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Science Fairs Only Fairly Scientific

As the forums for student experiments have proliferated, so have 'cookbooks' with step-by-step instructions for projects. Parents defend the books, but critics say they are worth little as learning tools.

March 08, 2000|LYNN O'DELL and ANN L. KIM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It can only mean one thing when parents show up en masse at a Burbank scientific supply store to purchase petri dishes, food to grow bacteria and pickled fetal pigs for their children: Science fair season has arrived.

Science projects can be a perennial burden for many parents, who find themselves helping their children brainstorm ideas for experiments, chauffeuring their kids around town to purchase materials and posing as test subjects in home laboratories.

"I think it adds to my stress," said Gigi Valencia of Panorama City, who brought her seventh-grade son and his three friends to Burbank's Tri-Ess Sciences in search of a project idea. "The hard part is thinking up what we're going to do."

That has created a big niche for today's self-help publishers.

Books like "Chemistry for Every Kid: 101 Easy Experiments That Really Work," "The Parent's Guide to Science Fairs" and "100 First Prize Make-It-Yourself Science Fair Projects" can provide needed direction to parents and students facing looming classroom deadlines.

And sales, publishers say, have never been better.

"We've seen an incredible increase in the last couple of years," said Laura Cusack, marketing manager for John Wiley & Sons, publisher of Janice VanCleave's series of how-to science books, which has sold nearly 2 million volumes.

The books are showing up on display tables at mainstream bookstores. And specialty stores like Tri-Ess Sciences see them whisked out the door throughout the science fair season, a period that runs from January through April.

Several factors drive the boom:

* U.S. students' poor standing in science testing has put science education in the spotlight, teachers and publishers say.

* Competitive parents want their children to have an edge.

* Many students are required to do science fair projects as class assignments these days, whereas participation during their parents' generation was mostly voluntary.

But do the books really help? And is it cheating to pick up a book, follow a project step-by-step and turn it in?

Some experts, including Chris Gould, former chairman of the California State Science Fair, say it would be outrageous to use an experiment found in a science "cookbook" as a science fair project.

"If you can pick up a book and see an experiment that tells you how to do it and you do it, you've learned nothing. It's a waste of money and a miserable experience compared to what it could be," said Gould, a professor of physics and astronomy at USC.

Others, such as science tutor Denise Floryan, say the how-to books are a good thing for those who have never done projects before, or are lost in their science classes. Because science fair projects often become parent projects, she said, the books can help parents guide their students.

One mother bought a how-to book on a science shopping spree for her daughter. "Science is not her best subject," she said. "This is very difficult for her."

The mother said she was not a great student of science either. So the books provided a starting point in her daughter's hunt for a biology project.

"You want to see your child succeed," she said, "and you're going to help as much as you can."

Linda Bartrom, who teaches Advanced Placement chemistry and honors chemistry at Villa Park High and runs the school science fair, agreed that the books are good for ideas. "But everyone needs to be careful that it doesn't become a recipe that replaces the scientific method," she said.

That method requires students to do research, identify a problem, state a hypothesis, conduct experiments and reach a conclusion.

*

That's the same philosophy pushed by Ira Katz, 84, who has been issuing advice about science fairs as owner of Tri-Ess Sciences for half a century.

In a brochure for his young customers and their parents, he offered the following admonishment: "Science is not simply memorizing facts and theories. Science is doing--finding out for yourself."

The best projects start with a student knowing a little about a general subject and having a question about it, Gould said. The project answers the question.

Gould admitted, though, that those are rare cases. Most students want to do a particular type of experiment because they think it's neat, he said.

In author VanCleave's experience, most students don't know where to begin. A former chemistry and physics teacher, VanCleave has written 43 how-to books on science, mostly aimed at elementary and middle school students. As the science fair expert for the Discovery Channel's Web site, she has answered thousands of questions from students.

"The main question is, 'I'm lost, where do I start?' followed by, 'I've done my experiments, how do I do my research?' " she said.

Her science fair guides are not aimed at giving students projects to clone but at explaining science fair procedures and providing exploratory experiments that lead to their own projects, she said.

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