Thursday, April 07, 2011

Religion at the Science Fair

I judged my first science fair yesterday.

There were some good projects, but most of them were a bit disappointing. The main problem was the lack of originality: most were testing hypotheses that were either obviously true or uninteresting. Good original hypotheses are hard to come by, but still...

One student from a local Christian school added evangelical Christian content to her poster and report. The project concerned determining which solvent was the best to remove stains from various materials. At the end, the student thoughtfully reminded everyone that humanity is also "stained" and that the only stain remover was Jesus.

I feel very sorry for this student, who has clearly been relentlessly indoctrinated by her teachers -- and probably instructed to add this kind of unscientific postscript to her display.


displayname said...

I don't know the context, but I wonder if your perception is distorted when religion is mentioned. I think "the only stain remover is Jesus" is quite an amusing joke, and there's no need for atheists to get distraught when people gently poke fun at their own religion. :-)

Next you'll say that you feel very sorry for whoever wrote the "Is Hell Exothermic" joke.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

No, it was not a joke. The context made it clear that it was all presented in utter seriousness.

Anonymous said...

Do you expect kids to come away with results worthy of publication in a peer-reviewed journal after participation in a science fair? Isn't it enough that they replicate an old experiment, as long as they don't look at the answers before starting?

manuel moe g said...

Not sure if I feel the student was necessarily coerced. I grew up in an evangelical church, I can imagine myself feeling happy to include such a comment in a science display.
I describe myself as an atheist now, but I wouldn't describe *all* my youthful religious training as offensive and harmful - some of it I enjoyed and benefited from.
It is definitely unfair that religious proselytizing is tolerated, but atheist proselytizing is not. This student would benefit from hearing about morally upstanding atheists and seriously considering that religion and morality are demonstratively sometimes orthogonal.

cody said...

What age/grade were these kids?

Also, I was thinking that girl needed some scientific encouragement, maybe discussing what sort of experiments might falsify those claims, but it's so difficult to get through such brainwashing—it's sad.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

The level was grade 7 to 12.

Of course I don't expect publishable research - but even kids this age can come up with original ideas to test.

Anonymous said...

Okay, then can you give a few examples of some "original" ideas kids (12-14 years old) can test? Remember, original means something that nobody has done before. I ask because I am a Middle School science teacher who doesn't believe science fairs do one damn bit of good getting kids to learn about or be excited by science.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Sure - here's one I came up with when I was a child: certain kinds of phosphorescent paint give up their photons all at once when struck with infrared light. Using LED's of different wavelengths, you could measure the frequency response of this phenomenon. Where is the peak response?

Or one that a kid did in the fair I judged: she measured the burning time of candles as a function of the temperature of the candle. That was the most original idea I saw there.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Remember, original means something that nobody has done before.

Umm, no. That's not what I mean by "original", nor is it what I think most people would understand in this context.

By "original" I mean something the student thought up on their own, without getting the idea from a book, or their teacher, or the internet.

Mark said...

When I was a pup, I thought about entering a science fair. I had seen a book that discussed various things to do, but didn't seem to encourage original thinking. As it turned out, I couldn't get a fresh chicken trachea so I didn't enter.

But now I'm haunted by images...Ring around the collar! Let Jesus lick those stains out! Or use Jesus to clean that stain off the window that looks just like the Mother of God.

Anonymous said...

Studying science, I think, will do more to liberate the student from religious indoctrination than any philosophical argument.

Did the student investigate chemical reasons why one solvent might work better than another for a particular staining material? Along the lines cody suggested, I think this is the right direction toward real science -- not just observing phenomena, but formulating testable physical reasons underlying them.

John Stockwell said...

Science fairs are, for the most part, horrible.

For the most part students really do not understand
that science---as it is done---is not some sort
of scholarship oriented topic. As a result, there
will be demonstrations of the known.

Even if students have taken a science class with
experiments, none of the experiments are really
experiments at all, but are demonstrations of
the known.

Because students are not taught science as an active
process, they will try to find something to get through
the project.

There are a few students who get it, or whose parents get it. They have very professional looking displays, which do nothing but convince the rest
of the students that there is some sort of gamesman
ship at work.

I went to a Catholic school. At least there were no
religionisms at our science fairs, pathetic as they were.

Anonymous said...

John, I would have loved to have been your partner in school.

Anonymous said...

I wonder what another poster mentioned too; was the experiment conducted in a rigorous fashion? Did the student ask questions showing they had an interest in their project? Were they meticulous in data collection etc?

If the experiment was well done, then why would you be concerned with her views? Some of the greatest scientists of all time were theists and it didn't seem to adversely affect their rigor. Your blog is interesting btw;)

Jeffrey Shallit said...


I guess you've never done any actual science.

Real scientific papers don't have evangelical religious content in them. Neither do they have sports scores or horoscopes.

Anonymous said...

To the other Anonymous:

That's a little like saying some of the greatest marathon runners of all time overate and it didn't seem to adversely affect their weight.

Unknown said...

"the only stain remover is Jesus"

Oh man, now THAT is funny. I'll contemplate how disturbing and sad it is later, right now I'm laughing too hard ;)