Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Science fair

I volunteered as judge for a science fair, yesterday. Both a middle and a high school. Since I didn't go to school here, and we didn't have science fairs, I was quite curious to see what it would be like. Much anticipation, then , but a bit of disappointment. Especially with the high-school projects. Well, perhaps much has to do with the fact that those schools are rated as 'struggling', in a rural area, where the kids had little opportunity for help. I don't suppose any of those project will compete at the regional level, but perhaps some of the advice they got will not be lost.

The lunch we were treated to - prepared by the high school cooking class - was, without doubt, the highlight of the school visit, and remarkably good and hearty: corn and cheese casserole, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and a delicious layered dessert with cream and peaches, all with good southern sweet iced tea.

The projects ranged from silly (testing the IQ of dogs by giving them commands), to funny (which gum lasts longer, flavorwise), to vicious (killing ants to count them), to baffling (a catapult launching a projectile the farthest from the middle, rather than the end, of the shaft).

With one exception, none of the students seemed to understand the implications of their work, i.e. why they were doing the experiment and what the results meant or could be useful for. This is, in my opinion, a symptom of the biggest problem with science education in the US: it is not made clear what its value is, it's just given as a series of concepts they have to memorize to pass the various standardized tests, but without any consequence or use in their life. But then again, schools in the US, and those I visited especially so, have all sorts of other much more serious problems to deal with. Still one root of the reason why too few of american-born students go into science in college and grad school was apparent right there.

I learned today: the fastest way to cool a drink (soda, wine,...) is to place it in a bath of ice and water. It beats just using ice and/or placing it in the freezer. Scientifically proven by an 8-th grader. The reasons are obvious when I think about, yet I had always been using the other two methods. Seems like the old champagne bucket works well, but add some water from the start!

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