ID at the Science Fair
I went to judge a middle school science fair this morning. One of the projects was about the axial tilt of the earth and the control that the moon had on the earth. This was fine.. so far. When I read the ?problem statement?, I noticed that there was an argument that the axial tilt was one of the features of our planet that made it special for intelligent life. My curiousity was more than piqued so I asked the students what their inspiration was for the project. The mentioned that they had watched a film called ?Privileged Planet?. The book is authored by Discovery Institute fellow Gonzalez. Gonzalez is the same person who pushed for showing of his film at the Smithsonian a while back.
The questions we asked were actually simple (I think). Our goal was not to intimidate them for their poor choice of ?inspiration? but rather to see how much they actually knew about the obliquity of the planet(s). To that end, we asked
(1) What is the obliquity of Mars which has two small moons.
(2) What is the obliquity of Uranus?
(3) What was the past obliquity of the Earth?
(3) What is the future for earth?s obliquity and would that be beneficial to life?
(4) Why was your model relevant?
They did not know the obliquity of Mars (ok fair enough, but it seemed to us that one of the obvious investigations would be to look at other planets).
They did know that Uranus has a high obliquity and that is is likely due to a large impact. We asked how the moon formed (good answer) but they could not understand how the answer to that question might relate to present-day obliquity. They had no idea of the past obliquity of the earth or the changes in LOD. They knew the future of the earth?s obliquity in general terms but not what the dominating influence on obliquity would be in the future. Their model consisted of a rubber ball with a nail in it and one without a nail in it which they spun on the table. The nail represented the moon, the other ball represented earth without a moon.
These were 8th graders and all in all they did a fair job with questions, but did not score well because of poor presentation and lack of a detailed analysis of their ?model?. It was spinning of the balls and a qualitative judgement of how well they spun. The winner had a project on how much lime should be added to tropical soils to bring them to a pH of 6.5. The student?s father is a professor of soil science here so she had good access to lab facilities and samples. In general I grow leery of too much parental involvement, but this girl knew the subject backward and forward and answered probing questions. It was clear that although her dad helped, she did the work and understood the relevance. The second runner-up studied the effect of temperature on lithic fragments used to make arrowheads. This girl had minimal parental involvement (from what we could tell) and was excited about her project and also answered tough questions. The worst was a student who studied fog formation by filling one bottle up with cold water and one with hot water and then setting an ice cube on each one to see which one fogged up). There was a photo of her holding ice cubes on each of the bottles and a conclusion that read ?due to temperature differences?. It?s always fun to go to these things. Projects ran the gamut from imaginative and original to dull and boring. If I see one more project about which toothpaste works best or ?how clean is your bus seat? i will gag.