Science Fairs Are As Flawed As My Solar-Powered Hot Dog Cooker

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Source:   —  April 13, 2016, at 11:50 PM

She'd compare different ways to spotless a toothbrush. First she'd get a new toothbrush out of a package and brush her teeth, covering it with her mouth bacteria.

Science Fairs Are As Flawed As My Solar-Powered Hot Dog Cooker

By Carl Zimmer

Latest fall, my daughter Veronica got an idea for the seventh grade science objective at her school. She'd compare different ways to spotless a toothbrush. First she'd get a new toothbrush out of a package and brush her teeth, covering it with her mouth bacteria. Then, she'd spotless it with one of three liquids: water, lemon juice, or vinegar. Finally, she'd wipe the brushes on Petri dishes and look how many bacteria grew on them.

It seemed to me love a straightforward sufficient idea. It might fail, but so what? It'd still be worth her time.

I recalled my own doomed seventh-grade science objective project: a solar-powered hot dog cooker. I lined a cardboard box with a curved sheet of aluminum foil, convinced that it'd act love a parabolic dish or a magnifying glass. I skewered a hot dog on a straightened-out coat hanger, so that I could suspend it at the focal point of the sun'south furious energy, where it'd quickly roast to a crisp.

Suffice to say, I didn't win. The hot dog didn't even obtain warm. But the experience was fun, and it got me thinking about what you actually necessity to do to invent something.

Veronica submitted her plan, and then reported back to me that we'd to fill out some forms. These forms turned out to be an avalanche of confusing paperwork. We also learned that this experiment was so potentially risky that Veronica would've to carry it out below the supervision of a trained expert, who'd first have to submit a detailed risk assessment.

I was horrified at the thought that Veronica'south experience with science would die before it began. I needed help, and I knew who to ask for it. I live close Yale, and I'm acquainted with a lot of scientists there. I reached out to a microbiologist who also has kids in grade school. When I explained Veronica'south predicament, he felt my pain. He didn't wish to look a baby turn far from science in disappointment, and so he invited Veronica to arrive to his lab and carry out her experiment there.

Veronica arrived with toothbrushes, bottles of vinegar and lemon juice, and a notebook. A researcher at the lab took her below her wing, offered some suggestions about improving the design of her experiment, showed her how to plate bacteria, how to incubate them, and how to count them.

Veronica got the chance to look how science is really done, below the guidance of generous, enthusiastic experts. She got excellent data, presented her results at the science objective at her school, and ended up going to the state fair, where she got an honorable mention. Afterward, she said she was surprised to discover that scientists tell jokes. She could even imagine herself becoming a scientist someday.

The experience turned out well, but it also left me queasy. The only reason Veronica was able to carry out her experiment was that I'd the flexibility to spend hours struggling through paperwork, and because I'd a social network of scientists I've developed as a science writer. This was an exercise in privilege.

If Veronica had been the daughter of a single parent with a couple jobs and number connections to the world of science -- if she'd been love a lot of American kids, in other words -- her idea would've gone up in smoke. She mightn't have even bothered thinking about the science objective at all.

I was reminded of Veronica'south experience when I saw President Obama planned to host his final White House science objective this week. Obama held the first objective in two thousand-tenth, and each year he's continued to celebrate the work of some very talented students. This year should be number exception. There will be kids showing off homemade spacecraft, Ebola test kits, and environmentally safe batteries.

It'south grand to bring so much attention to kids doing science. But when you see over the projects that win the Google Science Objective and the Intel Science Talent Look for these days, it'south clear that they're mostly the products of very bright, motivated students lucky sufficient to work in Univ labs where they can get advantage of expertise and equipment.

On a case-by-case basis, it'south kind to look professional scientists mentoring these students -- just as Veronica got help. But how many students have the means and opportunity to wrangle that kind of access? Celebrating the nation'south science objective winners may theoretically inspire more students to see into doing projects on their own. But on its own, it does nothing to expand the no of students who actually follow through.

Writing in the Atlantic latest March, Hana Schank reported that many students who start on science objective projects obtain small support, and they frequently don't finish up with a greater interest in science, or a better understanding of how it works.

I brought these concerns to Maya Ajmera. She's the president of Society for Science & the Public, which oversees the Intel Science Talent Search. Latest fall, Intel announced it was dropping its sponsorship, but Ajmera told me that her organization will be able to announce a new sponsor in the following couple months. "We've been incredibly gratified with the extraordinary interest," Ajmera said.

According to Ajmera, more than 118.000 students in grades six to twelve competed in the society'south affiliated fairs in two thousand-fifteenth -- a no that'south held steady in recent years. She'south been gratified to look girls obtain much more involved. This year there were more girls than boys as finalists.

But Ajmera said that more needs to be done for underrepresented students. "We've to do a much better work on the equity piece," she said. The society has launched a program for "advocates" who'll assistance students turn research projects into science objective entries. Latest summer the society gave grants to nine advocates and hopes to reach one hundred in the following couple years.

I wish those advocates well. But one hundred advocates can only create a tiny dent in a nationwide problem. We necessity ideas that can scale throughout the education system.

Maybe there are easier ways to give a wide swath of American children a perceive for how science works and a pleasure at building something. Maybe we don't necessity a White House event, or hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money.

One of the things that students at Veronica'south school do is get a class in which they all construct rockets. Along the way, they memorise some engineering and physics. And then they all obtain to shoot their rockets into the sky.

Maybe kids necessity to be shooting more rockets.

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