Wednesday, January 28, 2009

First grade science fair

This morning I was recruited (enlisted?) into judging the first-grade entries at the Lee Elementary science fair. It was particularly challenging to calibrate my expectations for what kindergartners and first-graders can reasonably be expected to do/understand and consequently I found it difficult to come up with constructive things to say. A few thoughts.

First, the adults (parents / teachers) are not very clear on the meaning of a hypothesis. Even the form we were to fill out had it wrong, saying something like: "Did they predict the answer?" This understanding of "hypothesis" -- guessing the answer -- is as common as it is unfortunate. Unfortunate because the children (and obviously some adults) interpret this as direction to get the "right" answer. In science (and, I'd argue, life) there are no correct answers, only correctly-executed experiments! A hypothesis isn't a prediction, it is a falsifiable proposal of what result could, in principle, answer a question. For example, the best experiment in my group was about preservatives used on apples. The hypothesis should have been stated as "[Citation] says that lemon juice is useful as a fruit preservative. We wondered if it was better than water? If lemon juice does work well as a preservative we would expect that a water-treated control apple would be browner than a lemon-treated sample." The key aspect of a hypothesis is not that you are predicting the answer but rather that you are stating what result would, in principle, support or refute the theory.

Second, I had a very hard time with the non-experiments. I found myself prejudiced against the "demonstration" and "collection" entries. It isn't that I don't see the value in such real-world work but rather that such entries are poorly defined. What amounts to a good demonstration or collection is very fuzzy -- closer to art than science. There were several presentations that amounted to little more than a cut-and-paste job from Wikipedia (obviously directed and printed by parents.) It took me a few minutes before I got over my negative response to these, independent of the parental contributions; I thought about how often it is that I find myself presenting to peers a summary of existing work as opposed to my own novel experimental findings. Once I thought about it like that I felt better. I came to the conclusion that what's missing from most of the demonstrations is that the children are not asked to look with a skeptical eye on the facts but rather to reguritate authority.

For example, one demonstration was a summary of natural history. It was a nicely drawn time line with pretty illustrations but was filled with exact cut-and-pasted factoids from Wikipedia (at least they cited the source!). I wrote on that one, "Beautiful drawings! A nice overview of natural history. Where does the evidence about these animals come from? For example, fossils. Are some of the fossils more common than others? Where are the biggest gaps in the fossil evidence?"

I wrote similar things on all the other demonstrations. It seems to me that a demonstration should be thought of as a guide that helps others to know where there's research to be done and emphasizes the view that science is not about answers but questions. In effect, a good scientific presentation is more interested in what isn't known than what is. This is obviously hard for a first-grader but I don't think it's impossible.

The demonstrations that regurgitate facts reinforce the false view that science is just another kind of authority figure -- like a teacher or religious book. This view is, again, as common as it is unfortunate. Media, politicians, teachers, and all too often scientists themselves, promote this false perception with statements like "Scientist say that..." with some air of "and therefore shut up". Science is not an authority figure! Indeed it was founded on exactly the opposite principle, that authority is to be *explicitly rejected*. The motto of the first scientific organization, the Royal Society, is "In Nullis Verba" roughly "On the words of no one." A good scientific argument is not "you should believe me because I say so" but rather "look at these interesting findings I have... I draw your attention to the fascinating mysteries revealed by this work." Ideally, science is hospitable -- it offers up the evidence like a well-planned party and invites the guests to join in and enjoy the evidence by thinking for themselves.

That ideal is, of course, not always fulfilled but we might as well try to instill it in first-graders doing demonstrations and collections. Essentially, demos shouldn't cite factoids without being skeptical of them. They should dwell on the methods used to find this evidence at least as much, if not more, than on the facts themselves. For example, that natural history poster mentioned above could have had the exact same time-line, been 1/4 as detailed, and simply showed some pictures of fossils (or ideally, real-life examples) and said: "There's lots of fossils of dinosaurs in this time." and "There's very few fossils before this time. Maybe it's because the animals were too soft to be preserved, but maybe they have just been over-looked for some reason." Just a few sentences like that would have been much more scientific than the pages of copied Wikipedia factoids.

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