Science stumble with young students

By Bill Kaye-Blake 02/09/2013

The science sector in New Zealand wants to get more people — particular young people – interested in science. It believes that science careers get short shrift when students are planning their education. It also wants to encourage more girls into STEM subjects. Don’t take my word for it. There’s a 2008 Science Maniesto from the Royal Society explaining all this.

I’m certainly in favour of my daughters having interesting, rewarding jobs. If a science career provides that, great. There’s been some science talent in the family, so it’s a possibility.

We’ve been supporting what science is available for primary and intermediate girls. Recently, one daughter participated in the NIWA Wellington Science Fair. From our experience, the event didn’t help get kids fired up for science.

The most important thing to realise is that these kids have choices. Sure, science is one possibility, but so are medicine, law, finance and more. Science has to be appealing. So let’s compare:

  • My daughter’s division had over 50 entries. Only four kids won prizes. Most of those kids won more than one prize. By comparision, a singing competition might have four prizes in a division with maybe a dozen entries. One of their maths competitions has five prizes for the 30 or so schools who participate.
  • There was no feedback. The kids have no idea what they did well and where they fell down. They don’t know what they could do better. By contrast, performance judges fill out sheets for each performer. They typically give positive and critical comments, which helps kids both understand their mark on the day and identify things to improve.
  • The best we can figure is that the judges liked some combination of science, application and presentation. But there’s no way to gauge how much those things contribute to the rankings. On the other hand, a maths competition is judged in terms of right and wrong answers. If your team gets it right, you get the point. The kids are competing against the maths problems as much as they are competing against each other. The ICAS and Australian Mathematics Competitions are similarly based on getting the answers right, not tickling the judges’ fancy.
  • My daughter’s girls’ school had one of the largest contingents from any school in her division. They won nothing. Nada, zippo, zilch. We can talk about other schools having more experience with the competition and larger schools having more resources for extra-curricular activities and the rest. But none of those explanations changes the experience this girls’ school had of sending a big group to a city-wide event and coming back empty-handed.

What my daughter and her classmates experienced seemed to be a subjective, secretive, winner-take-all tournament. Now, obviously, these folks can run any kind of competition they want. They just shouldn’t be surprised when these girls don’t rush back to do it again, and find something better to do with their time.

0 Responses to “Science stumble with young students”

  • I am very interested in your comments, as my organisation, the New Zealand Institute of Food Science and Technology, works very closely with the Royal Society and IPENZ encouraging school children into applied science careers. NZIFST Sponsors prizes at Science Fairs all over the country, and provides judges. I will share your comments with the people involved.

  • Hi Bill,

    it was very interesting to read of your experience with the science fair. I absolutely loved entering (with varying degrees of success) at school, back between 1985 – 1990. Much of what you say resonates with my own experiences, though I was happy just to work on ideas of my own & take a few days out of school!

    I took my own daughters to see the science fair on friday afternoon, they are not yet old enough to enter, but I think even they were mystified about which entries won.

    From both then & now points of view, I agree completely with your point 1. In the initial years, there are a lot of entrants, but few prizes, so it’s no surprise that people get disheartened. The number of entries drops off quickly with age, it would be nice to see that change also. It would be great to have science fairs more “mainstream” to encourage more people, students, schools, communities, potential sponsors, to help. My school wasn’t very encouraging of participation, I hope that is no longer common.

    Also, when I was at school, the fairs were usually somewhere like the lower hutt horticultural hall, that had easy public access & a lot of people visiting. It’s a shame this doesn’t seem to be the case at uni.

    Feedback is certainly important, and I think would help to make it more like a real life type of experience as well as being beneficial to the students. As the judges are scoring anyway, I think it should be easy to share with the students?

    You have some very good points & I hope they will be picked up on by those involved. Wouldn’t it be awesome if science fairs attracted the same interest as other activities?

  • I’ve done a bit of judging for the Waikato Science Fair, and we (the judges) always talk to the students. The principal judge is always very pedantic at making sure no student is left out. Our main aim in doing this is to explicitly encourage the student to continue with science. We also have an unlimited number of ‘merit’ awards to hand out (no financial reward but formal recognition that the student had done a good piece of work). Perhaps a word with the principal judge might be in order – a science fair shouldn’t be like how you describe.

  • Another Judge responds – but only a “special prize” one. My misspent youth was designing bombs and managing to win a major prize at an Auckland Science Fair in my last year of school.

    The title of my response here is: “It’s the Hypothesis Stupid!”

    Something I have noticed in the (few) years of judging is this crazy idea that every project has to have a hypothesis. I suggest it may be useful to have as a prerequisite in the (say) top two classes but keep it out of the early ones.

    My take on getting kids interested in science is to get them to learn to merely observe the world. They don’t have the background knowledge to put up any reasoned hypothesis for their first few projects. Hypotheses are a lot easier to write when you have some previous experience of something that takes your fancy as a science fair project. Without that experience it is a 50:50 chance the kid will have a hypothesis that turns out wrong.

    And this is most important in the young entrants.

    A simple example – “How many vehicles stop at the intersection at the bottom of my street” is better than “I think that only white vehicles will stop at the intersection at the bottom of my street”.

    The kid goes out and counts cars that stop / don’t stop. Then they look at the data and we wait for the eureka moment “Wow, look at that, vans don’t stop the most”. (PS – I don;t know if that is true or not BTW). Then we should/could prompt the best question ever invented: Why?

    By all means have the “rules” for hypothesis in the marking criteria, but for the beginners, keeping it to a question asked rather than an “I think” may be all that is required. In my experience guessing the outcome of an experiment can taint the process of designing the experiment. It takes a conscious and trained mind to collect and/or ignore the data that does not fit your guess. This process is alive and kicking in (most) kids!!

    One must ensure the Bullsh*t Detector gets trained in at an early age!

    A prime example this year was someone whose family obviously (only?) drank raw milk. The entrant suggested that raw milk was best. They tested the milk for ageing and taste, the results presented showed that all milks suffered from taste problems with age. But the conclusion was still that raw milk was better for you. Sorry, the wrong question was asked and more importantly, the result was not what he wanted.

    So Bill, I too would feel sorry that your daughter and her classmates didn’t get a prize among them. What ever their projects were did not ring our bell for the special prize criteria that we were looking for.

    But in talking to a few others involved, the idea of a handout to each entrant with tick boxes – plus the odd comment – might a way of giving some feedback on their projects and may be worth a gink.

  • Ross, I think you are really on to something with your comment about hypotheses.

    I think many students will consider the outcome a failure if they disprove their hypothesis, and so are driven to make conclusions that support it. I also think this parallels a tendency I observe with pseudoscience, to try to back up a preheld view, rather than finding out what actually happens.

    It also appears as though students feel they have to follow a “winning formula” for success with science fairs, with the result that there is a lot of unnecessary similarity between exhibits. It would be good for students to recognise it doesn’t have to be so prescriptive, and perhaps they can appreciate science more for its creative aspects.

    It would be great if science fairs could contribute to a change in attitude about what science is and how it is done, which will hopefully carry through.

  • Interesting, Bill. My lad went in the Wellington Science Fair three years ago. I thought there were serious flaws in the organisation of the event, and I actually contacted the organisers with a few suggestions (constructive, I hoped). But it sounds like things have gotten worse.
    Interestingly, there was actually quite a diverse range of prizes that year, and a crafty student could have maximised their chances of doing well by looking at the subject areas. From memory, there were prizes offered by the Wool Research Institute, a Corrosion Research Institute, various food technology organisations and so on.
    One of the really big problems was the lack of entries at the senior levels. Years 7-10 seemed to be well represented, but beyond that there were very few entries.
    The judging was swift and apparently efficient, and actually it wasn’t hard to see that the winning entries were meritorious. A year 7 (if I recall correctly) student won the overall prize and she did a really original, clever and beautifully presented project.
    The thing I was really disappointed in was the awards ceremony. The venue was poorly signed, difficult to find and charmless; the young folks were made to sit through some long and boring sponsors speeches; and very little attention was paid to the student projects, which are the point of the whole exercise. At the Canterbury science fair, photos are taken of each student and their display, and these are put together into a presentation to accompany the prize giving, to celebrate the work. Surely this cannot be too hard.
    I can only agree completely with your point that all contestants need to feel that their contribution is valued and to receive feedback, if the event is to continue to attract people.

  • Bill, I forgot a goodie. A colleague thought that what you have written may actually have given an insight to these entrants of the randomness of the New Zealand Science Funding System.

    About a 20% “success” rate.

    You said it: “What my daughter and her classmates experienced seemed to be a subjective, secretive, winner-take-all tournament.”

    I do hope it improves!

  • There was no feedback. The kids have no idea what they did well and where they fell down. They don’t know what they could do better. By contrast, performance judges fill out sheets for each performer.
    Sorry to hear this, & it does suggest that this particular event needs to be better organised. Like Marcus, I do a fair bit of judging (for both the Hamilton & East Waikato science fairs): in both we spend considerable time talking with students and giving feedback on the spot, plus we have a marking scheme/rubric which makes it clear how our final judgements have been made.

    Money for prizes tends to come from sponsorship, & that money’s limited, which in turn limits what’s available for the winners. But as Marcus says, we do get to hand out a fair few ‘merit’ certificates, which at least serves to recognise students’ efforts.

  • I had a look at the website for this science fair – I should have done this before I posted my previous comment, which I now think was unduly harsh.
    Bill – I don’t think it’s a fair criticism at all that there weren’t many prizes. I did a rough count and there appear to have been around 140 prizes on offer, with a dazzling array of organisations represented. This seems remarkably generous to me.
    Note also that on the website you linked to there are guidelines and advice to entrants.
    I’m not disagreeing with you at all about the need for feedback for all entrants.

  • Wow — I’m really grateful for all the comments. It sounds like our experience with this science fair was different from some of the others, where judges are taking more time and giving more feedback. Like any of these events, we can learn from what other people are doing well.

    The observation vs hypothesis question is one I hadn’t thought about. There does seem to be an emphasis on the formal forms of science, rather than the messy reality of how it gets done. As you good people point out, that can lead to pseudo-science or science-y stuff that has the right form but suspect content.

    And Ross — your colleague has a sense of humour! But do we really need to inflict our adult woes on our children? 🙂

  • On behalf of the Wellington Regional Science and Technology Fair committee we’d like to thank you for taking the time to provide feedback on this year’s fair and to assure you that we welcome comments to help us improve the event for all participants.

    The fair is organised by a group of dedicated volunteers with limited resources. It is a significant commitment by each individual. Judges are separate to the organising committee and come from across industry and academia. We also have special judges who sponsor specific prizes. Our chief judge operates independently and is not bound by committee decisions.

    This year our judging panel of 27 people were required to judge more than 400 exhibits in a single day. Unfortunately the timeframe allows for minimal contact time with students and the Chief Judge asks that feedback is given during the judging panel interviews with students.
    There are a number of teams that judge a class together, and a convention of judges for each Class (or grade), to select the winners for that Class.
    The organising committee does not have access to the detailed deliberations of the judging panel and delegates all judging responsibility to that panel.
    The judging panel meets at the conclusion of the judging process for the “challenge session” where the results are up for discussion and debate. At the conclusion of this session the results of individual interviews are destroyed, and therefore not available for review.
    I was present at the Judging Panel challenge session on the evening of the Judging and as an “outsider”, I was impressed by the care taken to ensure the process is accurate and robust. The committee accepts the determinations of the independent judging panel without question, as we regard their process as fair, and accurate.
    Prizes are generously donated by many organisations, and the cornerstone sponsor of the Wellington Fair is NIWA supported by the donation of facilities and prizes by Victoria University.
    The fair is supported by donations of about $14,000 per annum, of which over $10,000 is given away as prizes to the students, as well as the value of the prizes such as the scollarship at Victoria, and the Hands-on-Science at Otago. Expenses such as programmes, printing, postage and catering account for the difference. No one is paid for their time.
    It would be wonderful to be able to give each student a report on how their exhibit fared. However, we do not have sufficient judges and time to give individual responses. All we can do is to give overall feedback, and provide encouragement to schools.
    Overall about 20% of the students received a prize. Many receive more than one. Apart from the 1st to 4th Prizes per Class, there are no quota of prizes per class.
    It would be wonderful to be able to take the fair to each of the town halls, in turn, but we do not attract enough sponsorship to enable this to occur and are extremely grateful for the generous offer of facilities and help given by Victoria University.
    Whilst constructive criticism is welcomed, as a volunteer I feel that my donation to the fair has been spurned by the article, considering that we run this fair with free entry. Other members of the Committee and Judging Panel feel the same way. We invite and welcome, socially constructive feedback on improvements that may be made to enhance the experience by the Students.
    We are currently looking for a new Chief Judge to take us into our 50th year and are keen to hear from anyone who would be willing to help either in that position, as a judge or on the organising committee. You can contact us through the contact form at
    John Warriner
    Chairman organising committee
    NIWA Wellington Regional Science and Technology Fair

  • The worst thing about a competition is that there are winners and those who do not win. In this respect it is the exact opposite of standards-based assessment procedures such as NCEA. At this year’s NIWA Wellington Regional Science and Technology Fair approximately one in every five participants won prizes. However, in no way does this mean the other 80% were losers or failures. Carrying out an original investigation and presenting it is a real achievement at any age. The organizers and judges go to lengths to congratulate all participants on their achievements and to give positive and relevant feedback. If parents think otherwise, they should find out more about how the fair is run.

    This was my tenth year as Chief Judge, and my last for the time being. The Fair is run entirely by a handful of volunteers. As I said in my prize-giving comments, these are some of the most selfless, reliable and generous people I have had the privilege of working with. The 26 class judges – all professional scientists and/or educators also freely give their time – some taking a day’s annual leave to do so. That alone is equivalent to a donation of about $10,000 for the day. With over 400 entries from over 500 students, we run probably the largest science fair in the country – and that is after restricting each school to a maximum of 20 entries. Every student is interviewed by a pair of judges, whose briefs are to assess the project against a set of published criteria and to give the students verbal feedback. Frankly, I am amazed that they succeed in doing this, but succeed they do. Every student receives feedback. If they don’t remember it or are unable to relate it to their parents, I’m sorry, perhaps they should write it down.

    When I began this job I stuck out my neck on two issues. First, the “Hypothesis”. I agree Ross, an unreasoned guess is worthless. In my time as chief judge, the hypothesis has never been a compulsory component of a successful project, but evidence of a background survey and understanding of the topic is essential. Second, science fair projects are a wonderful way of children sharing their enthusiasm of learning and discovery with parents, grandparents, caregivers, next-door neighbours …. gaining help and advice is an essential component of all scientific research – it is called collaboration. Certainly one must acknowledge one’s collaborators and their contributions. We expect no less of science fair participants, but the judges make their assessments on what the children have clearly done themselves and can talk about.

    My career in science stems from my parents’ unconditional encouragement. It did not depend on their opinion of my teachers, whether the school chemistry labs were dingy, or whether I was top of the class or in the mediocre middle. I would love to continue as Chief Judge of the 50th NIWA Wellington Regional Science and Technology Fair, but am stepping down because my parents now need my support and regrettably, there aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything I would like.

    Gillian Turner
    Chief Judge
    NIWA Wellington Regional Science and Technology Fair

  • Thanks for these comments — I appreciate that you’ve taken the time to respond.

    The substance of these comments represents exactly the problems that face NZ science, and exactly the issues I try to bring out when discussing the economics of science. John and Gillian, you have provided a supply-side view. You have explained how much effort goes into the science fairs and how much time volunteers give. [And just by the way — children’s extra-curricular activities depend on volunteers, the choir no less than the science fair.] But we don’t give A’s or research grants for effort.

    I wanted to provide a demand-side view — what we experienced as consumers/participants. And yes, this was very much ‘our’ experience — the child and the parents. My daughter didn’t feel that the judges took much interest in her experiment, and in particular took no interest at all in the statistical analysis that she conducted on the data. It didn’t make us want to come back. Now, as Hirschman explained (,_Voice,_and_Loyalty), one reaction to a bad experience is ‘exit’ — just walking away. But the informational value for the supplier is limited. Another option is ‘voice’ — explaining the dissatisfaction and advocating for change. This is what I have attempted here, because I think it is worthwhile.

    I appreciate that some people will go into science regardless — they don’t need encouragement. But what I’ve heard from the science sector is that they want to get more people interested and raise the profile of science (see link in post). Dingy chemistry labs won’t cut it.

    The second element of NZ science that this science fair replicates is the judging. Comment #7 (Ross) is spot-on in this regard. The science fair (MBIE) sets up a separate judging panel (assessment panel) and then abdicates responsibility, hoping that somehow the judgements of the experts will line up with the stated goals of the organisation. At the same time, the institution inoculates itself from criticism: ‘Don’t blame us! It’s what the experts decided!’ Science fair : judges :: MBIE : assessment panel.

    What FRST and MSI and MBIE and CRIs and ATI/Callaghan have all been trying to do is link science better to end-users. This blog post was written in the same spirit.

  • “The science fair (MBIE) sets up a separate judging panel (assessment panel) and then abdicates responsibility, hoping that somehow the judgements of the experts will line up with the stated goals of the organisation.”

    I feel this is an unfair comparison. In none of the science fairs I’ve judged in the last 15 years, not one of them has had this sort of separation. The judges are always quite clear on the goals of the ‘organisation’ (the science fair) & indeed there is considerable discussion between judges, panels, and the organisers.