Monday, February 21, 2011

Science fairs are neither

We need to teach our kids that it's not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair.
President Obama, 2011 State of the Union

Science fairs have gotten a lot of press the past few weeks, thanks to Obama's speech. I suspect he means well, but....Science education is getting whomped pretty good by folks who know little about education, and even less about science. Here's one science teacher's take on science fairs.

In physical education class, students get physical. They run, bounce balls, and hurl insults at each other.

Those who are particularly good at these activities get to compete against students from other schools who are also good at it--and after a scheduled time of running, bouncing balls, and hurling insults, a school is declared a winner, and everybody goes home exhausted.

If you're really good at, eventually you get paid to pretend that Gatorade leaks out of your eyeballs so long as you continue to run, bounce balls, and hurl insults better than anyone else on the planet.

Not all levels get celebrated, but at all levels, you are practicing physical activity. That's the point of physical education.

If the argument for science fairs is that they allow kids to practice science, then something is seriously wrong with science education in the States.

And something is seriously wrong.

Imagine if physical education required students to memorize which muscles fired when for a given activity, say, hitting a baseball, before ever picking up a bat.
Listen, Maria, you got it wrong again! Didn't you read the text? Did you take notes? Did you hear a word I said? We just talked about it! The pronator teres muscle fires first, then you recruit the brachioradialis--the state exam is only two months away!

Parroting the sequence of muscles used has nothing to do physical education. The physical education teachers would balk at the task--some might even argue that that would be science.

But it's not. It's simply nonsense.

We do a lot of nonsense in science class. We pretend to teach biochemical cycles to children who have never seen a wheat plant. We pretend to teach astronomical units to children who can hardly grasp miles.  We pretend to teach light to children who believe they can see in total darkness.

The athletes have some good marketing behind them. If you want to master a sport, Just Do It©. If you want children to learn science, then just do it.

Do science. In school. Come up with ideas, test them, see what happens.


Oh, by the way, Mr. President, the winner of the science fair is celebrated--and that's part of the problem. Good science weaves a trail of failure. If you want to teach science, you need to teach children how to recognize and analyze failure. The best way to do that is to give them room to fail. Lots and lots of room.

I have a few children in class working on their 4th or 5th plant--they have the whole year to get it right. I have a few other children who have managed to grow carrots and peas and beans to fruition, because they figured out what they were doing wrong a little quicker than most of the class.

When prizes are given out for demonstrating how to kill seedlings or slugs, let me know--my class is full of winners!

How many pounds of fat were added to our collective national buttock on Super Bowl Sunday as we sat around munching on Doritos, downing ale and soda, cheering on men whose words inspire our children to, um, something?

Maybe the problem isn't that we're not celebrating science fairs--maybe the problem is our addiction to celebration.'s a secret. Kids like science, the real kind, about as much as they like anything else in school. Really. Come visit us some day, Mr. President. We got a room full of dead plants to celebrate. Then taste a carrot or two grown by the same kids who killed a few organisms along the way.

The cartoon is by Mark, author of  Cyanide and Happiness.
Natalie Dee has a wonderful science fair cartoon, too, but she loves cuss words, as many of us do. 
Alas, some of my lambs wander over here.... 


Unknown said...

I admit that much of the science happening in my classroom right now is as much engineering as science. (I have this imaginary Doyle in my head shaking his head when I call it science) But it's been fun to watch the questions.

Sometimes it's basic:
"Does a solar oven work better when it's hotter outside?"

Sometimes it's offensive:
"How come black people aren't hotter than white people?"

Sometimes it's social:
"If these really work, why aren't they using them in underdeveloped countries? I saw something about how people in Sierra Leon had to decide between rape or getting shot."

Sometimes it's science, but not how you expect it:
"Why can't you see the steam, but you can see the shadow of the steam? And I get it. I get it. There's conduction and convection, but is there also radiation? And does heat have a force?"

Right now they're learning the forces through building "roller coasters" using recycled classroom materials. More like erector sets than coasters, but they're figuring out why they can have loops with holes or spaces in the track or why the slant angle makes a difference in building velocity.

The crazy part to all of this:

My kids are acing the test. It's hard for them, since we don't do test prep, but they're winning the pissing contest without trying.

doyle said...

Dear John,

I'm not so sure--science is about inquiry, as is pretty much anything worthwhile in education.

To be fair, it's a special kind of inquiry, but it sounds like a few kids in Arizona are getting a wonderful exposure to how science works.

Kathryn J said...

True about the nonsense. On Friday, I ate the leaf of a plant that one of my students had grown. He wasn't sure if he had planted arugula or radish seeds and at the seedling stage, you can't tell so I tasted it. It was definitely arugula.

The kids were horrified that I ate it - when I asked why? - they said because it was in the dirt. :::sigh::: I have so much work to do! My plan for the next six weeks is to grow enough food in the greenhouse for us to have a class meal.

They are in a course titled Environmental Science. When I asked permission to take them outside during the nice weather in the fall, it was denied. So we are creating mini-environments inside. Next week, we will make enough of a farm to provide food.

doyle said...

Dear Kathryn,

Sounds like a wonderful class!

My kids freak when I eat something they grow--especially when I preface it with a story about how the stuff now in the plant came from CO2 released from the mitochondria deep in their bodies. (I usually pick a body part to make it even more interesting.)

I wish I had enough lights to grow a class meal--maybe I'll aim for a class salad. We did a class loaf of bread, once, using the wheat they grew (along with stuff I had), but most would not touch it.

Pebblekeeper ~ Angie said...

Thank you for your article today - I am writing about our upcoming science fair and have been hearing alot of the "Super Bowl" quotes. I really enjoyed your take on it. Then, I clicked over to your blog and saw your cartoon and nearly spit coffee on my screen. Thank you!

doyle said...

Dear Angie,

Thank you for your warm words--the cartoon, though, is not mine. The cartoonist is linked at the bottom.

Thanks for dropping by!