Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Relevant science projects

"How is your project going to make the world a better place?"  This seemingly innocuous question in the science fair guidelines is all it takes to completely stymie my 4th grade daughter.

It's hard enough to come up with a workable idea for a science fair project when you're only 9 or 10 and not particularly inspired by open-ended assignments. But when your project must not only be viable in the typical grade school science fair kinds of ways--doable at home; within your ability to explain and depict; at least somewhat original--but also help improve the world, what do you do?

Especially if you're the kind of kid who likes science not for its real world applications, but for its intrinsic interest.  

Indeed, what ever happened to science for science's sake, math for math's sake, history for history's sake, learning for learning's sake? In the education world's obsession with real-world applications, real-world skills, and personal connections, it has completely forgotten about plain old curiosity. 

But isn't this, in the end, a big part of what makes the world a better place?


Anonymous said...

The only way a 4th grader can make the world a better place is to be honest, generous, and persevering. A science project done by a 4th grader may be able to indicate an interest in solving world problems, but it can't even remotely make a concrete contribution to that solution. Another case of teacers/administrators putting their mouths in gear without engaging their brains.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

It isn't just teachers but science fair judges who have raised application on a pedestal. A very good pure math project will lose to a mediocre math project that pretends to be applicable to traffic patterns or to the environment. In the past three years, the best way to get awards at the state level in California was to claim your project was related to health or the environment. Quality was definitely second to application area. (Disclaimer: I was a judge at the California State Science Fair one year and I saw this bias among my fellow judges, but I did not do a rigorous statistical test to determine if what I was seeing was more than expected by chance.)

Knowledge Based Science said...

It's not just teachers and science fair judges, though. This is the position advocated by the largest professional organization for science teachers, the NSTA.

From today's NSTA email update (yes, I am a member):

The NSTA Board of Directors voted recently to adopt a newly revised position statement advocating for K–16 science instruction to be provided within the context of personal and societal issues. The statement recognizes the influence that science and technology have on our lives, and how these issues provide a rich and motivating context in which students can learn the principles and practices of science and technology. The draft statement gives recommendations on what students should know and be able to do and how science instruction should occur within the context of societal and personal issues.

It's in the water. I'm not sure what can be done about it, other than better organize those teachers with differing views, or maybe change the selection process in schools of education.

- Hainish

Knowledge Based Science said...

Sorry, forgot to post the link to the actual position statement, which includes the following gem:

The purpose of understanding science and technology is not solely for the sake of learning, but rather to enable and motivate citizens to contribute to and engage in society

So...I guess that answers your question. Learning for the sake of learning? That's _so_ last century.


Knowledge Based Science said...



Seth said...

Sounds like excellent training for grant applications :)

It might be interesting though to teach how science and math have always been influenced by society, rather than some abstract sort of quest for knowledge.