Good science speaks for itself

A well-controlled experiment is a prerequisite. File photo / Greg Bowker
A well-controlled experiment is a prerequisite. File photo / Greg Bowker

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I was at the NIWA science fair at the Hamilton Gardens this week, talking to some of the children who had put together displays on their science projects.

I can't say anything specific, not least because the prizes haven't been announced yet, but I will say that, as ever, it is a real privilege to be able to see what these children have been up to and to encourage them further in science (in my case, physics).

Out of 300 or so exhibits (not all physics, I should say) how does one go about picking the prize winners? Although there are always difficulties, it is not so difficult as it might sound, because the good science tends to leap out at you.

What do I mean by good science? A number of things contribute here.

First is studying something that is of scientific interest. That usually excludes comparing one brand of X against another brand of X for how Y it is ... you know the kind of thing. Which washing powder washes the whitest, which energy-saving light-bulb is the brightest, etc.

Then there is thought behind the method. Is the experiment well controlled? If you're looking at how the pressure in a football influences how far it will travel when kicked, how are you making sure that it is only the pressure that you are changing? You need to kick with the same force every time, at the same point on the ball. How are you achieving that? What about wind conditions - are your kicks into a headwind one day and tailwind the next? Temperature and relative humidity of the atmosphere? And so on.

Statistical variations are thought about, and enough trials are done to get decent means (averages). Just doing your experiment once isn't really enough. (I still have to tell my second year experimental physics class this on a regular basis).

Then results are presented and discussed well, and appropriate conclusions drawn. When talking with the children, it is usually evident whether they have understood what their experiment means. It's easy to overestimate the importance of your work. It's unlikely that a football-pressure experiment will result in FIFA changing their regulations, for example, though it might emphasise to you that you should take the effort to pump your ball up to the right pressure before playing in the park with your mates. Sometimes children say things like "If I were to do this again, I would change XYZ because that would account for ABC....". This shows real thought behind their work and is a sign of a budding scientist at work.

And finally there's the logbook. That's what the scientist uses to write down what he or she is doing as he or she goes along. (Again, I have to keep telling that to my second years). A good logbook contains thoughts, reflections on work, and oodles of data and graphs, and probably diagrams too, and probably runs over several weeks. What it shows is a record of careful thought, planning, and taking and analysis of data.

So, overall then, a good science project usually speaks for itself, and judging 300 exhibits (not that I had that job this year) isn't so much of a daunting task as it first appears.

Dr Marcus Wilson is a lecturer in the Engineering Department at Waikato University. View his work and that of 30 other scientists and science writers at Sciblogs, New Zealand's largest science blogging network.

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