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Science Fair

March 30, 2001

Can you recall your last science fair project? Surely you did one. My impression is that science fairs are less prevalent today, although maybe I’ve simply failed to notice them.

A month ago, I judged projects here at the library for a home-school science fair. A home-schooling mother, Jonna York, organized a fair for a local group. This is a lot of work, especially the first time, when decisions about rules must be made to keep the competition fair.

Jonna did a fine job and on short notice got 15 entries, split into four age groups. All contestants met the minimum requirements for stating an hypothesis, proposing experiments, collecting data, etc. It was a success all around, and I hope the group will do it again.

A week later, after lamenting the disappearance of science fairs, I discovered that Salida High School had just sent science students to a regional fair in Trinidad. All competed well, and Pam Cantonwine won a gold medal.

Her project was “How temperature affects the growth of crystals in the compound Mannitol.” Pam works part-time in the hospital pharmacy and came to notice how crystals grew in expired bottles of the medication Mannitol. This is the very spirit of science: observation, questioning, measuring. It should be the focus of science education, as well.

I’m not sure if science fairs are as popular today as when I was a kid. I know local students certainly do science projects, if not for science fairs. The library stocks books about science projects for all ages, and they get used for school assignments.

Every year, it seems, local students compete to build the strongest structure from a restricted set of materials, such as popsicle sticks and Elmer’s glue, or so many pieces of balsa wood, or the like. The final test is, of course, destructive. But it is also instructive.

Hands-on science is extremely valuable. I fear that with the investments made by schools in computer technology, there is less money for science laboratories and more pressure to use the computers. However, virtual science doesn’t sink in.

I think children should look through real lenses at bacteria and stars, collect real hydrogen gas from electrolysis of water, measure refractive indexes for lots of substances, and have the time to do it well. The payoff is huge.

Without a doubt, the environment for learning science is different today, despite the incredible sophistication of the technology that surrounds us. We don’t question the appearance of a face on the tv screen, the image of an injured knee made via magnetic resonance instead of x-rays, or the return of astronauts from outer space, Challenger notwithstanding.

For years now in the library, we’ve met young children who can’t tell time by the good old clockface. They only read digital clocks. Think of the consequences of this. They will struggle with clockwise and counterclockwise, and thus with nuts and bolts, and possibly with torques and the Right-Hand Rule.

Well, the Right-Hand Rule is fine explanation in its own right, but professors often explain it using clockwiseness, out of habit. Clockwise is a wonderful concept. What would these children do if they were suddenly transported in time to a WWII bomber and the gunner shouts, “Enemy at three o-clock!”?

Science takes a lot of thought, but one needs the actual stuff of experience to think about. PCs, PBS, and books are fine, but children must touch the world.


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