In my opinion one of the best barometers of the quality of any particular scientist is their willingness to say “I don’t know” when asked a question for which they do not know the answer. I use this approach all the time at professional conferences to great effect. For a young high school student, in a very intimidating, high stakes situation like a science fair, it is even more difficult. It takes a level of maturity and self confidence that I know I sure as heck didn’t possess at that age. Especially in the sciences to admit that you do not know is seen as weakness, a character flaw even. So I was not at all surprised that when posed a very difficult question that they obviously had no clue what the answer was the presenters stumbled badly. Rather than simply say. “That’s a great question, but I don’t know the answer,” they tried to make something up, deflect, or answer a different question. Sadly, for the remainder of the discussion they were deflated, flustered, and generally out of sorts. It was obvious that it bothered them badly and they had a very difficult time moving on. We need to do a better job of teaching our young scientists and all students in general that it’s OK to not always have the answer. If we did we wouldn’t need science or students in the first place.
Quite a few people mentioned that I should be on the lookout for presentations at the science fair where it was clear a parent/teacher/friend did most or all of the work. Thankfully that was a non-issue, at least for the presentations I judged. That said there was one poster in my group that was done by the students in collaboration with a University laboratory. This is within the rules of the fair but it left quite a bad taste in my mouth. I went from a presentation that had publication quality transmission electron micrographs to one by a kid who clearly did not have access to or know how to use basic graphing software. His bar graphs appeared to be hand drawn and colored in with sharpies. However, marker graph kid’s work was superior, he had sharper critical thinking skills, and a greater depth of knowledge then the TEM people. All this was obvious to me but I worry that others could easily be fooled into equating fancy/high tech/pretty pictures with better work overall. None of the other judges in my group fell for this but I’m certain it happens. You can’t blame the kids for taking advantage of every opportunity they are given but there needs to be equality of opportunity for all. That was very obviously not the case.