On Friday, Micheal Klass of Uncovered Earth and I had the chance to judge the earth science category at the Intel NW Science Fair. We both chose the middle school category and we were subsequently blown away by most of the presentations.
Let me start off with this: these middle school kids are bright, with a few of them being on the terrifyingly smart side. The experiments ran the gamut from a very simply paper mache volcano to the highly complex numerical modeling of the relation between solar flares and coronal mass ejections (yeah…. I had to have that one explained to me). It was interesting to see the nearly linear relation between complexity of project and the assistance received from someone with at least a college degree. To insure fairness, we asked plenty of questions to make sure that the students truly understood what they were presenting. This way we could weed out the automatons from those that actually did the work and knew what they were talking about.
At the end of the fair, three ideas came to mind:
- We have some incredibly intelligent kids coming up who are going to be instrumental in helping tackle some of the worlds biggest problems. The enthusiasm for science and the scientific process was palpable that day and gave me hope for the future.
- The role of scientific mentors cannot be emphasized enough when involving kids in science. The participants that did the best received guidance from academics who took the time to work with a middle school kid. Or in other cases had a parent that was fully involved in the learning process.
- This last one I write with some hesitancy: it seemed most of the winners came from the non-traditional charter/magnet schools or were part of the talented and gifted (TAG) program. Most of these kids also have parents who work for Intel or other companies that require some sort of degree from its employee’s. I hesitate to write that because it gets into the controversies behind public school funding, academic performance and to a certain extent socio-economic status. I am not an education expert, so I cannot get into the details of what works and what doesn’t. These are simply my observations and not meant to be a statement on the health of the public school system. It is just an observation.
With that out of the way, I want to end on this: science out reach is critical to getting kids excited about science. As I stated earlier the best presentations were those that had a mentor that could guide the kids along through their project, while not doing the project for them. That outreach is key to beating back the wave of anti-intellectualism that has become popular in the last couple of years.