"We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated,” said President Obama in his recent State of the Union address, “but the winner of the science fair.”
The first Google Science Fair, for which Scientific American is a partner, will do just that. More important, simply doing a science-fair project is a great way to explore questions about the world around us. (For more on the role of questions, watch my opening remarks at the launch event held on January 11.) Finding the answers on your own is called "inquiry-based learning." Many studies, starting in the late 1960s, have shown this hands-on approach is an excellent complement for standard classroom work. But it’s also really fun.
In a science-fair project, you ask your own questions, figure out a way to find the answers by designing your own experiment, get the facts from your results—and then you become the expert authority on what you found. You’ll also get a better idea about what scientists really do. Believe me, it isn’t sitting around memorizing boring terms and statistics (as important as they are).
How do you get started? In this video, I got some advice from the nutrition scientist Marion Nestle , who, with me, is one of the judges for the Google Science Fair. Nestle is the Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She teaches courses at the university and also writes books and articles, blogs and tweets as @marionnestle. She has a PhD in molecular biology, but she came to love studying nutrition because it is so relevant to people’s lives.
As you’ll see in the video, Nestle recommends to students to "follow your passion"—go where your curiosity leads and only take on things that you "really care about.” Don’t worry if someone else has studied some aspect of your topic area before. “Anything anybody is interested in probably hasn’t been studied to the extent that it should be,” she says. I love her story about how 13-year-olds working on a science-fair project found the same results—and a couple of years earlier—than scientists who used sophisticated brain scans. And I hope to see your entry in the Google Science Fair.