Science Fairs Failing?

By Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

As a scientist, you’d think I’d really be in favor of science fairs. A recent article by Amy Harmon in the New York Times (“It May Be a Sputnik Moment, but Science Fairs Are Lagging,”* 4 Feb. 2011), among others, laments the decline of science fair competitors. The Los Angeles County science fair, it says, has dropped to 185 participating schools, down from 244 a decade ago.

Teachers who support these event, who organize them, find venues, recruit judges, and so on do so without pay and may spend hundreds of hours preparing them. I should know because I did the same thing for the Department of Energy’s New England Regional Science Bowl. So I definitely intend no disrespect to these motivated and hard-working teachers when I say that the value of these events is marginal. Too many science fair projects are done partly or mostly by parents. Too many show a lack of understanding of what science is. A few remarkable projects demonstrate incredible dedication and creativity for the young people who do them.

Harmon says:

… what has been lost, proponents of local science fairs say, is the potential to expose a much broader swath of American teenagers to the scientific process: to test an idea, evaluate evidence, ask a question about how the world works — and perhaps discover how difficult it can be to find an answer.

Really. I have two objections to this statement. First, how broad is that swath? How many of the science fair entrants actually learn and perform scientific processes? Second, why aren’t our students getting enough of that experience in their own science classes?

Harmon quotes Michele Glidden, a director at Society for Science & the Public: “The point is to breed science-minded citizens.” If the students are forced to enter the fair as part of their course grade, then they’ll put together anything at all with or, most likely, without real scientific processes. If they aren’t, then many will pass on this activity, and they’re exactly the ones that we’d hope to convert to “science-minded citizens.”

The marginal benefits to which I alluded above come from the publicity and from the few students who really do benefit. Publicity showing that our students can do science puts the spotlight on the excitement of science and its value to our society. Some students really do launch into science and what it’s all about. I still have to wonder whether it’s worth the effort.

The article points to decreasing class time available for such activities as preparing for science fairs. It’s the old cliché about state standards being “a mile wide and an inch deep.” It’s also the greater emphasis on high-stakes testing and the time required to prepare for and take them. Certainly this problem can be addressed and is being addressed in some places. For example, the College Board has promised more focused curricula in science and has just released its new guidelines for AP Biology. The lab part will be available in January 2012.

I must lament the comment of one teacher who was quoted in the article as saying, “I don’t know if you can generate that kind of excitement just teaching chemistry or physics in the classroom.” Of course we can!  Hundreds of science teachers do it every day, but they’re not the majority. Science fairs don’t generate so much excitement, and we can do better elsewhere. But we’re not.

I see the way forward in a number of science textbooks that emphasize asking questions and using real investigations to find the answer, not looking it up on the Internet or playing with simulation games. Science teachers must simply prompt students to ask questions about their world, to propose means of finding the answers, and to put the proposals into action.

Too few science teachers are prepared enough to do this sort of thing well, to integrate it into their course, and to support the students and respond to their questions. They must guide students carefully into asking answerable questions, into investigations that have materials readily available, into controlling variables, and into understanding how to work with and interpret data. Many of our science teachers don’t have a science degree. Some who do have a degree in life science but are teaching physical science and don’t feel comfortable doing so.

We can find answers to these problems as has Finland. They managed to find the will to spend on reducing science class sizes in middle grades to 16 and to make teaching a well-paid and highly respected profession. Every primary school teacher in Finland must have a master’s degree, and only 10% of those who apply for these master’s programs are accepted.

We must stop blaming the teachers and the parents as too many are wont to do. It’s not the teachers’ fault that they’re being placed in classes they’re not prepared to teach. We cannot change the way millions of parents raise their children. In my own humble opinion, it’s the politicians we should hold responsible. But that’s a topic for another day.
* WebCite alternative.

6 Responses

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  3. I think science fairs are an old methodology. Even before NCLB there were teachers who did NOT teach science, based on the constraints of time in the school year and the testing cycle. I much prefer project based learning, as it is more expansive, involving and resource based with lots of opportunities to continue learning. I do like the structure of defining how to present an experiment to others, and the rigor of
    the format, but in project based learning.. it is easy to make it feel normal, and a real part of learning.

    One year I had chicken eggs hatching, frogs emerging, a garden growing, butterflies ready to
    emerge and books, resources, etc and it was an ongoing set of learning experiences based on
    a project based initiative we were doing with the Fish and Wlidlife Service.

    , ( some teacher threw out my meal worms),

    By involving agencies and groups with the same purpose we were able to create several outreach programs to community with good results and great learning.

  4. Like Harry, I think good inquiry based science should be integral to the class, and it should be ongoing. Making a big deal about one project can be counterproductive. The students spend far too much time on one project, all for the purpose of winning a competition. As Harry says, this puts makes it far too likely that we will be looking at the work of the parent.

    Another problem is that outside judging can be inconsistent with good teaching and thus detrimental. Let me give an example from my own experience. When my son was in 6th grade, the school made a huge deal about the science fair, and one of the parents recruited 16 local scientists to be the judges. Students would each be judged by three of them, with the final score being the average of the three.

    My son worked extremely hard for more than a month on a very serious project. He collected four sample of pond water from beneath the ice, two with mud and two with clear water.. He left them either refrigerated or not refrigerated and observed changes with a microscope over a number of days, carefully recording his observations as different microscopic animals emerged from hibernation. He drew conclusions and made charts with his drawings.

    The day before the fair at his school, he showed his best friend, who confessed that he had not done a single thing yet. Concerned for his friend, my son gave him a collection of rocks and minerals we had bought for him. The friend made a poster talking about the rock and mineral collection, with no hint of any kind of experimentation. Well, it was something.

    When we came to pick him and his project up at the end of the fair, teachers met us, gushing with praise for the project. Then we saw his scores. One judge had raved about it and given him a perfect 100. The second judge had also raved about it, giving a 95. The third had not written a single comment and had given it a 60. The resulting average of 85 was too low to continue with the competition, so he was out. We later learned that the judge who had scored it a 60 had given no score higher than 60 to anyone.

    As per the school rules, my son’s 85 was his grade for the quarter. His friend’s grade for the rock and mineral collection was also his grade for the quarter. His scores averaged 85–the same as my son.

    My son was crushed. He had worked so very hard, only to see something his friend had spent 20 minutes on get the same score. It as the first of several similar bad experiences in the space of less than a year that turned this budding scientist into someone who absolutely hated science and wanted nothing to do with it.

    I am thus no fan of this process, and I shed no tears over its reported demise.

  5. Putting on science competitions is no easy task. The potential for what happened to John’s son is very great. In his case, he was doing some real science at an age-appropriate level. The result was a slap in the face and a turn-off regarding science.

    I’ve run science competitions for some years (long ago), the Department of Energy’s Science Bowl. The standard format was simply awful. And that’s without considering the value of the competition.

    Teams would travel very long distances, from all over New England, to compete and then would be eliminated by midday. They were given demonstrations or films at the venue to occupy the time.

    I won’t detail the changes I made here. My Science Bowls had every team fully engaged the whole time and had enough prizes for enough different accomplishments to make everyone uncertain who would get what. The award ceremony at the end of the day was always attended by all teams and was enjoyed by all. Not once were we accused of any unfairness.

    You can do these things, but the coordinator must take charge and lead. it’s hard work, but no one should undertake to run a competition who is not willing to do the work necessary to make it meaningful for those who have made the effort to participate.

  6. Bonnie has summarized one of my points nicely. A few classroom projects can do much more than these show piece competitions. I’d guess that you can do as many as one a quarter if you’re really well-organized. The point is to do science, just as John Adsit’s son did. In the classroom, the teachers can support students much better than at home and can know that the benefits really are there.

    I like to have other activities than projects. I also would like to have examples from sciences other than life science. If you have great examples of physics, geology, astronomy, or chemistry projects, please comment here so we all can share.

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