Science Fairs

by Honolulu Mother

This was an interesting Atlantic article on the effect of parental assistance with science fair projects:

Science Fairs Aren’t So Fair

Totebaggers, what have your experiences with science fairs been? Do you think the current science fair model works well?


136 thoughts on “Science Fairs

  1. Ha! Science fairs, I remember them well. I definitely remember walking around the auditorium and seeing three main types of projects: those done totally by the kid, those done with a lot of parental input, and those in between, where the parents helped a little but the kids did most of the work. DS had a girl in his class whose parents were scientists. She (and her older sister) won the school fair when it was their year to present a project.

    My kids were in the middle group, and I think they got good grades on their projects, but never any awards. Neither of them are very scientifically inclined, so the science fair was just something that had to be done, and I think they enjoyed it, but I wonder if they ever thought that they should have won something – it was one of the situations where you can’t really tell what they think of their project!

    It was interesting to go from the slick, sophisticated boards to the messy writing and scraggly set up of the boards that had absolutely no input from parents.

  2. My daughter’s school experience was always that they were voluntary, and she never participated. For my son, they were mandatory for middle school students, and high school students are required to do project-based learning things. The science teachers stay after school to help the kids with their experiments and take pics of each step for the student while he works through it. The teacher emailed the pics, and my son used those for his write-up. I like it because there was virtually no parental involvement and he learned things he did not know previously. Another year’s project was something he was really interested in, so he learned a lot. It is a competition, so some students go on to higher level competition. His has not been chosen, but has been done on his own and got some good feedback from his friends and teachers. All in all, I’ve been pretty satisfied.

    I have read an article or two on the projects in the school system where a lot of NIH professionals live, and they are apparently pretty incredible for high school kids.

  3. MBT – that sounds like a great way to set it up!

    I am hoping that with my husband’s sciency bent and talent for drawing, I will be largely left out of these projects. ;)

  4. This is a hot button topic in our house right now. They are awful IMO, mainly because the kids do not have all the skills needed to do this. Among them:
    1. Research – ability to figure out what exactly you are to research just to get you to a reasonable hypothesis. For MS students, there likely is not an experiment that they would do that the answer is unknown to the world of science.
    2. Hypothesis – teachers have told them that the TEACHER already knows the answer so they can’t do this project, but the KID doesn’t, so why deny that hypothesis.
    3. Procedure/Data Collection – as adults we think about what the presentation at the end will be an how to collect the data so it can be put in a table and graphed, as well as what other information to collect that will help you interpret the data. Such as, when smelling samples, record what the person said not just whether they got it right or not. That will allow you to observe – half of the subjects thought spinach was grass.
    4. Math/Computer Skills – the kids haven’t been shown how to put a reasonable table or chart together with titles or keys, but they are expected to have it on their board and in their paper.
    5. Set up – how to lay out their experiment so they can get appropriate pictures (required for the poster) at various times during the experiment so they can capture what they observed.

    Then this counts as a huge part of their semester grade. I feel that these projects set them up to fail.

  5. This is the first year DS mentioned science fair. It seems to be low key. It is a step by step approach and the first step is choose what you want to present and discuss the idea with the teacher. I think while the parents are well educated, they are not scientists, researchers or other types of professions where they can help their kids come up with phenomenal projects nor would they be inclined to add one more item to their schedules.

  6. Science Fair Hater – #2-your Child’s teacher doesn’t get the point. In MS, the point is for the student to learn the terminology and understand the scientific method, not to make original discoveries.

  7. Y kid did science fair once, at the school for kids with ADD & other LDs. When I heard it would be all done at school, so parents wouldn’t be involved, I thought it sounded good. But then I learned how they were spending their time–lots and lots of it on getting all the titles just right, gluing them into boards so they looked very nice. For their actual projects, they had to choose from a selection of ready-to-go “experiments”. These started with a question, then laid out the method, materials, and procedures. Iow, kids did the craft project part, but none of the original thinking. My kid won the science fair (lots of kids I spoke with were unable to give any response to questions about why they did what they did (other than “the packet said to”). I am not a fan of this approach.

  8. My kids have two parents. A perfectionist and one with a ‘good enough’ outlook on most things.

    As to science, or any other, projects one of their parents would help with some stuff, especially if the likely result of them doing it completely themselves would be a trip to urgent care to sew a finger back together or a homeowners insurance claim, but basically it was the up to the kid to understand the assignment, at least write a list of what they thought was needed, do the science, report on the findings. Of course we’d take them to the craft or hardware stores as needed for stuff we didn’t already have in the house. And, yes, there was plenty of prodding from both parents a la “just do the f***ing project.”

    The other parent really got involved when the presentation (board) was being put together, and that part of the process was very frustrating for the kid “I want to do it myself!”, that parent “but it’ll look so much better if you…”, and often caused tension between the parents “just let the kid do his own work.”

    Not really fair, but guess who is which type of parent?

  9. H8er, I agree with MBT. If your kid’s teacher would read a few articles from actual journals, it would quickly become clear that disproving a hypothesis is just as good an outcome as proving one. Pity that teachers don’t know their subjects better.

  10. No mention of a science fair yet, but DD is only in 2nd grade. My first thought is that it might be pretty competitive with all the professors’ kids in my town, but then I remember that those people don’t have any extra time between spring break and commencement to do a kid’s science project. Of course, those with highly-educated SAHPs might end up with a lot of parental involvement. So far, our school has been pretty good about not assigning a lot of parent-intensive projects (knock on wood), with the 100 things on the 100th day of kindergarten being the worst.

  11. ITA with the article: this is a fantastic opportunity if taught properly — i.e., as a SCHOOL PROJECT, led by the teachers, so the kids learn both about the scientific method and all those other skills they need to pull together a project like this (time management/scheduling, planning a project, the vetting of research the author talked about, Powerpoint, etc.). Our experience has been much closer to the “give them a sheet of instructions and tell them to ‘go do'” approach described in the article. As a result, the kids who do well are those with parents who have the time, knowledge, and inclination to help.

    We have 1 and 2 but not 3, so DD has always been the Keeper of the B Projects. I’m one of those PITA parents who insists that a kid’s work should be a kid’s work. Even so, we still had to help guide her to appropriate projects, teach her how to do computer research, ask her questions to help her plan the experiment, teach her how to do PowerPoint, and of course make all of the supply runs. And dad observed the experiment one year for safety reasons (it was all about what would make stuff catch fire). Honestly, that seems to me like a *lot* of parental involvement — way more than I am actually comfortable with. But it was clearly at the very, very low end of her (local public) school, because she was at the low end of the “presentation skills,” and compared to the winners, both the presentation and the substance looked like total crap. The guy who won — surprise — had a dad who is a scientist, and he did an experiment in his dad’s field that was at least high-school level science. Which is reeeeeally motivating for the rest of the class, ya know?

    In short, DD put in a ton of work on decent, age-appropriate projects, and ended up getting Bs-Cs and feeling bad, because everyone else’s parents worked harder than hers. So, you know, screw the whole thing.

  12. Oh, I get that they don’t get it. They stress out the kids because while they have them turn stuff in along the way, like procedure, it is just completion without feedback. Then, they will spring a “don’t forget to include…” on them and the kid panics because they don’t have that.

    Prime example, my kids procedure said to observe experiment every 5 min and repeat X times. But, said to record data at the end. NOTHING from the teacher saying, “Kid, you are clear that you need to record data every 5 min, right?” So, kid does this the first time and only records the final result. Then is in a PANIC, when the teacher says to graph the data from each observation because kid doesn’t have data for each 5 min interval. Thankfully, this was one that was easy to repeat in terms of time and cost.

    Then kids are stressed because it counts for 2 test grades or half of the test grades that semester. And, yes, I have talked to teachers and school. They ecourage us to guide them (read teach them ourselves), but kids rebel because that isn’t what the teacher said. I am just becoming an ostrich at this time of year.

  13. Then is in a PANIC, when the teacher says to graph the data from each observation because kid doesn’t have data for each 5 min interval.

    Just make it up Or, Google it to see what it should be.

  14. Of course science fairs aren’t fair. This is news to the author of that article? Not trying to be snarky but I feel like the “child with most over-involved parents wins” thing is as old as the first science fair. If fairness is a concern, just downplay or even eliminate the competition aspect.

    This also reminds me of the year I did the Pinewood Derby. My sister and I proudly designed our own cars- grandpa helped with the power tools but there was no adult input on anything other than safety. We proudly painted our cars purple (me) and pink (my sister). And then got to the race and felt humiliated at the slick and much faster cars all the other kids had that my parents explained were clearly built by the adults.

  15. Teaching kids to fabricate data, Rhett? That’s probably the worst “lesson” from a science fair! That’s a serious honor code violation.

  16. Teaching kids to fabricate data, Rhett?

    Exactly the thing you need to do when confronted by foolishness proposed my morons.

  17. I actually think that at middle school level the pre-packaged experiments make sense. Each student does his own, but it gives them the chance to learn the scientific method and the formatting and presentation of research. Although some at that age could come up with their own idea, plenty could not come up with something meeting the guidelines. The kits gives them a starting point, and they can move up to higher level projects as they master the concept of how to do a research project. At our school, they could choose an idea not if the list with teacher approval.

  18. LfB – I’m always amazed at how much your comments are similar to mine. I think we will change the will to leave the kids to you if we die – I think they would be comfortable there! ; )

  19. I just messaged a high school buddy who was very science/engineering track. He doesn’t remember doing science fairs in the 70s either. I guess it wasn’t such a big thing. I wonder if I could have done experiments like “What happens when you wash your Barbie’s hair with Woolite?” or “If you remove the sound box from Talking Barbie, can you get the box to continue to play?” or “Can Barbie’s leg be broken off and then put back on?” I learned a lot from my Barbies.

  20. DS’s project is to look at the impact of the wind on his remote control plane.
    The idea is something he has on hand. The number of times that plane has crashed – he should convert the project into a plane crash investigation process.

  21. That’s a serious honor code violation.

    You reminded the teacher when she forgot to assign homework, didn’t you?

  22. Rhett – I find it extremely hard to teach my kids that they have to follow rules/processes even when they seem moronic because moronic is in the eye of the beholder. Also, the person/entity setting the rules usually has some power over you that they can use to make you miserable. However, bending the rules to reduce the stupidity is OK as long as you stay just inside them.

  23. Science fair is optional for grades 3-5 at my elementary school. I like that approach. And the teachers know my kids do their own work. One busy weekend, I had the twins raid the recycling bin for stuff to glue on their collages. The advantage of living where jobs are hard to get is that the teachers all have had 20-45 year of experience and have seen it all.

  24. MBT, this might not be what you’re thinking of. The instructions were really complete, like “mix two teaspoons of the baking soda with the water. Pour in a teaspoon of vinegar and record how far up the beaker the foam rises” or something like that. I really didn’t see how it was different than standard classroom instruction, other than that they had to come up with a good-looking poster board presentation (which was the hard part for my kid).

  25. “moronic is in the eye of the beholder.”

    I’ll have to remember that for when my kid needs to hear it. He figured out a couple years ago that certain people have power over him,’and therefore follows rules much better than he used to. He also seems to be testing individual teachers much less. I think that will make his life much better.

  26. Ugh. My kids had optional Special Interest Fair but no mandatory science fair. They did their own special interest projects and relative to many others, theirs looked like crap. But oh, we’re they proud of their crappy work. DS was once the only kid in his class (4th grade) to hand in a 100% kid-made project. They were all on display and it was so obvious – his was devoid of color, his left-handed chicken scratch was all slanted, he did the whole thing in pencil and the photo he attached was slanted, not centered, black & white. The others were works of art.
    It was hilarious.

  27. “You reminded the teacher when she forgot to assign homework, didn’t you?”

    No, and those things aren’t remotely comparable. Making up data is a serious ethics violation and can get you expelled or fired. Of course it isn’t that big of a deal in a middle school science fair, but it sets a precedent that taking an easy way out like that is acceptable. And that habit could be hard to break when the stakes get much much higher in a couple years- or they might not even realize that it’s wrong.

  28. “Just make it up Or, Google it to see what it should be.”

    DH is a scientist. NFW that would happen in our house! Luckily, DH is patient with the kids and enjoys guiding them on their projects. I hate projects of any kind, so I’m very happy to delegate everything to DH. At least we’re past the diorama stage….

    We had one science fair in elementary school (4th grade) and one history fair in middle school (6th grade). Both were worthwhile, but I’m glad that they are over.

  29. , but it sets a precedent that taking an easy way out like that is acceptable.

    it often is. There is a difference between a clinical trial of a cancer drug and a 3rd grade science fair project. Life is full of such gray areas.

  30. Saac, I still don’t see a problem with that if the goal is to better understand the scientific method. If they have to explain the hypothesis they’re testing, identify their dependent and independent variables, gather data, draw a conclusion, figure out if the data failed to support the hypothesis whether the hypothesis was wrong or their experiment was flawed, learn how to write up the experiment and results in a paper, which is much different than a tell-me-about-your-feelings paper, and then present the data in a way that accurately summarizes the results, then that is a lot of learning. At that age, I view the experiment as the vehicle to learn and practice all that other stuff.

  31. I agree with Rhett, especially since in the initial example the instructions were not given correctly: “my kids procedure said to observe experiment every 5 min and repeat X times. But, said to record data at the end”. You need to include the instruction to “record after every 5 min” if you want it to be done correctly.

  32. There are a lot of areas between 3rd Grade science fair and cancer drug clinical trials that may seem mundane, unimportant, or inconsequential. It’s not hard to imagine some low-level lab tech running a series of tests on an experiment like “Changes in Material Characterists of Rubber as a Function of Varying External Temperatures,” and if his boss’ instructions were unclear or confusing, he might feel justified in fudging some data points that he hadn’t known he was supposed to record. It’s just some rubber, not cancer trials.

    A couple years later, this series of experiments is cited as the basis for a government contractor’s justification to rate rubber sealing components of this composition for adequate performance within a certain range of ambient conditions.

    And a couple years after that, you now have that rubber O-ring firmly in place in the Space Shuttle Challenger, set for launch in 36 hours, and management has to decide whether it’s safe to proceed even in the record-breaking cold weather.

  33. Milo,

    So you’re siding with Rio and her hedonic treadmill of malfeasance. All tasks must be treated with the same level of diligence.

  34. “hedonic treadmill of malfeasance”
    Totally the phrase of the day.

    I’m siding with Rio, but I view the lesson as Never Fudge Data. Ever. DS wants to be an engineer, so this is a good lesson.

  35. Trip report. New Orleans is a place I could visit over and over again. The weather was 70s to low 80s with one short rain shower. I ate many fine meals at all price points. On DD’s recommendation went to Cochon. Fabulous. Did just a little sightseeing, since we were busy most of the time during the day. I am a rye drinker, that is one of the locally produced liquors, so I tried many cocktails. A couple of Sazeracs were the prelude to a verrry nice evening. People were friendly. Prices moderate. Fun museum was the Insectarium located in the old custom house. Designed for well educated 9-10 year olds, with areas to occupy both younger and older, but equally interesting to the one couple (us) without any kids in tow – just had to bend down sometimes to view the exhibits or read the legends. joint focus on biology and epidemics.

  36. The annual middle school science project seems to be strongly encouraged but not actually part of the grade, at least judging by the fact that I don’t see a “science project – 0” when a kid fails to complete it. My daughter did actually do one this year, but she was running the whole thing out of a classroom (thank you science teacher!) so I had, thankfully, no involvement.

    Rio, I am SO JELLY that you got to do Pinewood Derby! I always thought it was unfair that the Cub Scouts got to do that and the Brownies/Juniors didn’t.

  37. For the record, I totally agree with Rio about research results, and Milo said it best. I work with research grants and contracts and patents now, and it would be a major catastrophe if one of our researchers made up results. Well, if they got caught. But I hate to imagine what kinds of things would fail in order to catch those mistakes.

  38. At my kids’ middle school, we had parents who hired professionals to take over parts of the school projects. And the teachers knew, and the kids still got As.
    Not that I’m bitter.

  39. The article sounds like whining. Just get the kid 3 books about whales if that is all you want to put into it. I just finished our 5th Pinewood Derby and can report that our cars made it down the track. (Siblings and parents are welcome to enter). It was a good excuse to use tools with the kids when I would otherwise not take the time to do. It is not possible for a child of that age to attach the wheels to the cars. The winner was over joyed and thanked his father over the PA system for making the whole car.

  40. It is not possible for a child of that age to attach the wheels to the cars.

    Those wheels are nailed to the block. A 6 to 10 year old can’t use a hammer?

    I guess this explains the lackluster performance of my sons’ cars, even with some parental assistance. That and the fact that one car design one year featured a styrofoam-ball snowman sitting upright atop the car which did nothing good for its aerodynamics.

  41. HM – what good is a car if you cannot sell it ? I recall the one and only science fair I entered. It was a group project and compared to others at the fair – almost at the bottom of the heap. However, we did have a couple of kids on our team who were marketing types – they attracted a good crowd around our project by sheer gift of the gab – we had an awesome time at the fair and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly.

  42. We had a science fair every year in my NYC public school in the ’70’s. I thought they were kind of fun. There were a lot of erupting volcanoes made with vinegar and baking soda (?). My father was into electronics, so we usually built some kind of electrical gizmo. My kids’ schools don’t have any formal science fairs, but in middle school they had to do a formal science project and the parents were invited to view the projects. Most of them were very good. A lot of the kids covered some aspect of the LI Sound.

  43. HM, I was never involved with Pinewood Derby -delegated it all to my husband. One year, he let my son “decorate” it by singing it with a blowtorch. (Like AParent, great opportunity to learn to use tools). However, my husband was not around at check in, so I had to deal with the death stares from all the mothers when their sons were going on about him getting to play with a blowtorch. Ahh, good times.

  44. I have one of those wimpy little culinary blowtorches but my youngest periodically gets on a creme brulee kick and half the reason is so he can torch the sugar on top. (The other half is that he likes custard.)

  45. I wish the science fairs would let them do the old-style thing of building a model of something or a gizmo of some sort to demonstrate a principle. My youngest would be all over a Faraday motor.

  46. This is very timely as my oldest has signed up for his HS’s 3 year science research program. I have many qualms, since it seems very open ended, and evidentlly has an appallingly high attrition rate. My oldest is inattentive type ADHD, so he has a lot of trouble planning out long, open ended projects. Also, he wants to do a computer science project, and I think our school is more used to kids doing healthcare or biology projects. That means we will have to find him a mentor ourselves. I don’t want to be too involved, but he is going to need some help with the logistics.

  47. DD’s approach to science fairs was to come up with some sort of experiment that involved candy or soda so she could consume the leftovers. Her required 5th grade project was pretty lame (How do water, soda, and lemon juice affect plant growth?).

    I am terrible at putting together tri-fold presentations, dioramas, models, etc. so DH is responsible for helping the kids on any of these sorts of projects. I help with the research and writing.

  48. I hate the format of “send the worksheet home and teach your kid how to do the project.” We haven’t hit science project age yet. So far our kids had some sort of “decorate a clothespin doll” thing that came with the requirement to research something about the country involved and create clothes for the doll that match some format of traditional clothing for said country. This was a project that was beyond the capacity of a 6 year old, and I bitterly referred to it as a “parent project.” I guess I still do.

    Even now her first grade class does some in-class science observations. They ask a question “What do you think will happen if…..?” They make a hypothesis/prediction, run whatever test, and write their results. I think this is appropriately leveled for first grade and like that she’s getting the idea that you don’t just experiment by randomly throwing things together, but you test something specific. Plus at this age it’s good writing practice.

  49. Just read the article. The whole issue is related to the issue of the arts n’ crafts projects, which have similar problems. Our 5th grade has this infamous project that all the kids have to do, which revolves around endangered animals and habitat. They have to do a major project, which must be “creative” (my kids’ teachers words) and significant. They also have to do a trifold poster presentation and a second “creative project”. Horrible, horrible, horrible. When DS2 was in 5th grade, I happened to visit his classroom and saw the “creative” project done by a classmate. It was an entire lifesize friggin’ TREE, done in papier mache, which branches and leaves, and facts about endangered forests artistically hung from the branches and tucked into holes. There is no way on this planet that the kid did that project. And that was the problem – the project has turned into this intense competition among moms who want an artistic outlet

  50. Ginger, that sounds like the only science fair I was ever in, in 6th grade. We wanted to do something on hermit crabs, didn’t really have a topic & couldn’t find anything in the public library downtown, so at the last minute we switched to eyes–still no question, or maybe something like “how do we see?”& I took in a model my dad used to explain procedures to patients.

    Rhett, it’s not rocket science, but as Milo deftly points out, these kids are learning the procedures that, step by step, will enable them to become rocket scientists. Or heart surgeons. Or engineers who device tiny robots to be put into people’s bloodstreams. Or they do the “lower level” work that enables someone else to do those things. Not every kid will have a STEM job, of course, and those who write for a living won’t all need to cite sources for everything, but for any field it is useful to know that you have to get the building blocks right for the final thing to turn out right. A final example is a line cook: if the carrots aren’t cut the right way, if they’re cubed instead of julienned or cut the wrong size, it will affect the way they cook, and the dish will come out wrong. Not as important as a space shuttle blowing up, but someone who gets fired from their minimum wage job for doing it the wrong way might wish they’d learned this lesson a long time ago.

    MBT, I agree with you that IF they learned those things it’d be great. The one thing I’d add is that they should have to come up with how to test their hypothesis. Some hypotheses require more thoughtful experiment design than others, and assistance from some adult in shaping the experiment is totally legit, but that is where the creative thinking comes in, and once they really get why they’re doing what they’re doing, then all the things you listed make sense and following procedure comes more naturally. But what I saw was, as I mentioned above, kids who just followed the recipe and learned nothing other than that crystals grow in the blue solution better than the red one (they were unable to tell me what they had put in the 2 solutions, other than dye, that might explain the difference).

  51. Rhett, it’s not rocket science, but as Milo deftly points out, these kids are learning the procedures that, step by step, will enable them to become rocket scientists.

    Right, you have to prioritize. I can’t imagine Milo gives meticulous attention to every one of the tasks he has to do each day. Some things are important, some thing aren’t. You need to learn to tell the difference.

  52. Rhett, the Tesla coil instructions start with a great big warning about getting shocked, and the materials list ends with a kitty in the sun 😳 MeeOUCH!
    HM, check out the very last comment on the link–there are some ideas about how to wind the could differently. So your kiddo could build TWO Tesla coils & measure their output or something.

  53. No, I did not say to “prioritize”. I said that when teaching a kid a skill that’s the top level for that age level, you have to teach them to do it right, because it is the foundation for later things that you think are more important.

  54. So how is HM’s kid going to turn the generator into a science fair project with a testable hypothesis? See how the amount of energy produced changes with amount of wire in the coil? Change the tightness of the coil for the same amount of wire? Something else?

  55. So how is HM’s kid going to turn the generator into a science fair project with a testable hypothesis?

    The relative status of individuals as relates to the joy derived by shocking them.

  56. I really don’t like to be the one to bash educators, because I have so much respect for what they have to deal with on a daily basis. But when I was doing my second annual judging of the science fair this year, I have to say that, while I was impressed by the projects, I was just a little bit disappointed in my judging partner, the school’s librarian. After two years of this, I’ve come to the conclusion that only school staff with Science or Math backgrounds should be invited to judge the projects. (The Science teacher running the fair did seem very competent and understanding of the overall purpose.)

    The librarian, however, couldn’t adequately judge metrics such as “Are the independent and dependent variables correctly selected and identified?” because she had no clue what the difference was. No big deal, I brought up Wikipedia explanations on my iPhone and gave her a quick tutorial. But really, I think she was still defaulting to assessment based on overall appearance and prettiness rather than substance.

    Anyway, instead of just scoring each category 1-10, I tried to write a lot of constructive comments about what I thought was great and ways that it could have been better. For example, a number of kids chose to design tests to determine which brand of battery is “best.” (“Best” being a loose term here, because many would test which brand can power a light bulb the longest (amp*hrs, I guess?), whereas another kid built his own electromagnet to see which would hold the most BBs (voltage?). Apparently nobody objected to light ammunition coming into the school. In one case, a kid did two trials and wrote under “Ways to improve or further the research” that he would have liked to have done more trials, but it was getting expensive. Fair point. And I wrote to him “Why did you run two batteries in series for each of your trials? If you had run them independently, you could have gotten twice as many data points with the same number of batteries.” Stuff like that.

    Well one kid went so far as to write a question of “Are brand-name batteries better than generics?” He was the only one to introduce the cost factor, and he recorded and reported the cost of the batteries along with the number of hours that they powered the flashlight. And he STOPPED THERE!!! So I wrote “Great idea to consider the cost, and you could really improve it by simply calculating the cost per hour of flashlight operation.” (Because a couple of the brand-names lasted just a tiny bit longer than the Rayovacs, but nowhere near to the degree that would justify their price premium. And another brand name was just under the generic in terms of hours powered, but still twice the price.)

    Now Librarian who, God bless her, was a sweet little lady, was curious what I was writing, and I just casually mentioned what I was writing to the kid about how he had all the data he needed, but should do one more step and calculate cost per hour. Her response? “Oh, I wouldn’t have any idea how to do that.”

  57. “The relative status of individuals as relates to the joy derived by shocking them.”

  58. defaulting to assessment based on overall appearance and prettiness rather than substance.

    A valuable lesson learned then.

  59. “Nobody objected to light ammo”. Sadly for my son and husband, happily for me, the school’s specific prohibition against weaponry, ammo, fire, things that explode, etc, the rail gun had to be excluded from consideration.

  60. things that explode,

    Even the traditional vinegar and baking soda powered volcano?

  61. I see two problems with many science projects, which in theory seem like a great learning opportunity.

    Execution is often dreadful. Instructions are poor, the craft effort to learning ratio is high, the learning objective is lost amid the mindless activity, etc. I’m not sure what the main reasons for this are, but I’ve gotta blame teachers at least partly.

    Too much parental involvement is required. Time and again, we see the hyper-parental involvement that is required for students to do well. Not only does this penalize lower SES students, but it helps create this problem of helicopter parents.

    My kids had a few sciency projects along the way, most of which seemed to teach very little. More than once poor instructions caused a kid to do turn in a project with mistakes.

  62. Related to CoC’s last point, I’ve been trying to get my kid to turn things in early or have teachers look at drafts. See my comment earlier today about him learning where the power is. It’s very rare for teachers to award points based on a kid not understanding instructions.

  63. We didn’t have a school-encouraged science fair when I was a kid, but one guy in my HS was actually working on his own with a university professor on cloning research (this was back when no one knew if that were even possible), and from that, ended up entering the Westinghouse Science competition. He got to go to Washington DC, as I recall. This kid did not have the sort of parents who could help out – his mom was a single mom, who worked all the time and mainly seemed stressed whenever I saw her. I think it was the university professor who got my friend entered into the competition, because there was no teacher at my HS who knew anything about this

  64. This also reminds me of the year I did the Pinewood Derby. My sister and I proudly designed our own cars- grandpa helped with the power tools but there was no adult input on anything other than safety. We proudly painted our cars purple (me) and pink (my sister). And then got to the race and felt humiliated at the slick and much faster cars all the other kids had that my parents explained were clearly built by the adults.

    The Pinewood Derby was the high point of my childhood. My brother and I made our cars mostly on our own – m dad helped but I’d say we did about 75% ourselves, which put us at the high end of do-it-yourselfers. I actually won the whole the thing. And knowing that I did almost all the work on the car myself made it all the more sweeter.

  65. Rio – growing up in the Motor City, the pinewood derby was a competition for adults, and decorated by the kids. And no one seemed to mind. All the car engineering dads were in their glory.

    I really liked this article, mainly because it justified what I thought was my sad science fair project in elementary school. It was about the effects of the Yellowstone wildfires. A project based on principle only. I remember going to the fair and seeing all the amazing test based projects (and probably all related to automotive) and thinking that my project wasn’t a project at all. Turns out, it was a great idea for pre-WWII.

  66. So the first task that my DS has to accomplish for the 3 year science research class is to read 10 research papers in his topic over the summer and summarize them. There appears to be no guidance whatsoever in selecting a topic, or how to find relevant research papers. Now, I have guided undergrad research projects, so I actually know how to do this, and I also have access to the computing research databases (ACM and IEEE) so I can get him set up. For example, I know that he should find a survey article first in Computing Surveys and then follow the references. But how many parents know this stuff? And as I said, I don’t want to guide him too much, but on the other hand, I don’t want him to end up part of the 30% yerly attrition, because he has looked forwards to doing this for several years now

  67. I have a friend who is totally into Pinewood Derby and has all 4 of his kids doing it. And yes, he is the one who is doing the car.

  68. I read that the other day, Rhett. Typical NYT piece from your aptly named series, but at the root of it, I don’t see anything wrong with the trend of including teens in major purchasing decisions like that. It could be a good way to learn. Of course, they should have exactly the same voting power as DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (fun game: gather up a bunch of news clips of her and do a shot every time she says the word “outraged!”)

    It’s only distasteful to middle class people like us because of the prices involved, and that obnoxious final quote about “rarefied air.”

  69. Pinewood Derby now has a “boy built” requirement for the main race. The only help that a parent can provide is with the use of power tools. This is mainly a category for the older boys.

    DH got waaay too into Pinewood Derby. Reading books by PhDs, buying specialized tools, etc. I was really glad to see this new category created. However, DH and both sons have fond memories of Pinewood Derby, so it was all worth it.

  70. On the science fair, our middle school science teacher has it as a required part of their grade. He is very strict about the layout and formatting (font sizes, how much white space, etc) as well as grading the content. What he does, which I think is great, is the kids can turn them in as many times as they want before the due date. He’ll grade them and mark what he took points off for so the kids can make the corrections and resubmit them.

    My kids do them mostly on their own. We help them with finding references, and I helped my son with setting up his experiment, but he did all the work and plotted the data and such. The science teacher offers “science fair” as an elective so kids can have that time to work on their projects and get his help. My son actually signed up for it this year, which surprised us, but it really helped him to get it done.

  71. My NYT articles for the month are almost used up, so I’m not reading the article, but at this point I could totally see involving my kid in buying a house–seeing what’s available for how much, how different factors (size,location, condition, etc) influence price, how down payment changes the mortgage payment, getting an inspector, etc. I think it would be really good for him, although I’d be making the final decisions. We moved to this apt in the middle of the semester, fairly quickly, so he asked me to just find a place, but otherwise he has come along every single time I’ve looked for a place to live, out of necessity.

    Mooshi, can you get that advice to the other kids in the class, maybe let them know they can stop by at a certain time weekly for you to help them (ie home office hours)?

  72. “My NYT articles for the month are almost used up, so I’m not reading the article”

    Used up? You go to Google, type into the search bar “NYT” and two or three key words from the headline. I browse the paper in one window or tab, and keep a different tab open for accessing whatever articles I want to read. Same works for WSJ.

  73. Milo,

    So stealing is OK but faking data on a 3rd grade science project is a big no no…. Uh huh…

  74. Mooshi, another thought–are you sure the articles are supposed to be related to eachother, or could this be an exercise in seeing how articles “work”, how to read them, what the various parts are? If they have 3 years to write a paper, and are so early in high school, I could see starting with the general idea of a research paper before selecting a topic and diving into the reading.

  75. It’s not stealing, Rhett. The media companies have elected to provide unrestricted access to their content to anyone who finds the articles as a result of a web search.

  76. They may well mean that – but the assignment doesn’t say. I am interpreting it to mean 10 papers in a general topic of interest – say, text mining, rather than tightly related to a specific project idea.

  77. S&M, I think most of the kids do bio projects, and I don’t know how one finds papers in bio, or what the relevant journals or databases might be. But I think the teachers may be of more use there.

  78. And in other news, Scully and Mulder are reuniting for 6 new episodes. I can only hope that this will turn out well.

  79. Meme,

    And, surprisingly, it looks like the actor who portrayed Smoking Man is still alive at the ripe old age of 77.

  80. I’d totally include my kids (older, anyway) in a house hunt. I wouldn’t let them decide, but much like my DH and I look at a bunch of factors and check into them, I’d love kids to get the experience of looking at all of the various factors and making decisions/tradeoffs. Ultimately the decisions are ours, but my dad used to include me in big purchasing decisions. (We had less money, so those decisions were more about best deals for a stereo, a used car, airline tickets, etc.) I learned an awful lot from those conversations– including things like unit cost, Milo.

  81. @Rhett, for me it is about always being honest regardless of the stakes.

    Mooshi – I think those projects – just did one, are just to see who has the most clever mother.

    RE: Pinewood Derby – I hated it because in my experience it was a competition to see which 40 year old man could build the fastest car. They apply these exacting specifications to the cars but allow cars that are clearly not constructed by an 8 year old boy. The hypocrisy was more than I could stand. I thought they should have two competitions: One for the big boys (Dad) and one for the little boys where they could truly build them and compete against each other. Still burns me up because the Scouts are always carrying on about honesty.

  82. Meme – glad you had a good time in NOLA.

    We have these friends who are in the rental housing market as a hobby, and trying to turn it into a full-time/retirement gig. They’ve bought a number of properties, and now they’ve had each of their (high school) kids buy them. It’s very cool — the kids are in on the house hunt and then they work with the management company to discuss repairs, various tenant issues, etc. (Their parents are on all those emails too, but the kids chime in). The kids are learning about how to value houses based on comps etc, mortgages, setting rental prices, overhead, etc. I’d feel better about that than having them look for a house for us, because I tend not to want the kids to know what we spend on things. Maybe an antiquated notion but I’m antique, so …

  83. always being honest regardless of the stakes

    Which you aren’t (no one is) but it’s important to teach goals…?

  84. There is no way a scout can do a Pinewood Derby call without lots of adult help. Period. The End. The sneaky part was the great change in performance you can make within the rules but no one tells you that unless you Google it.

  85. Risley,
    My oldest and I worked out last night, thanks in part to your stories about working out with your kids. We did a video on the Dorm Fit youtube channel. Thanks for the inspiration.

  86. On the issue of faking data, I see it both ways. Clearly we should not be teaching our kids that it is acceptable to fake data for a science project. That’s just ethically wrong. On the other hand, if a kid is able to make up data that reasonably fits the experiment, it shows that he probably has a pretty good understanding of what is going on. And if the ultimate goal is for the the kid to understand the concept and be able to create a good presentation, then faking data shows he has achieved those goals. Of course, this is only if the kid did all the faking on his own without parental assistance. If a parent provides the fake data, then the kid hasn’t learned anything.

  87. Moxie +1 on the Pinewood Derby. And DH was as guilty as the rest of the dads.

    Having had kids in both Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, I felt that the GS encouraged independence and ownership of your work product at an earlier age than the BS did. I can still recall on a GS camping weekend when I was a little too eager to help the girls, whether it was preparing food, putting up a tent, whatever. On several occasions, the leader stopped me and said “let them figure it out”. And they did, eventually.

  88. HM,

    No, I’m coming at this more from an aspie perspective. ” always being honest regardless of the stakes.” How does this dress make me look? Fat. By always, you don’t mean always.

    But, it extends beyond that. If you’re at a place where “being a team player” is valued and someone screws up do you say, “It went down for two hours because Bob had a : rather than a : in the code!” Or, do you come up with some honestish and plausible explanation that deflects and generalizes blame rather than throw Bob under the bus.

  89. You tried to include an example involving angle brackets, didn’t you. They always disappear.

    And as long as I’m making references, are you familiar with the tale of Thomas the Rhymer? He was blessed/cursed with the inability to tell a lie. It made his reputation as a prophet, but some retellings focus on how badly it messed up his ability to be tactful.

  90. I see both faking data and incomplete/incomprehensible instructions as indicative of a society wide “everyone’s give a damn is broken” .

    Of course kid or techs or scientests shouldn’t fake data. And, in reality, no one ever really knows what their data will be used/misused for. Teachers and instructors should be expected and in some fashion (I know, tenure, never gonna happen) held accountable for being able to convey information accurately and coherently.

    So, what to do in the middle ground, with the barbarians at the gates, bread and circuses and science fairs distracting the populace for the coming catastrophes?

  91. If I ask you if my dress makes me look fat, it is because I want to know & I trust you to know if it does and to be honest with me. If I don’t ask, there is no reason for you to blurt it out, but you could focus on a different facet of the dress: ooh, look at that lace overlay, aren’t you trendy? Love those summer colors! That’s a great print! Etc. that is not dishonest. But if I soecifically ask you, those kinds of things are not helpful or appreciated.

  92. I have a packet of middle school information. I know my kid will figure it out and it seems that they have a good system of having time set aside to talk to advisors (homeroom teacher) and counselor so that the students are not completely lost. Grades and all assignments and information will be posted to an electronic system. Still it is a lot to absorb and I can see how kids can get overwhelmed with all the things they are supposed to keep track of.
    Thanks to the Totebag – I know all what could wrong….

  93. I recall being at my cousin’s house when her husband came home for the weekend. He “had to” do their son’s derby car with the boy. He didn’t like that kind of thing, so I suggested the boy do it alone. Nope, they both said, it’s not set up that way. Dad had to help. No question there, no “oh we wish we didn’t have to” or any concept that the kid should have a major role in it.

  94. Louise, the biggest “keeping track” issue at our middle school is they do a rotating period schedule, so math isn’t always first period, science isn’t always second period, etc. This way the same class isn’t always at the end of the day when the kids are tired and anxious to go home. It makes sense from that standpoint, but it can be a challenge for the kids to remember. I’ve heard from several kids who found it a great relief when they started high school and had classes in the same order every day.

  95. If I ask you if my dress makes me look fat, it is because I want to know & I trust you to know if it does and to be honest with me.

    SM, this is just more evidence that you are non-neurotypical, especially if you are asking this to a male.

  96. DD, you say that as if it were a new hypothesis (to reference the vocab of today’s topic). I’d say your conclusion is correct but your interpretation of data is incorrect. Look at any “womens” magazine (or website) and you will see descriptions (probably in list form) of best friends including the one you take clothes shopping with you because you know she’ll be straight with you about how things fit. I’ve never asked a guy if something makes me look fat, but I’ll certainly put something on, ask how it looks, and pay attention to if it lights up his eyes & face. More recently, I’ve taught my son to look for real & be honest with me.

  97. I see a group science project here, which requires a team of a slim female, an overweight female, a slim male, and an overweight male. At least 2 dresses are required, a slimming black one and one with horizontal stripes, at minimum. Each person should wear a dress and ask 25 random people at a shopping mall if he/she looks fat. The people can be classified by any observable factors, if desired. Statistical analysis should be completed.
    1) Are males more likely to be told they look fat in a dress than females?
    2) Who is most likely to be told he/she looks fat?
    3) Which dress is most likely to cause responders to reply that someone looks fat?

    I never do experiments like this, but y’all can imagine WCE and her three Finn-like cube mates. WCE wears a different maternity top each day of the last month of her pregnancy, asks her cube mates independently if she looks fat, and charts their responses.

  98. Rhett, there is a big difference between social situations and faking data. There is a big difference between saying something to spare someone’s feelings and making up information because you are lazy or don’t like the rules.

  99. Moxie,

    Well, I’ll give you an example from 3 hours ago. I was researching an issue, found the solution and called the relevant manager to have them make the change. Oh, I’m sorry “the system” doesn’t let you do that. There is nothing we can do. Now, I could have walked her through making the change. But, it would take forever, require a ton of paperwork and really provide very little value add.

    I can only assume she uses the “it’s not possible” because it’s easier and faster to say it’s inpossible vs saying it’s possible but a giant pain in the ass.

  100. I don’t agree with faking data but at the same time I can see where Rhett is coming from with real world examples from corporate land.
    The email chains everyday are out of Dilbert. I try to count how many ways different people can say the same thing.

  101. Louise, it’s not about saying things different ways. It’s about intentionally not saying something when you think it would be hurtful. In Rhett’s example, if I was fairly certain of what the other person meant, I probably would’ve ignored the literal meaning of the words & asked what paperwork needed to be done. If it was indeed more hassle than the original problem, I’d say “yup. Impossible”.

  102. I’ve never asked a guy if something makes me look fat,

    Your comment was directed to Rhett, who is male, so it clearly implied that you ask males that question.

  103. DD, I was responding to his comment. The “you” was general (there has got to be a technical term for that), not meaning him specifically. Just like when Springsteen sings “boy you break break that thing you bought it” he isn’t just quoting the salesman; it’s also a general store policy.

  104. S&M – If only getting it done early to get teacher feedback was an option in our MS. Too many things are IMO completion grades, though I do realize they have a place. That means if they did it and turned it in on the right day, they get 100. Rarely do teachers provide feedback on completion assignments. When it is science fair, that is a nightmare because even though you turned it in, you get no guidance. So, the kids continue down the path and then are stuck with a grade that could have been better if there was constructive feedback like Milo described.

  105. “The kids are learning about how to value houses based on comps”

    A great way to introduce them to regression analysis.

  106. “are you familiar with the tale of Thomas the Rhymer?”

    No, but I’ve seen the commercial with Pinocchio as a motivational speaker.

  107. We had a good work out experience. I think we will keep it up. He is not athletic or in sports, so needs to find a workout.

  108. Ack, MBT, I just saw that autocorrect changed “underbanked” to “underhanded”, thereby inserting judgementalism I did not intend to include in asking for your comment.

  109. Thanks for clarifying Saac. From what I’ve read, Facebook isn’t providing the infrastructure for instant transfers. Rather they are using the existing banking system to transfer from one account to another, so to use it someone would have to have acct somewhere. (That’s my interpretation – anyone correct me if you think that is wrong). So, I think it doesn’t help the unbanked at all. If it really ends up being free, it can help people avoid ATM fees and possibly ACH fees, but having worked in banking, I cannot imagine any organization passing up the opportunity for fee income.

  110. @WCE – I saw a woman who looked like an engineer (by this I mean LL Bean type smartly dressed carrying a laptop backpack) and immediately I thought of you and your experiment.

  111. Louise – I think you tried MM LaFleur? I tried a box this week. The dresses were both too short for me for work but otherwise if they fit you, they are very nice (fully lined etc.). They sent me belts/earrings (which I don’t wear) and a weird kind of jacket in a strange fabric. Also pretty expensive, but the quality is good.

  112. L – yes I kept one dress and a scarf though I don’t know why they sent accessories. I realized that you can also buy their items online the traditional way if you want to, instead of doing the bento box.

  113. I still look twice when you guys discuss getting clothes in lunch boxes. Every time, I’ve been disappointed that the discussion is about clothes and not food.

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