Drowning in fairness

The new theory in science fair judging is not to judge. A mother wonders whether that will create a generation of more confident scientists or a bunch of praise junkies.

Published May 19, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

It's over, and there will just have to be peace in that. The Science Fair was and ever shall be over, for now. Amen.

I decided to go easy on Sparky. She chose the research question, I suggested the sponges, she designed the experiment and I assisted and did her bidding. We took turns throwing wet things of various sizes out of the window and watched them splat on the deck. We took notes, and she ignored most of what I had to say, which was JUST FINE. Striving always to remember that it was HER project, I shut up and took dictation, recording her precise words to be printed and pasted exactly where she wanted them arranged on her enormous display unit.

When it was finished, I consulted the stack of instructions and asked her whether she would say that her results supported her hypothesis. Her conclusion: Galileo was just plain wrong -- heavy things fall faster anyway. Never mind the muddy data; inertia means nothing to her. I figure that's OK. This is just the first grade and inertia will catch up with her eventually.

The night of the fair I was exhausted, but Sparky was thoroughly excited about the proceedings and the promise of snacks afterward in particular. We wound our way through the school along with dozens of others and managed to avoid bumping into anyone else while carrying a huge folded cardboard display. It was very much like an anthill where all of the ants carry ridiculously over-proportioned leaves through the tunnels. All would be lost if one of them decided suddenly to turn around, bruising antennae and creating a cataclysmic accordion effect that would fling at least half of them back out of the entrance. I really wanted her to turn around, to test my assumption, but she never even hesitated. She's an efficient little marcher now.

We found Sparky's nest without difficulty and found that one of her very best pals had been assigned to the adjacent area. Emily was even more excited than Sparky was about showing off her hard work. I studied it, with helpful interpretation from Emily's mom. Emily had grown water bugs, which died and were then lovingly frozen and displayed in their dripping blocks of tupperwared ice. A large punch bowl full of murky water was present to show where the critters would have lived, had they lived. I may not be properly conveying the charm of this, but it really was science at its cutest.

All of the kids' displays were above average. No kidding. I'd seen a typical first-grade science fair before and this one was better than that one on the whole. There was evidence of plenty of parental design sense, but only rarely did I suspect that dad had been sweating over the Mechanism, shooing junior away to "play video games or something" while he worked. The displays were colorful and nearly all of them included some shaky magic marker work and sporadic scissoring.

Once the setup phase was mostly complete, "adult scientists" began to crouch with the "kid scientists" to discuss their projects. This took a very long time. They appeared to be very thorough and thoroughly encouraging.

When Sparky's turn with the big scientist came up, I had dutifully backed away to watch and not listen. After all, I was just the research assistant, the unpaid and unheralded second banana to the real scientist intent on galloping all over Galileo. Watching Sparky jut her chin and nod grimly during their discussion of gravity, I goggled at her budding confidence and wondered to myself how the hell that happened.

After making her notes for Sparky, the big scientist moved on to the next little scientist, and I raced on tiptoe to scan her remarks. They were a bit vague but clearly complimentary. "Good job" is a favorite uneducational educator phrase, I have learned, and it was there a few times.

Soon it was time for the awards ceremony. The small scientists received medals of participation, very, very slowly. Some of them didn't recognize their names and others seemed unsure of what to do, even after they had, theoretically, applauded for 15 others. At first, it seemed terribly sweet and helpful that everyone was a winner. This experience would boost their scientific self-esteemies! Everybody knows that that is IMPORTANT. It's our duty as parents to stroke and stoke those little egos and volunteer to maim the first person who honestly tells them that they are mediocre at best.

But I wondered what Sparky would have thought if her big scientist had added a valid criticism for her to digest. I'm confident that it would not have caused her to renounce science forever. In fact, it might have improved her methods for next year or even inspired her to try the whole thing again, flinging things from a taller building in the name of better, taller science.

Maybe they know something that I don't. Maybe little people can't cope with criticism until they are of a future developmental age. Maybe this isn't making them into a bunch of praise junkies who will be happy to hear that their science is "good enough" as they calculate a rocket trajectory that is "pretty close."

To the Science Fair, I can say heartily, "Good Job!"

By Liz Gardner

Liz Gardner is a freelance writer and mother of three.

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