When Science Fair Exhibits Get it Right.

In my last post, I had a bit of rant about science fair exhibits that are a bit short on the educational side of things.  Now it's only fair that I give at least one example of how it's been done right.  We recently attended the Re-Inventing the Wheel event at the Sandy Spring Museum.  The exhibits there pretty much uniformly hit the mark for being both interactive and educational. Here's one example.  The center of the activity was a ingenious setup of a fan (I think it was a Vornado) blowing upward through a clear tube. The construction and design had a  very nice Scandinavian modern aesthetic.  For the activity, the kids were given a collection of old packaging materials, foam balls, pipe cleaners, tape, etc.  The materials were universally light weight.  Once you'd made your construction, you put it in the bottom of the tub and let go.  Up it went.  The stated goal was to make something that could hang out in the tube indefinitely; not too light and not too heavy, just enough drag and stable in the updraft.  That might be trickier than it sounds, but it lends itself to successive approximations, and a few more minutes of tinkering let's you get an idea of how changes in your design effects how it behaves.  It's very hands on, very dynamic, gives quick results, and gives you some intuitive experience in aerodynamics.

That's my example of a exhibit that got everything right.  When you're designing your exhibit, here's a short checklist to ask yourself.  I'm sure I haven't hit all the points I could, and I'm open to suggestions on what I've missed.

  1. Are they making a model or a prototype?  Models are great, but they aren't the real thing, and don't necessarily teach you anything other than what something looks like.  Most model boats are never meant to get wet.  A prototype boat is something you put in the water and see if it floats, how it steers, etc.  The example I gave in the last post was a model of a crystal structure. Little man's construction I described above was his prototype trying to solve a certain problem.  It didn't really look like anything, but it certainly did something. 
  2. Is there an end point?  At least some proto-nerds are going to be obsessive about their construction.  Can they reach a clear conclusion in a reasonable amount of time?  The kid doing this should reach a point where they say something like:
        "Yay! I did it!"
        "Oh, I see what's going on here," or
        "Ah, that's how this works."
  3. Is there a rate limiting step?  If your exhibit has a work-flow that the kids will move through, you don't want to create a bottle-neck at one point. If they are making a car to go down a ramp, will there be a backup at the ramp?  If the kids are making a sample to analyze, is one analysis station fast enough, or do you need more?  This is where I've been caught out.  In the example I gave above you could imagine a line at the tubes, but they'd had the forethought to provide three tubes for the one table of construction materials.  They got the ratio right.

I'm sure there are other points one could make about what makes a good science fair exhibit.  If you have some ideas, post them in the comments.