Are Science Fairs fair?

What’s the ‘Why?” behind elementary and middle school science fairs? Do these projects really inspire students to become or even think like scientists? Do they do more harm than good? 

These questions are certainly not new. A recent article by Carl Zimmer stimulated lots of discussion about science fairs and whether they need to be changed in some way to just simply eliminated. Maybe there are better ways to engage students, especially minority students, in the sciences.

Science Fair by Rich Bowen, Creative Commons,

Science Fair
by Rich Bowen, Creative Commons,

Requiring students to construct a science fair project can have advantages. Students have the opportunity to see a project through to completion. They have the chance to design an experiment and test a hypothesis. They even have the chance to fail, which possibly is the greatest benefit. All these can be accomplished if the projects are done right.

However, it seems that more often than not, these project are not done right and actually create achievement gaps. Kids, especially at the elementary and middle school level, who do really well and win ribbons, typically have parents who can devote a lot of time and energy into helping their kids (if not doing the entire project). If this is the case, mandatory science projects are just posing as punishment for students who don’t have the resources.

The irony is these are very students we are trying to attract to the fields of science. How do you convince students that science is fun when the only experience they have is putting together a trifold board with the “correct” steps labeled in bold (Problem, Hypothesis, Methods, Data, Analysis, Conclusion) in the proper order? Don’t even try to mix up the order because everybody knows you have to do science in an orderly manner. Are we setting students up to fail? Is there a way to level the playing field?

Besides making science fairs better, two ideas come to mind. First of all, maybe schools could expand science programs so that students are DOING science all throughout the year or semester. These mini-projects could be curiosity-driven. Let’s face it, students need to fall in love with the natural world before they get acquainted to rigorous scientific testing. The best science comes from curiosity. This could be as simple as taking a class outside and taking an inventory of species on campus. Another example would be performing certain behavior activities with organisms (i.e. termites following ink trails). Or, it could be as simple as telling the students a story about a certain species and having them look up really cool facts. When students are allowed to have ownership, learning increases.

Secondly, it would be beneficial if we as scientists would become more involved in visiting classrooms instead of just showing up once a year to judge a science fair. What if we went into a classroom and helped run one of these smaller experiments? What if we trained our college students to mentor elementary school students?

I am not sure what else would work, but it does seem there needs to be changes. Any ideas?


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