Friday, January 8, 2010

Put Up Your Dukes, Sharon!

Sharon McElroy was worried. Was I suggesting that, as a science project, kids should sit in the mall food court observing families to see which of two siblings got the most parental attention?That could be a problem, she told me. Just as any social science research must be approved by a Scientific Review Committee (SRC), a student doing a science fair project must get clearance from their Internal Review Board (IRB) prior to doing any work involving human subjects, any living subjects actually, and the reason is to keep anyone – or any living thing – from coming to harm. And here I was, suggesting that they spy? What if…?

Sharon is the teacher adviser to my series Science Fair Winners, published by National Geographic Children’s Books. She’s an esteemed high school teacher from Indiana, and the winner of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching and the Intel Excellence in Education Award. National Geographic picked her because her success in science competitions and her work on national and international science fair committees prepares her to offer advice regarding the projects in my books.

Sharon’s role was to make sure the projects made it simple for kids to do science work that was interesting, that was safe, that met science standards, and that wouldn’t violate the rules. And here she was, suggesting that my projects might get kids kicked out of science fair? As if!

Our NG editor did the rational thing. She pulled us out of the boxing ring, sat us down in our corners, had us pour ourselves a cup of coffee, and set up a conference call.

Putting together Family Science (due out in May) hasn’t been easy. YOU try coming up with 20 science workshops that involve family members – your own or someone else’s -- including those with four legs and two legs, the old and the young, the quick and the dead.

Make sure the science is good (meaning that the observations are measurable, the experiments can be replicated, and the conclusions are based on real data).

Make sure the science is current, that it relates to work actually being done in the field, and that the questions it raises promote further knowledge and understanding of concepts and processes.

Focus on fields that kids don’t typically get into in middle school, such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, or genetics. Consult scientists for their thoughts on how kids can do a version of the studies the scientists really do, and include advice for young scientists on how to get into their fields.

Keep it exciting, simple, sincere, safe, and legal.

And, most of all, keep it on the middle school level. Hit ‘em where they live: sibling rivalry, babysitting, afterschool activities, and hangouts like the park and mall.

Why bother? That’s the question that brings Sharon and me out of our corners shouting. There we are, in the middle of the mat, shouting about what lights kids up, about stupid science non-experiments that run rampant in science fair halls, about the problems inherent in putting anything under stress. We’re under stress. And then we realize we’re both saying the same thing:

The purpose of these books is to give middle schoolers guidelines to being a scientist at a young age.

Sharon tells me a story about one of her former students, a boy named Paul Lynch. Paul’s younger brother used to lose at video games and get up and yell and kick. Paul asked Sharon what she thought the cause was: was his brother mad at losing? Or did the video game make him more violent? How could he find out? Sharon helped him get started.

These days, Paul Lynch has contributed loads of research to the question of violence and video games. He is now an M.D. (You can google him.) And he began his work by considering a situation that he observed in his own home.

I wish every student could have a teacher like Sharon McElroy to help him or her figure out a way to study social science. And I’m grateful to have her helping me navigate the rules of science fair committees so that the projects in my books can potentially light the fire inside more social scientists.

P.S. The photo shows Sharon with a student. The book cover is for Bug Science, the first book in the Science Fair Winners series. The cover for Family Science is still underway

1 comment:

Unknown said...

What a terrific contribution to the science fair literature you're making, Karen! The creative part of science is getting a handle on just what question to ask and to figure out a way to measure the answer. Congrats to you and to your stellar teacher-advisor, Sharon. If we had a million like her, science ed wouldn't be in its current dire straits.