On Thursday I was privileged to spend several hours (actually, a lot of the day as we didn’t finish until about 8.45pm) judging the Waikato regional science fair. I always enjoy doing this as you get to speak with some wonderful young people who are doing some really good science. (It acts as something of an antidote, especially this year as I’d just written a few posts on pseudoscience –that MMS one among them – and was being to worry about the state of science understanding out there.) These young scientists are passionate about what they are doing and every year I learn something new. F’r instance, I overheard Marcus discussing the finer points of trebuchets with the builder of a modern-day form, & now I know why they were on wheels…
Anyway, all the best projects we looked at had something in common – they demonstrated a good knowledge of the science underpinning their work. And they asked – & attempted to answer – scientific questions about the phenomena they were investigating. That sort of questioning is why projects based solely on what the judges tend to call ‘product testing’ probably won’t make it to the podium. ‘Product testing’ is where the question that forms the basis of the study is along the lines of “is X better than Y?” You can have a lot of fun, & learn some cool techniques, answering that one, but a more interesting question, one that takes the project further & brings it into the realm of science, is why X might be better than Y. That’s why the project on Hawkes Bay fossils that my friend Lynley & I did back in 1971 was never going to win a prize, because it was simply a collection. Mind you, we had heaps of fun doing it, & we learned from the experience! And it’s why my brother’s one on the aerodynamics of paper darts in a home-made wind tunnel did rather well, because he looked into the science of why one dart might fly better than another. And he had fun doing it, too
Which is something that all the exhibitors I spoke with the other day said – that they’d had great fun working on their projects. And that’s how it should be. If it was done as a task, out of duty, or because they’d been told they just had to – that has the potential to take away the enjoyment, the fun, the sheer joy of discovery (the things that keep you going through the tedious bits). Which would be a shame, if the result was turning someone away from the sciences.
So keep it up, everyone, & I’ll look forward to sharing your excitement & discoveries again next year