Reinventing Science Fairs

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Reinventing Science Fairs
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Reinventing Science Fairs,” by Frederick Grinnell (Issues, Spring 2020) is a timely contribution. The work that he and his colleagues have done on science fairs is in sync with the growing recognition in the field of science education that a lot of science learning goes on outside formal classrooms.

Grinnell is to be commended for exploring the diversity of science fairs in several dimensions, among them compulsory vs. optional and competitive vs. noncompetitive.

Noncompetitive science fairs were found to afford more opportunities for students to learn about the process and the nature of science than did competitive ones. It has become a central mantra of science pedagogy that actually doing science is better that memorizing “science facts.” Thus, noncompetitive science fairs are evidently well positioned to give students a real-life experience of the difficulties and triumphs of scientific inquiry.

Not surprisingly, voluntary science fairs were found to be more likely than compulsory ones to increase participants’ interest in science. Surprisingly, even half the students who were required to participate reported an increase in interest. Having done research in science education for a while, I have observed that most of the effects usually detected are small, so this effect of science fairs among nonvoluntary participants looks quite impressive to me.

The underlying dichotomy driving the various forms of science fairs (in terms of competitive vs noncompetitive; voluntary vs. compulsory) is a tension between two fundamental goals of science education—to ensure a science-literate citizenry necessary for a flourishing democracy, and to populate the hierarchical system of science with highly competent scientists. The science profession is competitive and often requires a tremendous amount of stamina and tolerance for delayed gratification from its practitioners. The most competitive science fairs function as a feeder system into that science profession.

The science profession is competitive and often requires a tremendous amount of stamina and tolerance for delayed gratification from its practitioners. The most competitive science fairs function as a feeder system into that science profession.

On the one hand, there is a competitive focus on excelling and accruing advantages for a successful pathway into college and a career. On the other hand, there is the noncompetitive focus on learning or engaging in something that is beneficial for the individual as well as the citizenry as a whole.

The good news is that science fairs do not really need “reinventing.” The very precondition for the research has been the existing variability among science fairs. Hence, all that might be needed is recalibrating this existing diverse ecosystem of science fairs by placing more weight on the voluntary and noncompetitive kind, while not getting rid of the other kind. Herein may lie cause for optimism.

Education Specialist / Lecturer on Astronomy
Harvard University

As a student in New York City, participation in science fairs was fairly commonplace in grade 4–12. Most of the time, projects were required, but occasionally they were voluntary for extra credit. Science fairs were held at the school level, and the best projects went to a citywide fair. My feelings about the science fairs varied, and really depended on how I felt about the teacher of my class and the specific requirements.

As a biology teacher, I have had my students participate in science fairs, when a school-wide structure was in place. Sometimes it was required of students; other times it was not. I have also served as a judge for numerous high stakes, and not-so-high stakes, fairs. After many decades of experience with science fairs in a variety of roles, I am a supporter of science fairs, but only tentatively so.

Frederick Grinnell’s article provides a good balance of the pros and cons of having voluntary or involuntary science fairs and those that are competitive or noncompetitive. Indeed, the positive and negative ways that students interact with voluntary/involuntary and competitive/noncompetitive educational situations has been well established by the research on self concept, needs achievement, and locus of control. In short, what Grinnell has clearly explained extends well beyond science fairs to educational experiences in general.

The same is true with the resources a student may have at his or her disposal. This may come in the form of both cognitive and physical resources. A student may have a partnership with an active scientist or have a highly engaged parent, or have a parent that can give them access to an electron microscope. Again, the great educational divide between students of different socioeconomic groups has long explained what can be noted in competitive science fairs.

In general, there is not much interest in the science education community, as Grinnell noted, because the research at best is ambiguous with respect to the success that science fairs of any format have on students’ learning of science or their attitudes toward science. Students who participate in voluntary science fairs tend to already have positive attitudes toward science, as well as stronger science backgrounds.

In terms of redesigning science fairs, there needs to be a much more concerted effort on connecting the focus of projects to the science curriculum and what students are expected to learn. Science fairs do not need to be a “break” from learning what many learned individuals have decided is important to learn.

The most important question that I would like to raise is, should we focus on consistently promoting authentic research for individuals and groups in our science classes as opposed to spending time and resources on difficult-to-implement science fairs? This is why I am uncertain whether science fairs are really needed. Regardless of their structure, they may very well be counterproductive to the goal of scientific literacy.

Distinguished Professor
Illinois Institute of Technology

Cite this Article

“Reinventing Science Fairs.” Issues in Science and Technology 36, no. 4 (Summer 2020).

Vol. XXXVI, No. 4, Summer 2020