I remember elementary school science fairs as being somewhat traumatic. They felt that way because I knew my ideas were not original, that there was no way I was going to win (or even come across as the science fair equivalent of Miss Congeniality), and that I would be going through all the stress for nothing. I was a rather mediocre and unmotivated student before sixth grade and my feelings of inferiority were all the more magnified by other classmates who were certified geniuses. Comparisons were inevitably made and I always came up lacking.
Anyways, I did not consider grade school science to be particularly fun. Oh sure, I loved sequestering myself in the library to read science books, watching my father solder circuits in the garage, or fiddling with the light microscope my mother bought me, but stuff at the desk bored me. There are only so many definitions you can copy down before you go mad. And science fairs–well, they were structured projects and so tainted with school that I found it hard to find any fun about it. It’s like the “demonstration” some student teacher* made when I was in fifth grade. She had gotten a chicken at the grocery store and took it out to show the parts of the dead animal. I thought it was incredibly stupid as I’d already had poultry anatomy lessons by simply observing my parents in the kitchen. Scientific discovery isn’t like meat that you could just buy at the store.
But I want to make it clear that despite some of my less than stellar experiences with science when I was younger, I did not give up on the subject.
Earlier this week, I managed to get sucked into being an evaluator for an elementary school science fair. Which was really uncharacteristic of me as I don’t consider myself the kind of person that children (or pets) would be easy around. (And so much of a disconnect that one of the undergrads in lab wished that he had actually been there to see me interacting with the kids.) There were hundreds of projects from seven different elementary schools in town. All of the evaluators either worked in a science field or were “good with kids”**. As far as I knew, I was the only grad student without kids doing this–no undergrads or high school students. One of the professors I talked to thought it was awesome I was volunteering and wished that she had forced all of her grad students to volunteer, too. This made me feel a little better that people with actual PhDs didn’t think I was just wasting my time.
Before the onslaught of kids, the organizers explained the judging criteria. They emphasized that it was supposed to be fun and positive. No dinging the kids on not having a double blind study or not thinking through the scientific method. Judge according to age appropriateness–no slamming kindergartners on handwriting when they’re supposed to be learning their letters. Okay, that didn’t seem too hard. The grading sheet made sense–until I actually read the grading column. Good. Great. Excellent. What?! Talk about grade inflation invading early education.
And if you, the evaluator, wrote anything on the evaluation sheet that wasn’t deemed positive, it was highly likely that the evaluator of the evaluators would change it. Or worse, completely rewrite the evaluation. Geez. Are kids’ self-esteem these days so fragile that they’ll give up if a single negative things was said to them?
So I wrote the evaluations cognizant of the fact that it would be the adults who would be giving them the gimlet eye. Kids might cry a bit over some criticism, but I think it would have been a learning experience for them, too. I’ve seen adults who couldn’t take criticism–and it is never pretty***.
I found myself, surprisingly, enjoying my time talking to the kids–even the ones who seemed particularly sullen or non-talkative. I think it was more satisfying to me in trying to lead the students to think beyond the box, outside of their project which had undoubtedly been replicated in thousands of other schools, rather than strictly grading them on how “correct” their display was. Sure, some were nervous and wanted to get it over as soon as possible. But sometimes, the light bulb figuratively went on after a bit of gentle probing. My style–for better or worse–was completely different than another evaluator who I overheard gush about all the “interesting colors” in an interview with another student.
As for the other way around–who knows what the elementary school kids thought about me. Probably the worst.
*I could go on a week-long rant about student teachers I’ve had the dubious pleasure of interacting with. Yes, they were young and inexperienced. But the type of twenty-somethings who go into education seem to be exactly the type who shouldn’t be taking education classes. Because unlike anybody majoring in pretty much anything else, they don’t seem to know a damn thing.
**How being “good with kids” qualifies one as a judge for scientific rigor, who knows.
***This brings to mind the reviews I got for a novel contest I recently entered. I was really surprised by how positive they were–they could have been a lot harsher in their criticism. But the reviewers must have realized that there were some people who can’t take criticism–easily evidenced by some other entrants who threw tantrums on the contest message boards for something that everyone else considered very minor.