The Importance of Making Things

When I was in school, the basic rule was that if your grades and conduct aren't up to snuff, you didn't get picked for extracurricular activities. Given my constant race to the bottom, this pretty much disqualified me from a lot of what interested me about school. I'll always believe that I could have won the dramatic reading contest. But I spent too much time talking in class. 

One of the few exceptions came in fourth grade when I won the science fair at my school, and went to the city-wide competition. It was the pride of my nine year old life. So it's with much dismay that I read this:

Comprehensive national numbers are hard to come by, but Ms. Glidden said that several major regional fairs have been unable to scrape together the number of high schools required to participate in the Intel fair in recent years. "At the high school level, it's on the decline," she said.  

In Indiana, high school participation in the state's science fairs dropped 15 percent in the last three years. One fair organizer in Washington described last year's fair there as "heartbreaking," with few projects and not enough judges. The fair in St. Louis was in danger of folding this year when its major sponsor, Pfizer, moved its operations and dropped its sponsorship. One obvious reason for flagging interest in science fairs is competing demands for high school students' extracurricular attention. 

But many educators said they wished the projects were deemed important enough to devote class time to them, which is difficult for schools whose federal funding hinges on improving math and reading test scores. Under the main federal education law, schools must achieve proficiency in math and reading by 2014, or risk sanctions. 

The Obama administration has urged broadening the subjects tested under the law -- possibly including science. But some teachers say they are already burdened by state requirements to teach a wide range of facts -- say, the parts of a cell -- which prevents them from devoting class time to research projects. "I have so many state standards I have to teach concept-wise, it takes time away from what I find most valuable, which is to have them inquire about the world," said Amanda Alonzo, a science teacher at Lynbrook High School in San Jose, Calif., who advises her science fair students during her lunch and late evenings after school.

I think that first paragraph is important -- I'd love to see some comprehensive numbers. But as I've said before, it's worth understanding that schools do more than prepare kids for society -- they also send powerful messages to kids about whether they'll succeed in society. 

Narrowing the ways you can be successful (testing, testing) and the content your allowed to succeed at (reading, math, reading, math) all the while repeating absolutist mantras ("every child can be successful at this!") necessarily means that a portion of kids will leave school thinking, "I'm not good at this, and if what my teachers say turns out to be true, I'm probably not good at much else."

That certainly was the message I took from school. But in fact I found the world was wide-open in a way that school was not. I found myself cultivating aspects of my thinking, which public schools didn't much care about, creativity being the most significant.

I loved the science fair because it was one of those precious few open spaces. No one cared what my grades were, or whether I talked in class. They told me go home, find a box, cut a tri-fold, form a hypothesis, and then test it. My project was pretty simple--searching for microscopic life in various liquids. The school even lent me a microscope. Doing experiment and reporting the results was pretty cool. Just as cool was talking to the judges about what I was trying to do, and getting sent off to the citywide level. But above all, it's the feeling of having done something original, of developing a thought derived from World Book and Childcraft, of making that thought manifest, rings down through the years. This was the exhilaration of having made something. And in search of that original high, I am still making things. 

Aside from my friendships, the science fair gave me the most positive feelings I ever experienced in public school. I'm obviously not trying to dismiss the importance of reading and math, so much as I am wishing they were given a better framework, that they were not presented as abstract, and instead given to us, in the way we encounter them in the world, and not in a way that boosted the prospects of politicians. 

I don't know that you can organize a country around that kind of thinking. I had a rather extraordinary level of parental support. But a lot of other kids don't. Still, in terms of my own son, I'm pretty sure that I want "making things" to be central to his education. With that in mind, it's worth noting that next year, he's headed off to private school.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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