Science Fairs and Intellectual Honesty

From the archives, here’s a post about high school science fairs (originally published Jan. 31, 2005).

Once again, New York kicked butt in the Intel science competition. On the face of it, this would be a good thing. Then I looked at the titles of some of the projects. Here’s just a few titles:

  • Digitally-Enhanced Thin-Layer Chromatography: An Inexpensive, New Technique for Qualitative and Quantitative Analysis
  • An Investigation into Multiple Sclerosis: Antibodies to CD44 and ALPHA 4 BETA 1 Differentially Affect Myelin-specific T Cell Responses
  • The Effects of a Quark Matter Core on Neutron Star Cooling
  • Picosecond Time-of-Flight Measurement for Colliders Using Cherenkov Light
  • 3-D Characterization of Deuterium Ice-Layer Imperfections in Cryogenic Inertial Confinement Fusion Targets

Do you really think these students thought of these projects on their own (or at least the basic idea)? I don’t mean to sell these students short: successfully performing these experiments and explaining them cogently to a panel of scientists is an impressive feat. Nonetheless, they didn’t devise these experiments (maybe some did, in which case, I’m truly impressed). In many cases, they were accepted into a lab and were handed a project (I know this happens because several previous NY finalists did their work at Stony Brook).
Some of the projects could have been designed by students (or at least the basic concept). Expressing Integers Using the Least Number of 1’s certainly could have been designed (or at least solved) by the student. It’s not clear to me why one would want to know this, but mathematicians must be interested in such things. The Dynamics of Demographic Differences in the Perceptions of Terrorism Prevention is a really interesting and clever idea (the Mad Biologist gives it a Gold Star); I can certainly imagine a bright kid devising this.
Given that many of these projects appear to have been assigned, what appears to be judged is the ability of the project to work (which reflects the professional scientist behind the project as much, if not more than, the student’s competence), and the ability to explain complex scientific ideas. These are important skills, but doesn’t originality and creativity enter into this process? To put this another way, if these students worked in reasonably sized laboratories, they would probably be middle authors on any published work: the graduate student or post-doc would be first and the principal investigator would be last. It doesn’t strike me as particularly honest to say that this is the “student’s” work in many cases.
Having said this, I’m of a mixed mind when it comes to science fairs and competitions. I’ve worked with high school students who were supposedly interested in competing for Intels. As it turned out, most of them just wanted to work in the lab out of interest and because it beat flipping burgers. We didn’t win any awards, much to the chagrin of their science teachers. I’m in touch with them from time to time, and I think they learned something about science (which is different from learning some science). That should be the goal, not winning prizes.

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