Kids Posit the Darnedest Hypotheses

I was a lowly graduate student when I judged my first high school science fair, wondering how I, a 22-year-old who couldn’t sit through the first 3 minutes of a scientific seminar without becoming irreconcilably confused (12 years later, I’m up to 8 minutes), could be remotely qualified to judge someone else’s research. And this wasn’t just any high school science fair—it was the big, end-of-year science fair at the region’s foremost magnet school for mathematics and science.

And then I saw the students’ projects. There’s no kind way to say this: The magnet must have had its poles reversed.

Don’t worry about subjectivity and the possibility of experimenter bias: The experimenter is , and you’re awesome! Have a participant ribbon.

Let me give you an example. This is a real, actual project at the science fair, and I’m not exaggerating any aspect of it to make today’s youth seem inferior. They do a terrific job of that on their own.

A brother and sister hypothesized that junk food causes bad breath. For 2 weeks, the sister ate only healthy food, and her brother ate only junk food. Every night, they’d breathe in their mother’s face, and if a child had good breath, he or she would receive a smiley sticker. If a child had bad breath, she or he got a frowny sticker. At the end of the study period, the boy had more frowny stickers than the girl, so QED, junk food causes bad breath.

Since then, I’ve judged science fairs at several levels, and while a few stellar projects reveal which kids will themselves sit through graduate seminars someday (nerds!), serious flaws in research methodology are pretty much ubiquitous.

“Now wait a minute,” I hear some of you saying, hopefully not out loud because you’re at work. “These are children you’re talking about! Precious snowflake cupcakes! If anything, we should be learning from them!”

To which I say, sure, great idea. Let’s learn from the kids. There’s a lot we can learn from science fair projects that we can then apply to our own research.

If you want to perform science that today’s youth would deem “awesome” or “gnarly” or “hella vituperative” or whatever the kids say, be sure to obey the following 20 rules, all of which I learned from science fair participants:

  1. If you can’t think of a good topic for your research, look for books likeand .

Other than the bad breath experiment, and another in which two seniors made Jell-O (that was the whole experiment: They concluded that they could indeed make delicious Jell-O), and one more in which a third grader accidentally misspelled a section title “Resluts,” the saddest experiment I’ve seen at a science fair actually says a lot about the problems with modern science.

A middle school student wanted to test whether darker colors absorb heat. She used food dye and water to make clear ice cubes and purple ice cubes, then roasted each with a hair dryer and timed how long it took to melt. On her first try, the clear ice cube melted faster (probably because her ice cubes weren’t necessarily the same size, nor was the hair dryer held the same distance from each cube). She tried again and the same thing happened. On her third try, the purple ice cube melted faster. In her “Conclusion” section, she wrote: “It took me three tries to get the right answer.” (I dare you to write that in your next Science submission.)

If there’s one lesson I hope the kids take from the science fair, it’s the one the ice cube kid failed to learn: A science experiment doesn’t have a “right answer.”

I didn’t correct her. I probably should have, but my judging sheet only allowed me to give a numerical score, which is obviously an insufficient way of adequately critiquing even the most basic scientific project.

Yes, just like grant reviews.

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