Science Fair or Science Failure

science fair

The American Science Fair has a long and noble history.  Science Fair programs really began in 1921 with the inauguration of the Science Service, a non-profit company dedicated to helping students explore the scientific method and learn science as an activity.  The Science Fair took its modern form only in 1941, when Science Service went national, and helped to found over 800 science clubs in schools across America – each of which organized and held its own science fair. 

The original goals of the Science Service organization are still as laudable as they were almost 100 years ago: to introduce students to science as a process and an activity – not as a body of facts to be memorized, to develop better problem solving skills and methods among the students, to allow the student to experience science as an skilled activity that virtually anyone could participate in.  But these goals are no longer served in the modern age by what science fair has become.

Instead of learning science as an activity, today’s science fair often teaches students that science is an ordeal.  While documenting one’s work is essential, the importance of the media has far outstripped the importance of the message; reports and 3-fold posters have become vastly more important in many cases than the originality or scientific validity of the work being presented.

With winners and losers – ego and prestige enter the equation in a big way for both parents and for students.  The validity of work and the experience of doing real science takes a back seat to grades and prizes – and vicarious glory.  As a science fair judge for years, it became easy to see the heavy hand of parent involvement in a student science fair project.  One question was sufficient to detect the student scientist from the student who was really presenting parental work: “Will you please tell me about your science fair project?”  For the enthusiastic young scientist, this unleashes a flood of information while the child presenting the work of others flounders silently to come up with some relevant information. 

Sometimes, in a field of hundreds of science fair projects, there might be only a handful of real research science fair projects presented by students who actually performed the science activity they were presenting.  Nowhere is the vast gulf between “I want to!” and “I have to!” more clear.  When we insist on the universality of science fair, we insist that in fact, everyone must be a practicing scientist.  Isn’t this the same mistake we made with No Child Left Behind?

Let’s not abandon Science Fair – it has its place; especially for those talented young people who need such a venue to exhibit their skills.  I simply think that we can avoid the ‘one-size-fits-all’ fallacy this time!  Instead of long, arduous science fair projects that involve many hours of research and culminate in a high-stakes, win or lose situation, let’s offer kids many smaller, shorter science activities that encourage problem solving and creative thinking without the arduous time line. 

Projects that can be discussed in one class period, built and tested in two more periods, then evaluated and finally presented to the class.  One week, one project.  Simple, immediate feedback for the budding scientist is what is needed here.  Did your solution to the problem work?  No need to consult a judging panel, Nature decides who wins and who loses, and everyone gains in the experience without the expense and the tremendous investment of time and ego.

Science Fair started out with the intent of offering young people a window into discovery and the adventure of science, a chance to practice the scientific arts and to learn to use the scientific method to solve problems.  We need to return to our roots.  We need to spend our time doing science instead of writing about it.

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