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Science and inquiry

Each year, as soon as our county adds its science fair dates, I get them on the calendar and block out the weekend so I’m sure we don’t schedule anything over it. Since my son became eligible, I started blocking out those dates as well. For the last two years, he and I went to L.A. and had a blast.

This year, however, things are turning out a bit different. Neither of my kids is doing the science fair.

Fish tank

Sometimes science is all about looking into a fishtank and dreaming.

My son is a budding computer scientist, and each year he has to do contortions to make his projects fit the hypothesis-driven focus the science fair requires. Each year, he thinks of a really cool idea and gets very excited. Then I have to ask him the question that causes the air to hiss slowly out of his creative tires:

“What will your hypothesis be?”

I ask the question because I know that our science fair is set up, for better and for worse, to favor hypothesis-driven projects. They do allow for inquiry-driven projects, but word of mouth from other parents is that those projects never win. And although we know winning isn’t everything, it sure is a fun part of the science fair when you’ve done an enormous amount of work to get there. Entering with a project that can’t win seems a bit pointless.

Last year I ended up having the hypothesis problem with my daughter, too. Even though her project was in chemistry, which lends itself more easily to hypothesis-driven experiments, she really couldn’t figure out what her question was. “I just want to do this because it’s cool to find out what will happen,” she said in frustration.

Well knowing what would happen, she submitted her project with a clearly made-up-after-the-fact hypothesis. Not surprisingly, she didn’t even place. This year, in contrast, she came up with a gorgeous, inspired hypothesis. Her project idea was huge, and would have involved much more work than she was willing to put in, so she scrapped it.

I have been talking to Sue Carter, Professor of Physics at UCSC and founder of the new IRIS Science Academy, about her new academy and her approach to teaching science. She had this to say about the way science is taught in schools… and encouraged in our science fair:

The hypothesis approach to science inquiry is pushed in most K-12 school curriculums. While it is certainly a useful thought process to form a hypothesis, it isn’t the only way to approach science and it does have a few flaws. By forming a hypothesis you presume to know an answer and seek to develop a process to prove yourself right or wrong, but in so doing you have just limited the extent of your experiment to the question/hypothesis you formed before you even started the experiment, as well as possibly biasing the answer itself. You may be asking the entirely wrong question. Alot of great science is done without ever forming an initial hypothesis — but keeping an open mind on what the question you want to answer is and taking instead a voyage of discovery which may ultimately lead to a hypothesis. This is known as discovery science and is what many scientific research labs do. So while we may start a lab with a hypothesis-driven approach, we hope the students will evolve throughout he course of the experiment to a discovery-based approach to scientific inquiry led by their own curiosity.

In a sense what she is saying is that my highly creative, science-loving kids are actually behaving less like science students and more like scientists. Instead of formulating a question that would limit what they find, they are interested simply in following a passion and seeing where it leads them. Given that they’re homeschooled, it’s not surprising that they’ve come to science this way. Lucky for them, their dumb mommy forgot to teach science “the right way”!

But much of our current educational system stifles innovation and creativity while encouraging rule-following and safe choices. No wonder so many of the science fair experiments seem lifted directly off Science Buddies—this is what you get rewarded for.

I’m not saying I dislike the science fair—I’m actually very disappointed my kids won’t be taking part. But I think it’s worth questioning what we’re teaching our kids: not just what we actually say, but what message our actions give them. I just had to let my son off from doing the science fair this year, because I think he has a good point. The only hypothesis in most real computer science is “can I do this?”

As for my daughter, she entered an invention contest. And she didn’t get penalized when her major reason for inventing was simply, “I thought it would be cool.”

Posted in Culture, Education, Homeschooling.


2 Responses

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  1. gasstationwithoutpumps says

    In addition to discovery science (which even NIH forgets exists when it comes time to fund grants), there is also engineering, which is part of the International Science and Engineering Fair that our county science fair covers. The County accepts engineering projects, but has no reasonable rubric for judging them nor any guidance for judges in just what engineering is. Many of the “engineering” projects are just model building (which is neither science nor engineering). Engineering projects rarely win. (Note: my son is planning to enter an engineering project this year—I think it’s a great project, but I doubt that it will win anything.)

  2. Suki says

    I’ve never noticed the engineering projects – we’ll definitely have to take a look at that, given that I have a budding engineer in the house. Given the amount of engineering that goes on in our community, what with Plantronics and other smaller companies here, you’d think they would be able to come up with a standard for judging…



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