Science Unfair

Science fairs suck! — Year after year throughout the US, and around the world, when science fair season comes along, I hear these exact words from kids, parents and teachers. I probably hear these sorts of things more than most people, because I served as leader of one of the oldest science fairs — if not the oldest state fair in the country — for well over a decade. Not to mention, I held (and probably still hold) the record for first place science fair wins in Massachusetts, and likely one of the top in the country. I’ve judged and spoken at national fairs in numerous countries, and have written a few books on the topic. Four of my business partners are people I’ve met through science fairs, and I continue to be involved decades after my first science fair in middle school. I’ve pretty much been doing science fairs my whole life (among other science & engineering related things), and I hope you find my point of view valuable.

In my travels around the world to different science fairs, I can’t even count how many times I’ve heard some variation of the following:

  • It’s impossible for kids to come up with ideas for science fairs on their own when their life experiences are so short; and, how are they expected to commit to that single project idea for 3 or possibly 6 months?
  • Most top-winning science fairs are done by wealthy, academic parents. Everybody knows this. How can regular kids have any chance at winning something?
  • How can a science fair be “fair” when there are kids from so many different backgrounds, and different income levels? There’s no way that my kid, from a poor town, could afford all the supplies and equipment to compete against the kids from the rich towns, who seem to win every year.
  • Science fairs don’t have equitable rubrics. One judge might give a score of 100 while another judge gives a score of 50. The judges may have the same scoresheets, but their methods of judging are all so different. And nobody truly qualifies or monitors the judges. How can that result in a reasonable evaluation of who should win and who should lose?
  • My child’s teachers are so overloaded with work, and the school is completely focused on tests, I just can’t see how they could put any effort into a science fair. If that’s the case, nobody will receive any individual attention, and the kids are basically on their own. How is that teaching?
  • Ranking children by performance in public is a terrible thing. When 60% of the kids, or more, don’t end up with any prize at all, how is this intended to encourage kids to want to be scientists?
  • Science fairs are just for the spoiled kids to have just one more thing to put on their resume to get into the best colleges. You rarely hear about kids from poor towns making it big — when actually, they’re the kids who need that boost the most.

And, in many ways, these points are not wrong. Science fairs, not just in the US but around the world, ironically lack basic fairness. They usually lack socioeconomic equity, fully qualified judges and often, quality mentor-teachers. And a lot of that stems from the fact that science fairs lack funding. Many are funded almost entirely by corporate sponsors, who come and go, with fickle philanthropic interests. And, for a long time, the argument that STEM workforce development was a great reason for governments, companies and communities to invest in science fairs seems to have been diluted by the saturated landscape of academic (and not-so-academic) extra-curriculars, competitions and sports out there.

Some of the problem is that science fairs have been around a long time and are slow to change. The concept of science fairs came about at a point in history when the US was worried that American technology was in imminent danger of falling behind that of other countries. Science fairs were part of a larger science popularization push to help the US become more STEM literate, and to encourage the next generation to pursue related careers. Well, it wasn’t long before other nations starting doing the same thing. And subsequently, the generalized concept of science fairs fragmented into a myriad of specialized STEM events like math olympiads, robotics competitions, hackathons, biotech fairs and more. Over these many decades, interest in science fairs in the US has declined. And, frankly, on an operational level, things haven’t fundamentally changed too much in all that time. My own state fair has been operating continuously at MIT for over 70 years now (until Covid). And if you look at a picture of the fair in a copy of the Boston Globe from the 1940’s, things look essentially the same as they do now.

But science fairs are slowly evolving.

Example of a science project in the 1950’s. Electrophoresis science fair project by Taimi Toffer Anderson; Acc. 90–105 — Science Service, Records, 1920s-1970s, Smithsonian Institution Archives

Fixing science fair equity

While many if not most US science fair organizations are old and slow to change, progress does happen. In MA, we have certainly made our fair share of major organizational advances over the years. In the last decade and a half we’ve:

  • Raised several million dollars to fund a program to provide grants to high-needs districts to give funding to schools with no science fair programs. This ensures that teachers and students without resources are able to pay for the training and materials they need to conduct fairs
  • Designed and implemented the first ever professional development program focused entirely on science fairs and taught at statewide community colleges to help teachers understand what it takes to . We’ve provided scholarships to teachers at cities and towns around the state with the highest needs and have succeeded in establishing new science fair programs in a number of new locations each year.
  • Created one of the first all computer based registration and judging systems to streamline the process of getting kids into the fair, and allowing us to do research on student progress.
  • Put “engineering” in our name and developed simple engineering rubrics for judges to be able to judge both science and engineering projects on an equal standing.
  • Implemented a formal judge training session which teaches judges how best to calibrate their grades, and how to interview and score projects of different types.
  • Participated in a regional multi-state conference to share best practices, and have also mentored other state fairs via an Educator Academy held annually at the International science fair. We’ve also worked individually with other states to bring their fairs up to speed.
  • Attracted a broader group of donors, raising millions of dollars, from a larger cross section of companies and foundations focused on both STEM and non-STEM fields.
  • Restructured our organization to be more open, include a broader group of board members, and to incorporate both the middle school and high school statewide fairs under one organization. This has allowed us to build a continuous pipeline of younger students who can then develop their science fair interests at an earlier age, and have the time for these skills and interests to develop and flourish.

And these changes, admittedly, are only at one state fair organization out of 50 in the US. These sorts of changes aren’t necessarily reflected at all the school-wide, district, regional and other fairs in our state, or around the country. But, this points to the fact that changes CAN be made, and based on what I’ve seen, they are indeed happening around the world, gradually.

Mae Jemison, accomplished medical doctor and astronaut, remembers getting excited about science as a young student from entering science fairs, among other things.

Promoting the idea that science fairs CAN be fair

While science fairs themselves do have some fundamental problems, there are things that can be done to change general public perception about them. It’s all about messaging. For those of us who do want to see future generations have the opportunity to engage in science fairs, it’s up to us to make sure to promote a message to help others better understand why the modern conception of science fairs exists and why it’s so important that we keep them alive. For all the right reasons:

  • Science fairs are perceived as competitions or tests, but in fact they are the opposite of tests. As opposed to studying the same material as fellow students, and memorizing as much as possible, science fairs are intended to be individual experiences. In a fair, students can choose what level of knowledge they need to complete their own projects.
  • Science fairs were started with the idea that students can develop a sense of STEM identity by solving problems in an subject of their own choosing. Children can learn about their own favorite subjects and follow their own pathway to exploring more about these topics. Interested students are sure to investigate more deeply and this approach has the potential to spark lifelong interest in a self-chosen topic way better than sitting in front of Zoom (or in a classroom) all day and doing hours of homework all night.
  • Achievement in science fairs is not just a supplement, but in many cases, a valid alternative to achievement in formal schooling. While formal education and standardized examinations are a pathway for some students to succeed, not all students thrive in this environment. Science fairs offer a real college-recognized channel for recognition (not to mention the potential for scholarships, internships, travel, job offers and more).
  • Science fairs encourage teamwork and collaboration. Most formal assessment is focused on the individual. Quizzes, homework and standardized testing have traditionally been the main tools administered to determine a student’s level of attained knowledge in basic subjects and skills. However, team science fair projects offer a chance to assess student ability to communicate and work with others. It is a rare opportunity for students to excel in a social skill in addition to STEM and be able to share in the assessment outcome. Increasingly over time, science fair organizations are finding that this engages many students who otherwise would not want to get involved in science.
  • Science fairs are actually not all about science. Kids learn about English (or other languages) and communication / presentation skills as well. They learn how to state their ideas in a concise and effective way, and even to debate results/conclusions with judges.
  • Science fairs do indeed inspire kids. Numerous Nobel laureates and Ted speakers (and astronauts like Mae Jemison above) have claimed that science fairs were the reason why they chose to be involved in their careers. According to data we’ve collected in MA, nearly half of alums we surveyed have pointed to their science fair experience as one of the key influences in their involvement in STEM.

While I’ve spent a large portion of my life attempting to make science fairs a little bit more fair and and little bit more fun, I recognize that the science fair world that we know today is globally distributed and pretty rooted in its traditions. It’s sort of an uphill battle. But I’ve also seen science fair organizations sprout up anew in remote cities and towns, and even in nations that had never had a science fair before. It’s truly amazing when you see the willingness to join in and build something exciting and educational for kids who have never had the experience before. It inspires both the children and the adult participants equally.

Student at an early 2020 Massachusetts-based middle school science fair

It is a little known fact that MA State Science Fair has operated with a handful of staff — anywhere from 2 to 5 employees for decades — and the hundreds of judges, and thousands of teachers and parent volunteers comprise the overwhelming majority of the organization’s annual infrastructure. In general, science fairs wouldn’t be remotely possible without the help of people who want to be involved and give their time for something they believe to be valuable. Some years are certainly better than others, in terms of reaching new volunteers and new participants. Total participation across the state has usually hovered in the high teens, by percentage of all potential school districts in the state. Across the country, we hear numbers like this, and it is of course concerning, when there are nations like Canada which require full participation of all students, and China, the most populous country in the world, where in many major municipalities, including Beijing, all students are required to engage in STEM projects and enter a science fair. I’ve had the honor of judging science fairs in China and in other nations, and I can tell you the quality of projects around the world is rising. In lieu of government mandates, support and funding, science fairs generally don’t get the participation levels they deserve — both from students and adult volunteers. And, unfortunately, science fairs don’t work without this participation. Absent the full embrace of a government sponsor, science fairs are completely dependent on local grassroots organizations and the corporate community in order to function. And when people think science fairs are unfair and “unfun” that’s just not going to happen.

It’s my belief that the world is not going to solve its “big” problems (like climate change, hunger, energy, cancers and more) without a scientifically informed and inspired next generation, that appreciates diversity and is willing to collaborate and share useful information across borders. And one of the absolute best, time-proven ways of doing that is with science fairs. I truly hope we can fix the fairness issues and other things wrong with today’s science fairs, so they’ll have the potential to be around for generations to come.

You can read more about science fairs in my blog right here at medium, or at www.mistersciencefair.com. See my other recent medium post on AI in science fairs here.

Author as a student at the International Science & Engineering Fair in 1992, where he won a 1st Prize Grand Award

Reach me at www.mistersciencefair.com

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Barnas Monteith

Barnas Monteith is a science fair advocate and part-time paleontologist / AI ninja.