I was a judge for my daughter’s science fair tonight. I have been asked many, many times to judge science fairs, and I’ve successfully dodged all but (now) two requests. This time I was captured by a desperate letter begging for more judges, and my own daughter’s plaintive cries that she really wanted me to do it. I finally said I would.

I don’t like judging science fairs. Now I know why.

First let me say that many of the kids worked really hard, lots of parents were involved with their kids’ activities, the teachers put in a lot of time and effort that frankly won’t help them get those test scores up, and so on. I’m in favor of all those things. So I don’t want to be too negative. Any time you spend supporting a kid (your kid, someone else’s kid, what have you) is valuable time. I applaud everyone for the effort.

Now that I’ve got that out of the way.

I always knew I didn’t like science fairs. Why? I was vague. There were a lot of possible reasons:

– the “scientific method” mantra and the fact that real science doesn’t work that way

– the competition aspect

– the arbitrariness of the judging

But now I know what I want to say about science fairs. I don’t like science fairs because they limit the wonder, and wonder must not be limited.

I used to think my biggest complaint was the fact that science fairs teach the scientific method – hypothesis, experiment, conclusion – and that real science rarely works that way. But that’s not really my complaint. My complaint is that I don’t think science education should be about teaching kids how to do science at all. It’s not the point, or at least it shouldn’t be. Most people will not become scientists. But everyone, everyone, can make science a part of their lives. How? By experiencing the wonder, the beauty, the joy of it.

In the same way, most arts students won’t become artists, but everyone can experience the wonder of putting color on paper, playing a musical instrument, or performing in a play. Why do we encourage students to do these things? Not as vocational education, surely, but because of the experience itself.

We do science in science class, quite frankly, because it’s fun, it’s wondrous, it’s exciting, it’s a little bit dangerous. It engages your senses, it makes you think, it makes you wonder.

If, as it must be seen whether this is the intention or not, the science fair is meant to serve as the pinnacle of the science experience, just as the spring musical is the pinnacle of the theater experience, the recital the pinnacle of the orchestra experience, and the senior show the pinnacle of the art experience, then the science fair falls far, far short. Why? Because it limits the wonder.

The wonder of science is in so many things. It is in the doing, but not the hypothesis-experiment-conclusion style of doing championed by the science fair. It is in using an amazing piece of equipment, creating some fascinating reaction, touching, seeing, feeling something you’ve never touched, seen, or felt before. It is the fun and the wonder of the act, not the funneling of that act into a result.

It is also in learning what is already known, uncovering the wonders of our world, and learning how clever people uncovered those wonders through the use of their unlimited imaginations and unparallelled ingenuity. It is finally, I believe most deeply, in the connections between these two things. How can the things I do with my own hands link me to amazing discoveries and wondrous events?

Instead of hypothesis-experiment-conclusion science fairs, I propose a science festival, in which students are encouraged to study those things they find most interesting. Perhaps a report on the life of Charles Darwin is coupled with the extraction of DNA. Perhaps a demonstration of a powerful and thrilling chemical reaction could be coupled with research into the atomic theory of matter, and the scientists who first journeyed into that fantastic realm.

Some students might be most interested in applying the laws of science to invent something new. Others might prefer to study how scientific ideas have changed over time. Still others might practice the quiet science of observation – backyard wildlife, the sky at night, the colors of the sunset.

Perhaps all these things make science fairs impossible to judge. To that I say, they’re impossible to judge now!  Putting a subjective judgment on a 1 to 5 scale does not make it objective! But I also say, so what if the judging becomes impossible? Better than judging, always, is mentoring, talking, discussing with a student what she’s learned, what she still doesnt know, what she’s gained and what she wants to know next. These discussions are where the real gold lies, not in the trophy or the medal awarded at the end.

Make the science fair a science festival. Let all scientific interests be reflected. Open the doors for wonder. That I will judge, and without the begging.