Kids, Scientific Integrity, and What We Can Learn From the Local Science Fair

May 3, 2017 | 3:51 pm
Science in action (Credit: J. Rogers)
John Rogers
Energy Campaign Analytic Lead

My kids’ school recently had its annual science fair, and what a thing of beauty it was. From catapults to solar stills to randomized trials about yawning, the projects of those elementary and middle school kids remind us what science is all about: Hypothesis, methodology, data, and conclusions. (And maybe the occasional blue marble.)

If only all of our elected leaders got that.

Kids and blue marbles

For the school science fair, my sons chose projects near and dear to my heart. One built a model house to test the efficacy of going from single-pane windows to double-, triple-, or quadruple-. Heat up the house with a light bulb (those old incandescents come in handy after all), then see how quickly the temperature drops off under different situations.

Son #2 explains the finer points of scientific discovery. He does do windows. (Credit: J. Rogers)

My other son tackled desktop carbon capture (‘cause who doesn’t want one of those on their desk?). A pump, a fan, a little sodium hydroxide, and a planet with way too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and voilà: Calcium carbonate, ripe for re-use.

Just to be clear: My kids didn’t pick those projects because I pushed them. I actually tried to talk my older lad out of the CO2 capture effort, and toward something that seemed more doable. But science has a way of grabbing hold of you.

And they both managed beautifully. They each duly came up with a plan, carried it out, checked to see how reality matched up, and documented it all.

Son #1 stands behind his science. All the way. (Credit: J. Rogers)

And there was a lot of that hypothesize-test-assess visible around the school during the science fair. My niece looked at which household cleaners work best. Other projects tested memory, stress balls, or gymnastics chalk. Science traveled on the water (boat design) and took flight (testing parachute shapes or basketball shots). And Science made its way into cyberspace: One student conducted trials to see which house-building materials best resisted exploding “creepers” in Minecraft.

Even established, centuries-old science fell under the scrutiny of the young scientists. My nephew put Sir Isaac Newton himself to the test, with a pumped-air water rocket set-up.

My nephew and the scientific method: It’s not rocket science. Er, unless it is. (Credit: J. Rogers)

And then there were those really early-career types leaping into science. One first-grader assessed the influence of marble color on spoon catapulting (whereby a spoon is put on the edge of a table, loaded with a marble, and launched in a parabolic arc with an abrupt downward hit to the handle). Her hypothesis was that the blue marble would travel farther than the white one “because blue is my favorite color.” When the data bore that out, her conclusion was that blue went farther “because I wanted it to.”

She may not have all the particulars quite worked out, but her love of science shone through anyway, even at her young age. And her honesty was refreshing.

Next step: calcium carbonate. Fuel the fun,… then clean it up afterward. (Credit: J. Rogers)

As for the grown-ups…

That kind of data manipulation is cute in a first grader trying out formal science for the first time. It’s a lot less so in politicians or other decision makers looking to promote a patently anti-science agenda, or to throw science overboard in favor of a political agenda or short-sighted profits.

As a country, we’ve got work to do to make sure that science retains its proper and necessary role in progress and decision making. Getting science right matters, for all of us, down to the smallest newborn.

Alas, lately the work of the Union of Concerned Scientists on scientific integrity has seemed to be needed more than ever. From bad science on efficient cars, to bad guidance on good nutrition, to decidedly unscientific approaches to regulation, and more, this war on facts is enough to drive scientists out of the lab and onto the streets.

That’s why so many of us—scientists and non-scientists—were marching for science a couple of weekends ago, and for climate science and action this past Saturday.

Science rules

So we stand up for science, in all things.

Feet ready to stand/walk/run/leap for science,… Whatever it takes. (Credit: J. Rogers)

And if you need inspiration, just look to the next generation. Borrow not just their creativity and enthusiasm, but also their respect for the process of scientific discovery and attention to data.

On blue marbles, the Big Blue Marble, and everything in-between and beyond.

As for my sons: They were both among the kids/projects picked to go on to represent the school at the regional science fair, and then potentially to go on to states. Whatever happens, though, they’re already winners, when they follow the scientific method down a path to discovery and knowledge. Really.

Now to get all the grown-ups on board, too.

About the author

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John Rogers is energy campaign analytic lead at the Union of Concerned Scientists with expertise in clean energy technologies and policies and a focus on solar, wind, and natural gas. He co-managed the UCS-led Energy and Water in a Warming World Initiative, a multi-year program aimed at raising awareness of the energy-water connection, particularly in the context of climate change, and motivating and informing effective low-carbon and low-water energy solutions.