“The only way to do great work is to love what you do.” Steve Jobs
I judge a lot of elementary school science fairs, and it’s that time of year again. If you’ve read my earlier blog posts on the topic, you know that I have issues with some of the practices that these events reflect, and I’ve offered suggestions for improving the quality of the experience for both students and teachers … oh, and judges as well.
It is dispiriting to talk with a student who has no genuine interest in her subject … with a student who picked his experiment from a list provided by the teacher or found on the internet … a topic that seemed doable, if not terribly interesting or relevant to the student.
And so we both slog through the presentation. The student dutifully reads or recites the requisite parts … purpose, hypothesis, materials, procedure, conclusion and proffers the requisite research paper, complete with abstract, safety sheet (yes, even for paper towels and water), and a “review of literature,” these days, most generally internet websites, responds without much enthusiasm to questions … and often without much deep knowledge about the science content the “experiment” centered on, necessitating a quick scurry through cards or paper. The quality of the board is duly noted on the score sheet … is it attractive, does it contain all the requisite parts, is it free of spelling and other errors? I know this is all good, but for however much students may benefit from learning the process of conducting an experiment (if indeed it was one) and presenting their learning to adults, something is often missing — genuine excitement, an opportunity to have done something meaningful to the student. And I often feel sad as I record my scores.
So what a revelation it was to encounter two students this past Friday at the Byrne Elementary School Science Fair who were genuinely passionate about their projects, who were deeply and personally engaged, who really cared. What they studied may not change the world, but it definitely changed me. And I suspect it changed them, as well, by deepening their understanding of something they already loved.
Meet 8th graders Jason Yakes and Juliana Schuch.
Jason’s project was “To Cork or Not to Cork?” or “How Does the Amount of Cork in a Baseball Bat Affect the Distance a Baseball Will Travel?” (What a lovely Wheel of Inquiry investigation!) Juliana’s was “What’s Your Vocal Range?” And here’s what made them different than so many other students whose projects I’ve judged. Jason and Juliana each have a deeply personal connection, a passion for the topic they chose to investigate. And that personal connection lit them up when they presented. They didn’t have to read from cards or fumble the science. They knew it. They could simply talk about what they did, responding easily to questions, offering additional information that wasn’t on the boards but that was part of their mental files on their topic.
Jason tells me up front that he has loved baseball his entire life, well, going back six years. I inwardly sigh. He was curious to know why corked bats were banned and assumed that it must be because they provided an unfair advantage to a batter. He figured that corking a bat must make the ball go further. So he built a pendulum-based apparatus that would allow him to test the distance a ball would go after being hit by an uncorked bat, one with two inches of corking, and one with four inches of corking in the “sweet spot.” To “remove himself from the experiment,” the apparatus included a headboard, so that Jason would lift the bat to exactly that height for each trial and simply drop it without applying any “oomph” that could skew the results. As it turned out, his hypothesis was wrong. Corked bats didn’t make the ball go further. But that opened up the conversation about why a player like Sammy Sosa would use one. (Trust me, I had no idea that a corked bat had exploded thereby revealing Sosa’s deceit … I am a complete sports illiterate.) Jason volunteered additional information and speculation about the attraction of corking. The entire time, he was animated, excited about his subject, and welcomed conversation about it. There was nothing rote or rehearsed or routine about this exchange.
Here is the point: I asked Jason what he wanted to do in the future. He said, “ I want to play baseball.” He has a Plan B … he is interested in the law, in arguing cases. I suspect he will be great at either.
Juliana’s project was based on her own interest in vocal range. Knowing that gender influences vocal range, she wondered about the difference that age makes in vocal range, so she tested ten children and ten adults to see what their high note is and what their low note is. She even tests her results using an app that automatically registers range. The science is impeccable. She tells me that as we age it becomes more difficult to hit the higher notes. Children can indeed outdo adults in that, as her data demonstrates. She tells me the physiology behind this. I cringe, knowing she is telling a hard truth. We laugh. She reassures me not to worry. I tell her about Yma Sumac, “who recorded an extraordinarily wide vocal range of 5 octaves, 3 notes and a semitone ranging from E2 to B♭7. In one live recording of “Chuncho,” she sings a range of over four and a half octaves, from B2 to F♯7. She was able to sing notes in the low baritone register as well as notes above the range of an ordinary soprano and notes in the whistle register.” Juliana says she will check out YouTube.
Here is the point: Juliana is a singer. She tells me that she wants to be on The Voice and that if she is, she’ll let me know. I have every confidence that she will be. I ask her about her vocal range. She knows it, has tested it. But when I ask her to sing she demurs because her sustained high notes would be too loud in the room. Another time. But singing is her passion. And she loves singing Adele songs!
Juliana’s research paper concludes, “I am honestly very proud of these results because it was a fun experience and my hypothesis was correct, making it a win-win deal.”
Now that’s something I would wish for every student doing a science fair project … a sense of pride, of ownership, a feeling that doing the experiment was fun, that it was a win-win deal.
In a speech to the National Education Summit on High Schools, February 26, 2005, Bill Gates said “America’s high schools are obsolete.” I doubt he would disagree if I suggested the same is true of America’s elementary schools. Gates offered a new 3 R’s for educators.
• The first R is Rigor – making sure all students are given a challenging curriculum that prepares them for college or work;
• The second R is Relevance – making sure kids have courses and projects that clearly relate to their lives and their goals;
• The third R is Relationships – making sure kids have a number of adults who know them, look out for them, and push them to achieve.
I would turn that on its head a bit. I think the first is Relationships.
Teachers, know your students well enough to know what they are passionate about. Build those relationships and tap that knowledge to help them find a project that advances their own interests and aspirations. Jason loves baseball. Juliana loves singing. What does Tanesha love? What does Rodolfo love? And Science Buddies has a tool, the Topic Selection Wizard, that can help students zero in on projects they would be genuinely interested in doing.
Relationships can help you connect the learning of individual students to things that are personally relevant to them — seriously no more experiments on “which paper towel is more absorbent?” There isn’t a 12 year old alive who cares about that. I certainly don’t.
And that personal relevance will drive rigor such that students will know and say so much more about their projects than can ever be captured on a three-fold board.
In a way, science fairs are microcosms of life. Some people go through life going through the motions, slogging away at a job without much enthusiasm. Imagine the energy we would unleash if we helped students discover what they love and release them to learn more about it and maybe continue pursuing that love until it becomes … their life.
p.s. We science fair judges will thank you. And my thanks to teacher Mike Albro and principal Chantel Angeletti of Byrne Elementary for a great experience! Special kudos to Mary Beth Corbin for assisting Byrne sixth grade students in creating such awesome projects. Byrne was a STEM Institute partner school from 2010 – 2012.
Learn more about STEM Institute here.