I don’t often participate as a judge for the regional science fair, but when I do I see some problems. Perhaps this is why I’m not usually at the science fair. Here are my thoughts about the problems with this yearly event.
Why do we have a science fair?
According to Wikipedia, the science fair that we know today was started in 1942 as a talent search for high school students. I guess it would be like American Idol—except for science (actually, this would be a pretty fun thing to do). But I suspect the other goal of the science fair is to promote a general understanding of the nature of science. What better way to understand science than to do science? With this intent, I fully support something like a science fair.
If you ask other humans, they might give a different reason for the science fair—the reason for a science fair is to win the science fair. Students might think the goal of science fair is to complete science fair to get a grade.
If the science fair is about science, what should students get out of it?
When I try to describe the nature of science, I use the following description:
Science is about building models. These models can be physical, conceptual, computational, mathematical or other types of models. If a model agrees with real life (experiment), then that’s good. If the model doesn’t agree with real life, we have to change it (or come up with a new model).
That’s it–just the building and testing of models. If you want to use all these other words like hypothesis, theory, and scientific law, go ahead—but most people use these incorrectly. So, whatever we do to change the science fair, it should support an understanding of the basic idea of science.
The science fair seems to emphasize one method for science projects
Walk around a science fair you will see that every poster has the same things:
- Dependent and independent variable
- Materials list, which almost always includes items like “paper, and a pencil”
- Awkward presentation of data
- “My hypothesis was confirmed” or “My hypothesis was rejected”
I’m not saying you shouldn’t do these things in science, but you don’t have to have the same cookie-cutter style project. You don’t always have to do hypothesis testing—anyway, hypothesis testing is generally misunderstood.
It seems that the science fair smashes these science projects into similar boxes—boxes that can be easily graded. It’s much easier to give a score or grade to a science project if you can check of certain boxes. (Has materials, check. Has hypothesis, check.) But should we force science projects to have a format that’s easier to grade? Of course not. I guess the same can be said about all other forms of learning though.
Problems with judging science fairs
Like I said before, I went to a regional science fair. This means that every project in the fair had to win first through third place in a previous science fair. I don’t mean to be overly critical, but some of these projects shouldn’t have earned an award at their previous judging. Perhaps there were very few entries in the previous science fair so that these were really the top projects. But I suspect the real problem is with the judging.
It’s not the way I would like it, but the truth is that there aren’t always enough scientific experts available to judge science fairs. What happens next is that a school might call on respected business people to serve as judges. While these individuals have a certain set of skills, they might not always focus on the most important aspects of a particular project in their scoring. Some projects seem to be scored on superficial elements like the visual appearance of the poster or the number (not quality) of the graphs included.
Even among scientists, there can be a disagreement. Some science judges might give more points to creative, but unsuccessful projects where another judge might favor only projects that had a positive result. In the end, there can often be slight differences between first and second place winners. It’s a very subjective process even when the judges have detailed scoring sheets.
But maybe we could just stop judging?
How could we make the science fair better?
I am going to assume a “better science fair” means it is better at promoting science and the nature of science. Here are some things organizers could do to perhaps make a difference.
- Be more flexible. There is not a one size fits all for every science project. Don’t force students to use a cookie-cutter format.
- Reward creativity. It’s not too difficult for a student to find a project online and replicate it. There is some value to repeating what others have done, but you should be clear about it. Some of the best science fair projects start small and aren’t always successful—but they are driven by the student, not the Internet.
- What about a MythBusters style science fair? Instead of “my hypothesis was confirmed”, students could just use “busted”, “confirmed”, “plausible”. But are the MythBusters even scientists? Yes, all humans are scientists.
- Don’t make it a competition. Do you have to have a winner? Is this the Super Bowl? No. How about we make it like a Maker Faire? Students could get together to share their projects. Sure, you could still give out prizes and rewards for creativity or best graph or whatever—just don’t focus on the competition aspect.
- Don’t make it mandatory. I can tell some of these students just don’t want to be there. What if we made every student enter an art competition? Would that make them like art more? No, I don’t think so either.
Did you come to this blog post looking for science fair tips? OK, here is an older post with some slightly useful information.
If you don’t like reading, I also made a short video expressing my ideas about science fairs. Enjoy.