Stuart Hobson Students Know ‘Back to the Drawing Board’ is Just Part of the Process
Feb. 7, 2012 - At school’s science fair, middle schoolers explore the trial-and-error world of the scientific method
Students like Stuart-Hobson Middle School sixth graders Hannah Dewhurst and Jonah Kohlmeyer hate to be wrong. But they’ll accept failure if it means getting closer to a scientific breakthrough. In fact, they know it’s just a part of the process.
The two 11-year-olds built a Kelvin electrostatic generator for the school’s annual science fair, an event that qualifies winners for the DC STEM Fair held March 24, 2012, at Wilson High School. The generator, which consists of a water source, two droppers, two inducers, two water collectors, wires, and two probes, uses the electrical charges in water to make static electricity.
Dewhurst and Kohlmeyer had seen the contraption before. A professor from Massachusetts Institute of Technology had conducted an experiment using the generator on a much larger scale and managed to generate 40 volts. Dewhurst and Kohlmeyer’s experiment, however, generated only a slight spark that was barely visible.
“I was very frustrated because I was excited to turn water into electricity,” said Dewhurst, her look of disappointment quickly turning to enthusiasm as she and Kohlmeyer began brainstorming ways of reviving the project.
“I’m actually thinking about getting better materials and doing it again next year,” Kohlmeyer said.
“I might try other liquids to get it working,” Dewhurst added. “The guy at M.I.T. used trash cans and did it on a larger scale. If we could up the ante and use a bigger container, we could make it big enough to [power] something electronic?”
Kohlmeyer said he explored different ways of reviving the generator for this year’s project, but he concluded, “It’s just a stubborn generator.”
“I’m disappointed but happy because you can continue to work on it,” Dewhurst said, noting that a big part of scientific experimentation is excluding methods, materials and measurements that don’t work as you work to solve a problem.
For Stuart-Hobson science teachers Doug Creef, Anthonette Peña and Susan Mitchell-Dunn, these are types of realizations they want their students to discover through the scientific method, which involves observation, measurement and experimentation, as well as the formulation, testing and modification of a hypothesis.
“This is how real science is done,” said Peña, who attended the White House Science Fair on Feb. 7, 2012, with Kyra Smith, 13, a Stuart-Hobson eighth grader who was nominated by the DCPS STEM Director Camsie McAdams to attend the second-annual event. “This is what happens in the real world.”
Creef said he’s seen science students struggle with trial and error before. They figure they’ll fail if their projects fail. But, in science, you learn as much by failing as you do by succeeding. Failures point scientists in different directions to explore different approaches to challenging problems.
“I think children eventually find their niche,” he said. “They are always wondering how things work.”
Projects at this year’s Stuart-Hobson science fair explored Earth and Space concepts (sixth grade, Mitchell-Dunn), Life Science (seventh grade, Creef) and Physical and Chemical science (eighth grade, Peña). But students ventured into other areas that ran the gamut from behavioral and social science experiments that rely on surveys to experiments based on assumptions they had about their parents’ video gaming skills and their dogs’ snack preferences.
Peña, Creef and Mitchell-Dunn said it doesn’t matter whether a student’s assumptions were correct or not, as long as they could explain to science fair judges how they conducted their experiment and tested their assumptions.
“I ask one basic question: What did you do? They answer it, and that’s the information we want them to be able to get,” Mitchell-Dunn said. “There’s nothing like seeing their faces when they say, ‘I did this!’”
McAdams said staying with a problem and working it through not only shows perseverance but also is a major goal of the Common Core State Standards that DCPS adopted for this school year.
“It tells you that in life it’s OK to adapt a design or alter your path,” McAdams said. “In middle school, they’re doing a lot of exploring and experimenting [as opposed to conducting original research]. So it’s important to reinforce the idea that if an experiment doesn’t turn out the way you expected, keep going. That’s what science is all about.”
Dave Oberbillig, a high school biology teacher from Montana and Einstein Fellow at the Department of Energy who served as judge at Stuart-Hobson on Jan. 23, 2012, said the beauty of school science fairs is, “They’re doing science rather than just absorbing concepts.”
“I get to enjoy being around students and seeing what they’re doing in DC,” Oberbillig said. “Kids get feedback on projects and that helps develop their idea of what science really is. … I’m really impressed by the commitment of DCPS teachers to get them involved.”