Science projects should shout 'Eureka!'

September 28, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

It's what science professor Richard Moyer calls the non-experiment: Take a tooth. Drop it in a glass of Coke. Wait three days. Tooth is gone, dissolved by the sugar.

"Everyone already knows that sugar dissolves teeth," he says. "That's not an experiment, it's a verification."

Today's science teachers expect more; they want students to use their heads. Unfortunately, most student science fair projects have all the originality of a ditto copy, all the suspense of a potato cut in half.

They're the 3-foot cardboard displays of the life cycle of the snail. The cigarette smoke that turns cotton brown. The lonely seed that grows out of a dark shoe box.

"Most of my friends do their science fair project the weekend or the night before," says Shannon Bair, 14, a freshman at Quincy (Mich.) High School, who last year built a working hydroponics unit for her eighth-grade science project.

The difference between a bad and good science fair project is the difference between a plain boiled egg and a three-cheese omelet: One takes more thought and planning.

"If you just follow directions, it's no better than using a cookbook," says Mr. Moyer, who has seen enough models of the human ear to last him a lifetime.

Mr. Moyer, professor of science education at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, says he dreads having to judge science fair projects because most show little thought or ingenuity.

Shannon's, however, was a winner. She got her idea after watching a movie; she even called Disney World for information about its exhibit on hydroponics, which is a way to grow plants without dirt. Her dad helped her build a 4 1/2 -foot tall unit, in which she planted lettuce seeds to see if they would grow without any care.

Another good experiment was one Mr. Moyer worked out with his son. The boy collected several snow samples from around Plymouth, Mich., melted the snow and found out which part of town was the grimiest by measuring the particles that were left.

"Basically what we're looking for is some kind of question to explore that is not found within a book," says Sharon Ferriss, a middle school science teacher. "I encourage my students to end their projects with more questions than they answered."

A sparkling science fair project, teachers say, tests a hypothesis with various methods and draws conclusions. Don't just make a barometer to test air pressure with a wine bottle and a glass of colored water; chart the rise and fall of water in the bottle over a period of days and explain.

Don't just notice that heavy objects atop a block of ice make it melt faster than an ice cube sitting out in the open; try different weights of objects, and time the melt. Why would it be that way?

Don't just stick your finger in a glass of water with baby powder floating on top, and say, 'Oh, gee, my finger's dry.' What happens if you coat your finger with Vaseline? Or cooking oil?

In other words, be a scientist, not a model-maker.

"Another neat project would be to take steel wire and nails and see how you could prevent it from rusting," says Mr. Moyer. "Come up with hypotheses. Would car wax do it? Paint? Oil? Salt water? Then test it. What a simple, interesting experiment any 12-year-old could do," he says.

Coming up with an original thought might just win you a science prize. Teachers say good science fair projects have these things in common:

* They allow parents to assist, but not do. "Most parents have already passed fifth grade, after all," says Mr. Moyer. That means kids should skip anything having to do with driving a car, taking apart the furnace or stirring up a batch of u-mix concrete. Parents can be useful in brainstorming and getting together project materials.

* Experiments should be safe -- no blowing sand around the room, for example, or anything that explodes. The new "How The EarthWorks" by John Farndon (Reader's Digest, $23.50), while containing many colorful experiments, actually contains a demonstration to help show the principle of volcano eruptions by shaking a bottle of pop vigorously, then unscrewing the top. Boom! Another experiment in the same book has children using a hair dryer to blow sand across an ice cube tray to teach how wind works. "I wouldn't want to send a kid home with something that is going to explode. My attorney will thank me for saying this," says Mr. Moyer.

* Good projects make the most of mistakes. Let's say you want to try to grow stalactites and stalagmites by stringing a string between two bottles filled with warm water and washing soda. You'll soon find that certain strings are better wicks than others; acrylic yarn doesn't work, for example, and neither does cotton string or paper towels (we know, we tried the experiment for this story.) "Now you've turned it into an experiment on how to grow crystals," says Mr. Moyer, by showing unsuccessful mediums for wicking.

* Good projects use science books as a place to start thinking, not a place to stop thinking.

* Good projects are planned ahead. After all, Thomas Edison didn't invent the light bulb one Thursday night in the 10 minutes between putting on his pajamas and "The Simpsons." So don't wait until the night before your science fair project is due to begin it.

* Good projects are based on what you know. Don't try some elaborate experiment to prove the cancer-fighting properties of broccoli, when you haven't a clue as to the scientific methods or principles in such an endeavor. Instead, stick with the stuff in your own backyard -- bugs, nails, seeds, mold, food, rocks, etc.

* Keep in mind the judges. In a fair, you will be judged on your clear statement of the problem, your background information, hypothesis, a statement of the materials used, the procedure you used, your scientific data, and your results and conclusion. You'll also be judged on creativity and display.

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