Outrage of the Week, Cont’d: Kids in Developing Country Doing Better Science!

Hi Folks — Here’s an update from Bree, the Boulder, Colo., mom who sent in her daughter’s No-Science at the Science Fair rules (see post below). Turns out Bree’s parents are living in Myanmar (formerly Burma, as in Shave, as in something you do with a sharp object that children should never get anywhere near) and they happened to visit a local  science fair. Writes Bree:

They told me that not only was EVERYTHING on this restricted list allowed, kids there were actually outperforming kids here in innovation, outlandish ideas, and actual science!!  And they don’t even have electricity, computers, or potable water!  But they were allowed not only to experiment, but also to bring those experiments into their school.

The best part – no one was hurt by plants in soil.

What a relief! And I suppose that a little knowledge turned out not to be a such dangerous thing, either. Time to tell the folks in Boulder!  Or maybe they should just start studying Burmese.– Lenore

Myanmar kids make me hoppy! PHOTO CREDIT: Meneer Zjeroen flickr.com/photos/nuskyn/ / CC BY 2.0

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26 Responses to Outrage of the Week, Cont’d: Kids in Developing Country Doing Better Science!

  1. Micki Sellers February 16, 2010 at 11:39 pm #

    Those are the same guidelines as our science fair. However, we did take pictures of my daughter using a giant knife as she explored why onions make you cry! They didn’t have any problems with her using dangerous objects as long as it wasn’t at school LOL She won honorable mention, btw.

  2. EV February 16, 2010 at 11:43 pm #

    My sons were very interested in intertidal pools. We spoke to a local marine biologist at our local university who pinpointed several great spots. The boys were careful. Climbing on the rocks at low tide when the rocks were dry and using good common sense. In all three place, this lasted all of 5 minutes. The police, the state park ranger, and a beach patrolman all said the same thing. This is too dangerous (even with mom’s ok).

    Although there were no signs posted and no state laws prohibited the activity, the ranger insisted that the groin (2 feet tall concrete rubble with sand on both sides) could not be poked around in or on. He refused to listen when we told him our professor sent us. It was just too dangerous. I asked if anyone had ever been seriously injured. “Well, no. But it could happen.” Oh. Ok.

    Aggg. I left with a sense that no science would ever move forward. Without risk (and proper training, reading, and planning) there can be no reward.


  3. catgirl February 17, 2010 at 12:17 am #

    No chemicals? That rules out literally everything. I suppose they meant no toxic/hazardous chemicals, but the concept of no chemicals at all is really funny to a chemist.

  4. Nicola February 17, 2010 at 12:19 am #

    @EV: Makes you just want to spit, doesn’t it? It’s a shame when we are made to feel that in order to explore our world we have to be subversive and hidden lest the “caretaker” of the place prevent us from doing anything but standing on the designated path and just looking.

    And you know, sometimes risk *without* proper planning is worth it (you never know what sunset or vista you’ll see on that unbeaten path)… but we’ll never be able to handle that kind of sudden change if we’re never allowed to exercise our human minds. If it’s all sterile, we’re doomed.

  5. jeff February 17, 2010 at 12:55 am #

    burma is not a good example of anything

  6. impassionedplatypi February 17, 2010 at 1:06 am #

    Uh, jeff I would beg to differ. I think that Lenore’s friend Bree is giving a perfect example of something Burma has done right.

  7. pentamom February 17, 2010 at 1:08 am #

    Yeah, maybe a better way to look at it is “even basket-case Burma has a more sensible approach than some supposedly advanced Western countries.” Free Aung San Suu Kyi!

  8. JMP February 17, 2010 at 1:09 am #

    I wouldn’t necessarily be so critical of the original rules — except for the exceedingly vague bit about “no chemicals,” since there’s no definition of chemicals.

    The rules talk about things students are not allowed to have as part of their displays — not things they’re not allowed to use in the experimentation documented in those displays. I don’t think it’s out of line for a school to decide that while students can conduct experiments using legitimately hazardous materials and techniques (plenty of which can be found in your average home), and those students are free to document that use of hazardous materials, they want to limit the use of the actual hazardous materials in the displays.

    I recall that when I was in my high school science fair, we were expected to attend to our displays all day on the day of the fair, with everyone taking lunch in three shifts. During those lunch shifts, people’s displays were unattended. The rule was that we couldn’t include anything in our display that would pose a hazard if we weren’t there to make sure that the middle schoolers started poking at it while we were out to lunch. People did plenty of rather hazardous experiments, but they documented them without hazardous materials in the displays. The faculty advisor to the science fair did tend to recommend that those students who had more ambitious projects connect with a professional mentor — both for safety reasons and to allow for a better understanding of the underlying science — but recommending that high schoolers work with professional scientists is hardly a kneejerk reaction to keep kids “too safe.”

    It’s actually closer to what actual professional scientists do. They might conduct experiments that involve all sorts of potential hazards, but present their data in papers and posters that are merely text and images on paper. In other words, these restrictions are treating the kids more like adults, rather than less like adults.

    Don’t confuse restrictions on what can be contained in the displays with restrictions on the substance of the experiments.

  9. Lainie February 17, 2010 at 1:11 am #

    Oh…you mean kids who explore are able to learn? I KNEW I was missing something!

  10. impassionedplatypi February 17, 2010 at 2:01 am #

    I knew something about all this was bothering me, I just couldn’t quite pinpoint it… but JMP has articulated it I think. I know that when I decided to dissect a snake in middle school for the science fair I was allowed to bring the specimen in, but I think I kept it in sort of a display box with plastic wrap to keep people from touching it. I would have completely understood if my teacher had told me I couldn’t actually bring in the snake, just use pictures in the display.

  11. pentamom February 17, 2010 at 2:45 am #

    But the fact that someone in charge of running a science fair is capable of writing “no chemicals” whether referring to the display or not, is still really, really bad news for science education. Also, the idea that if something is potentially harmful under any conditions it should be banned rather than appropriately handled and attended is another destructive tendency. To the extent JMP is right, his comment offers its own solution — the kids should be responsible for not leaving their displays unattended if there is anything problematic in them. That is a much, much, much better approach than fostering a close association between science and fear of danger when trying to do education.

  12. elizabeth burtt February 17, 2010 at 3:07 am #

    When My daughter was in grade seven, she was told that her science fair project idea was scientifically irrelevant. Her project you ask? the effects of metal oxides on colour and glaze performance in midfire porcelain glazes. Her teacher said that ceramics had no scientific relevance. huh, who knew. The same teacher also told me in parent teacher interview, that she was a lovely girl, and almost as smart as her brother. AAAAARGGGH!

  13. Uly February 17, 2010 at 3:39 am #

    I guess her science teacher never heard of all the cutting edge work being done IN ceramics nowadays.

  14. gramomster February 17, 2010 at 4:18 am #

    …almost as smart as her brother. Now that there’s an endorsement of a young woman’s intelligence, Aih tell you whutt!!!

  15. Into The Wild! February 17, 2010 at 4:36 am #

    Sometime teachers are very good at teaching anyone anything, especially when they think they know everything, including whether the child is “capable.” When my daughter had to choose her science assignment for 4th grade, she decided to show how wings worked (bird and aircraft). We drove her to the Chino Aircraft Museum to take pictures and she talked to the experts running the facility. She even made an appointment to talk to one of our technical directors, who happens to be a pilot and owns his own Bonanza highwing. He showed her how to make a model of a wing out of balsa wood and glue, then use a hair dryer to make it bob and weave in the wind. She did all the work herself, with me doing the things she could not, like driving, purchasing the film, etc., so I mainly stayed in the background. Her teacher gave her a C, because she could not believe that a 4th grader could come up with this idea, and that her parents did the work for her! Even after getting a letter from my director saying that yes, she did the interview and made the wing and that he was very impressed with her idea, the teacher said she thought he just wrote it to please me. WHAT?! Found out later that she wasn’t my daughter’s regular teacher (who was out on sick leave), she’s was a kindergarden teacher. A KINDERGARDEN TEACHER who thought she could teach 4th grade, ’cause teachers are teachers, right? I filed a complaint with the school. Guess where it went? Absolutely nowhere, because the teacher is always right in the eyes of the school. Needless to say, my kid used to be hooked on science, but now she’s lost her passion for it because “why should I do the work when they don’t believe I did it?”

    Makes me want to cause an explosion. Oh, wait, that’s not allowed at the Science Fair either. Silly me.

  16. nico February 17, 2010 at 8:34 am #

    At one point in my childhood ( I must have been maybe 11), someone gifted me and my sister each with a small sum of money. ( a 20 or some sort of astronomical amount to us at that age!)

    I promptly legged to the store and got myself an actual working microscope.

    My mom was not amused, not by the cash gift, or how we spent it, my sister went directly for candy, but many years later in high school and university, my early experience with that microscope meant that I had much less of a learning curve and could still correctly identify all the parts of one.

    I get that the school doesn’t want certain things on their posters, ( yet those guidelines seem absurd anyway) but I’m more alarmed at how much authority figures and teachers seem to quash any sense of initiative and curiosity in the science realm.

    I had slightly eccentric science teachers who let a few of us who were intensely curious experiment with weak acids on rock, listen to their tales of work at NASA, and generally get hands on when the curiosity took us places, ( with some supervision, not complete lack of access.)

    I thank now all the fabulous science teachers I had in school and that slightly illicit microscope.

    And plan on getting one for my own kid when they’re the same age. Because what could be more fun than finding a mucky pond to explore?

  17. bmj2k February 17, 2010 at 9:40 am #

    The problem comes down to the fact that the rules are much too vague and general. I’d guess they were not made by an actual science teacher. With a little common sense they could be written in such a way as to bring back the hands-on aspect yet keep people safe. Rules that paint with such a broad brush never do any good for anyone.

  18. Jacqui February 17, 2010 at 10:08 am #

    Those rules seem to be protecting janitors more than they’re protecting children.

  19. Bmj2k February 17, 2010 at 11:12 am #


    Given that head custodians in city schools are usually more powerful than Principals, you may be right.

  20. Penni February 17, 2010 at 6:36 pm #

    What bothers me about “the rules” is that sort of zero tolerance, blanket, cover everything, leave nothing to common sense mode of thinking. There’s no trust and there’s no dialogue.

    How about the rules could be:
    be sensible, use your head. Do you think it’s an unnecessary risk? Then do the experiment at home and photograph it.

    The teachers could, you know, TALK to the students about their experiments along the way and offer guidance. Crazy idea, but it just. Might. Work.

  21. andreas February 17, 2010 at 10:38 pm #

    okay, okay….the teachers suck and administration sucks and….c’mon. That certain type of litigious parent needs to take some of the blame. Schools are terrified of being sued—all the time. And fear will make you do stupid things EVERY time.
    People on this site should try something really radical—see the schools as allies, the teachers as being on your side. Usually we are and we are hogtied by stupid regulations that have been put in place because a parent complained and threatened to sue.
    There is a “good samaritan” law that was made to protect grocery stores when they donate dented food cans to food pantries. Before it was adopted, stores would throw away food for fear of litigation…Funny how we haven’t thought of something similar to address good faith attempts in education.

  22. pentamom February 18, 2010 at 2:36 am #

    Andreas — no argument at all. I think a lot of the frustration is not with the teachers and admins as people, but with the whole setup. It’s certainly legitimate to blame some of it on litigiousness, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating, or less harmful to the education process. I might be wrong, but I think most people here would concede your point and say that they’re grousing about the teachers’ actions not because they only blame the teachers but because EITHER the teachers aren’t thinking OR they’re feeling pressured to do stupid things for stupid reasons and either way, it stinks.

  23. bmj2k February 18, 2010 at 8:09 am #

    @ Andreas

    Pressure from parents? As a ten-year veteran of inner city schools, I can say that is generally not the case in the city where I teach- we wish we had more than a dozen parents on open school night! Silly rules usually come from the top down. The teachers aren’t so much to blame, but the farther in posiition you are from the classroom, the farther you are separated from reality.

  24. Linda Mayger February 20, 2010 at 6:52 am #

    Stand down, people, your undies are in knots for no good reason. I’ve run school science fairs and had to use the same guidelines because no project could go to the next level unless they complied with the regional rules. These are rules for the DISPLAYS so we don’t have to deal with questionable stuff at school where the projects are not always attended. Also, there isn’t a lot of space for people to drag everything they used and set it out. The only rules that restrict the projects are usually regarding live vertebrates and people, to keep things humane.

  25. singlemom February 23, 2010 at 8:35 am #

    The science fair at my son’s school is coming up – the only rule is no baking soda/menthos/cola type experiments. Too messy.

  26. Parenting Old School February 28, 2010 at 10:49 am #

    One simple reason why our kids are failing at school and in science fairs. Complacency.

    We make their lives too easy too structured and give them no reason for reaching to the top. Kids need to know that if they do not work their asses off they will starve to death. Something that children who live in third world countries know all to well.

    Stop pampering your children, making their lives easy and making excuses for them and perhaps they will begin to excel in school and in the local science fair