Why Parents Should be Wary of Science Fairs
During the 1960s when I was in high school I participated annually in our local science fair competitions, and as a junior and senior I won my division and went on to compete in regionals. I majored in biology when I went to college and later picked education as a career. As a teacher I supervised my students in creating their own science fair projects and for many years participated in organizing and running our school fair and also in judging at the regionals. While a literature search reveals a paucity of studies concerning science fairs, this experience, conjoined with further career development (Masters, doctorate in science education), has led me to change my earlier enthusiasm about science fairs. I believe that as our understanding of the nature of science has evolved the value of science fairs in school programs should be reconsidered.
In the US, the largest annual science fair is the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) that has been organized by the Science Service since 1950. Universities often serve as hosts and spend thousands of dollars sponsoring district and state fairs. Corporations and non-profit organizations also sponsor or host science fairs, many of which offer scholarships as prizes. Some $3 million in scholarships, tuition grants, equipment, and scientific trips are awarded annually at ISEF. The payoff for the hosts and sponsors is public relations.
While some fairs occur at the elementary school level, they are mainly a secondary school event, and chiefly an American activity, but the practice has spread around the world, with students from Europe and Asian countries also joining in. Typically, science fair projects are assigned in the science classes, and students are asked to come up with an original idea and create an experiment to test it.
I am sure I derived benefits from participating in (and winning) my high school science fairs. But maybe the experience also led to some not-so-beneficial learning's. One long-voiced criticism of traditional science fairs, as well as programs like the Westinghouse Science Honors Institute, is that they place too much emphasis on competition. Science fair supporters respond to this by saying science itself is competitive in nature since scientists compete with each other for grants and for publications. True to an extent, but collaboration plays a far more important role in science.
Another criticism is that parents become inappropriately involved in the projects, especially in the winning projects. This includes parents intervening in the choosing of a project and in sharing their own expertise to direct the development and completion of the project. Some students thus get an unfair advantage if their parents have scientific or technical backgrounds while others receive an unfair advantage if their parents have financial resources to invest in a project.
I believe both of these criticisms are valid, but I decline to participate in science fairs for another reason. First, I want to stress that I am not against science projects. Indeed, I believe that project-based learning is a key strategy in quality science education. A science project can be a great learning process, a process of extended duration that entails background research, creativity in designing a study process or experiment, and a report on the results of that work. Nor do I object to children seeking adult consultation from a parent or a mentor. Furthermore, I can even conceive of a kind of science fair that I could support. But here I'm considering the dominant ISEF science fair program, an activity where the results of many projects are displayed, rated against a set of rules and criteria, and discussed with adult judges.
The fairs in the 1940s and 50s were not so objectionable, but the requirement of following "the scientific method" became more rigid over the years and the classic experiment became the standard judging criterion, while collections, models, and applications were excluded. Student-centered inquiry, which was the original raison d'etre the way contemporary science fairs are operated is that they fundamentally misrepresent the nature of science and therefore foster misconceptions and feelings that could keep children from further interests and pursuits in the sciences.
One thing about the science fair operation is that, typically, projects are to beindependently done, created by an individual student rather than by teams or groupsof students. However, scientists today primarily work in teams or groups, and these include people at diverse levels of education and skills. But that is a minor objectionand some fairs no longer restrict team projects. But science fairs encourage moreinsidious misconceptions about the nature of science. For example, Marx (2003) connects the fact that science fairs require projects that represent only experimental or quasi-experimental research designs to an increasingly rigid view of science being held by students entering college. He reports a study that found many freshmen equate science the role in science of deductive reasoning, research design, and causality. Further, restricting projects only to experimental designs creates a huge barrier to students interested in sciences which depend more upon historical or other non-experimental methods - many branches of the social sciences, ethology, anthropology, paleontology, and so on.
Marx (2004) found that with ISEF-operated fairs the control of the projects has moved increasingly from the students to teachers, judges, and fair officials. His study concluded that "bureaucratic rules" act to restrict the range of questions that students can ask and pursue, as well as in the manner in which those questions can be studied. By curtailing the scope of student inquiry these restrictions may ultimately stifle inquisitiveness and some may lose interest in studying science any further.
For these reasons, I've come to the view that these science fairs don't represent good science education, even though participation may benefit many participants in some ways. In these competitions overall there are more losers than winners but everyone - to society as a whole - may be losing in terms of developing a more sophisticated conception of the nature of science.
Marx, J. (2004). How the "queen science" lost her crown: A brief social history of science fairs and the marginalization of social science. Sociation Today, 1542-6300.
Marx, J. (2003). Science Fairs and the normalization of science: An examination of rulebook changes in ISEF affiliated Fairs since 1950. Paper presented at the Southern Sociological Society.
Intel International Science and Engineer Fair (Intel ISEF). 2008. International Rules and Guidelines. Retrieved 9-10-08 from http://www.societyforscience.org/isef/index.asp.
Johnson, D. (1991). Psychologists and high school science fairs: Some ethical professional concerns. Teaching of Psychology, 18, 111-112.
Washington Virtual Academies
Tuition-free online school for Washington students.
- Coats and Car Seats: A Lethal Combination?
- Kindergarten Sight Words List
- Signs Your Child Might Have Asperger's Syndrome
- Child Development Theories
- GED Math Practice Test 1
- 10 Fun Activities for Children with Autism
- Social Cognitive Theory
- Why is Play Important? Social and Emotional Development, Physical Development, Creative Development
- The Homework Debate
- Problems With Standardized Testing