A recent Portland State University study of public schools in Oregon found that while science fairs offer a terrific opportunity for hands-on learning, in reality students struggle with their projects because they lack inquiry skills, motivation, and an ability to reflect on what they’ve learned. Schools, the study concludes, should provide additional financial support for these projects through grants and mentorships.
This study backs up what lots of parents and teachers have long suspected to be true—that modern-day science fairs aren’t working—with two exceptions. One, these opportunities do work for the few students who are extremely motivated. For example, Bose, the student who won Google’s first science fair, took initiative and went took unusual measures to earn the top prize. At 15, she decided she wanted to work on cancer research following the loss of her grandfather to the disease, which is a conclusion many smart, motivated teens might reach. But unlike most kids that age, she then proceeded to email local university labs until she found one that would give her guidance and mentorship and ultimately allow her to work there. While her efforts are commendable, they’re not something that one can, or should, expect from the average adolescent student.
Two, science fairs also work for students who are lucky enough to attend schools that have made these events a priority. Over the last 16 years, 10 schools from across the country have consistently claimed the most prizes at the Intel competition. Eight of them are in the greater New York City area, where there is widespread access to both labs and working scientists, highly motivated parents and students, and a large number of second-generation immigrants—a population that, according to Scripps, has had significant representation at national science fairs since the competitions began.
The programs at these schools sound so dreamy that after hearing about them I wanted to run back to high school just to participate. At Ward Melville High School in Setauket, New York, for example, students can enroll in the science-fair program as an elective and receive strong guidance from mentors. It’s also close to SUNY Stony Brook, where they can access top-of-the-line research equipment, among other sophisticated labs. Two students from the school have been selected as semifinalists in this year's Intel competition.
But for the vast majority of kids who get few resources beyond their parents, today’s science fairs suffer from the unhappy clash of two factors. On the one hand, in today’s era, not unlike the post-Sputnik world, science education (now broadened to the term STEM) is at the forefront of American culture. As a parent, you can’t throw a test tube without hitting something claiming to foster STEM skills, and the new Next Generation Science Standards, which provide a curriculum roadmap for schools, put significant emphasis on hands-on learning. In a perfect world, such learning—or "doing science"—would entail participating in a fair.