science Fair Judging Observations

This past March I was a judge for a regional science fair. Having entered a regional science fair six times, travelled to the Canada-Wide Science Fair twice, and having won a gold medal at a Canada-Wide Science Fair, I think that I bought a unique perspective to judging. Having said that, there were some standout issues that I noted with the projects that I saw, and I'd like to put them up here in case anybody (perhaps an adviser to a science fair student) finds them useful.

  1. Wikipedia is not an acceptable bibliography entry.

    I don't think that I saw a single project without a Wikipedia reference in the bibliography (I was rather startled to see this, but much has changed in the decade since my peak at the science fair). Why is this a problem? Let's start with the obvious: Anybody can edit Wikipedia. I know that there has been plenty of debate about whether Wikipedia is better than any other encyclopedia, but lets face it: its content is in a constant state of flux and is not always subjected to the same scrutiny as more authoritative sources -- such uncertainty is not welcome in a scientific endeavour. Furthermore, encyclopedias alone do not go into enough depth on a subject to provide sufficient research. Few projects had rich bibliographies containing credible books or papers related to their subjects. Especially at the high school level, I really think that the creator of a winning project needs to spend some time at a post-secondary library. I used to spend plenty of time at our local college library and, since I mostly did computer science projects, at computer book stores. Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that the internet isn't a useful resource. I am saying that the internet resources need to be credible, and I am tremendously disappointed that the students' advisers did not point out these problems.

  2. Science Fair projects need to show some science.

    This entry really applies more to students in the upper years whose projects might be considered for the Canada-Wide Science Fair. I witnessed this problem with engineering projects in particular, but it really applies to every category: It's great if the student is able to build something and explain how it works. On the other hand, why it works is just as (if not more) important than the how. I want to illustrate this in terms of a hypothetical project involving a mechanical device. Suppose that this mechanical device shoots a projectile. Doing trials to prove that it does (or does not) work is insufficient. For this project to really shine, it needs some scientific polish. The applicable kinematics equations are easily understandable by a ninth grade student. If the device is storing potential energy, spring constants are also easy to grasp. If the exhibitor were to combine the physics equations with the actual tests of the device, it would improve the project immensely. For example, the student could do some math to predict the results of the trials, and then attempt to confirm these predictions in the experiment.

    I was not immune from this issue. For my first science fair project in seventh grade, I built trusses out of match sticks. The purpose of the project was to determine if the strength of the trusses increased proportionally to the number of triangles in the design. In order to test the bridges, I placed lead weights on the trusses, increasing the mass until the truss broke. Unfortunately I did not answer some very important questions related to my work:

    • Why was lead a useful material for weights?
    • What kinds of forces were involved?
    • Mathematical formulas and calculations
    • Other issues (this list is not comprehensive)

    I guess that the point that I am trying to make is this:

    • If there are mathematical formulae related to the subject matter, learn them and use them (biology projects are not immune to this, no pun intended).
    • If your experiment behaves a certain way, explain why, even (or especially) if it doesn't work as expected.
    • If you make a decision, explain why you made it.
    • If you choose certain materials, explain why.
    • If you can measure something more precisely, do so. If you are unable to do so (perhaps it is too expensive), then mention that as an improvement in your future work.
    • If you have a feeling that a judge might catch you on something, fix the problem (the judges will notice it).

  3. Watch those constants.

    Group projects, remember that it's not always a good idea to split everything 50/50. For example, let's suppose that Partner A and Partner B agree to do 20 repetitions of their experiment, but to keep it fair, each partner will do half of them at his/her respective house and then combine the results later. Hold on! Unless the location of the test is the manipulated variable, the experiment will be flawed. The location of the experiment isn't being held constant! I know it sounds like nitpicking, but it weakens an experiment when a "close enough" attitude is taken toward constants! It calls the results into question when more than one variable is being manipulated at a time.


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