The Science game starts young

A few years ago I had the pleasure of being a judge for the regional round of a science fair.

As cliche as it sounds, it really was a fun event. All of the students were very nice and had interesting ideas. As I walked around the poster session once thing stuck in my mind. There seemed to be a huge variation in the amount of resources each student had. At one point I talked back to back a student who was working in a university lab, "collaborating with a postdoc" , and another student who lived on a farm far from university only got help from his dad to lift heavy things. The contrast couldn't have been sharper. One was polished and screamed (not literally) future grad student. The other just seemed like a 17 year old kid with some nice ideas.

To me the impression was less about them, because I really only talked with each for about 10 mintues. And more about the gaping differences in what resources they had on the table. Of course the the university lab student's project is going to be more sophisticated, more polished.

I don't think that ever it occurred to me as a possibility to work in a university lab. When I was in high school I thought I was a badass because I sometimes worked in the university library (parent was an alum so I could check things out).

I was just reading over the recent NY times article on the Intel Science Talent Contest. I always wonder with those things how much a student from less rescourced background could do.  Some of the finalist have things like access to university super computers. How many high school students, no matter how talented can get that?

There's a good discussion of this sort of thing over at PLoS blogs.

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5 Responses to The Science game starts young

  1. K.B. says:

    That's one reason I stopped judging Science Fairs - the playing field was incredibly unequal. The three years I judged, the same student won each time. Without a doubt, the student *really* knew the science behind the experiments, but I also knew that every year's project was based on what her parent (a scientist in a government agricultural lab and a co-worker of mine) was studying. I knew she was using the lab's resources to complete the project - not necessarily a bad thing, compare that to the student who extracted DNA in his kitchen, using a blender and a coffee filter (okay, not the best of experiments, but way more resourceful than the first project). But, because it was all about "who would do well at Nationals", the most polished project won.

    Yes, this student would do well in science, was incredibly bright and driven, but I would have given her a lot more credit if she had chosen different subjects than what her parent was working on. She had access to equipment, lab space and expertise that others didn't. These were regional competitions, so students from the city (with a large university and many government and private labs) were competing with students from very rural areas, who had no opportunity to even try to find a scientist willing to work with them.

    I don't know the answer, but ideally "access to resources" shouldn't count for such a large part in the final score. I put my money on innovation over polish any day.

  2. becca says:

    We need science hacking contests.
    Hi High School Students! Here is a laser, a microscope, a lab full of dangerous chemicals, a supercomputer, electrical circuitry modules, some arabidopsis and some cockroaches. Build me the coolest thing you can in 12 hours. GO!

  3. fusilier says:

    What K.B. Said.

    25 years ago, I was judging an elementary-school science fair. One kid borrowed her aunt's stethoscope (auntie was an RN) to test the claim that larger animals had a slower heart-rate. (Kiddo was a second-grader, so this was a reasonable project.)

    She tested a large dog, a small dog, a cat, her little sister, her Mom or Dad, and somehow found a neighbor with a pet boa-constrictor. Wrote her work up in pencil and got auntie to help her draw a graph.

    ->I<- gave her the best score I could - but some kid whose folks had bought an early desktop computer (Apple II, Trash 80? I can't remember) won because he had a better presentation on a thoroughly unimaginative project. Not much better than a baking-soda volcano.

    Don't know how that little girl turned out. Is she now starting her lab at a small but rigorous college, or did she get shown that girls ought to be doing fashion design?

    I was uninvited to judge, next year.

    fusilier
    James 2:24

  4. Erin says:

    Thanks for linking to my post!

    I love hearing all these personal stories/reactions, seems like many science fair judges had similar encounters with access differences among fair participants

  5. namnezia says:

    Back when I was a postdoc there were all these "high-power" high school kids that worked in labs through an program run by my institution. These kids didn't seems much smarter than the average but always did well in the Intel thing, which I thought was unfair. We used to call these kids the Summer Gunners. Most though were pre-premeds building up their resumes and not really that into science (with a few notable exceptions).

    I like becca's idea of an on-site science hack-a-thon.

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