Science Fairs Aren't So Fair

These K-12 events are hardly more than a competition among over-involved parents.

Shutterstock/The Atlantic

As a parent of two elementary school-aged kids, I know spring is approaching when my Facebook feed fills with desperate pleas for more time, calls for patience, and questions about the locations of retailers selling tri-fold posters.

Yes, it’s science-fair time.

Last year, one mother’s satirical science-fair poster titled "How Much Turmoil Does the Science Project Cause Families?" went viral as parents around the country vented their anger toward this most frustrating of school assignments. Science-fair angst has even made it into children’s literature, with myriad books about stressed-out kids and failed projects.

Much of the parental anger seems to stem from the fact that the bulk of science fairs ask children to produce something, in some cases competitively, that is well beyond their abilities. Last year my son, who was in third grade at the time, came home with a sheet of paper from his school that listed three categories for appropriate projects: developing a hypothesis and conducting an experiment to test that theory, inventing something new, or researching "something specific." The guidelines listed "whales" as an example of something specific. Given that my son was 8 years old, the idea that he could, on his own, do any single one of these things seemed ludicrous.

Even the easiest of these items—researching a topic—is nearly impossible for a child who hasn’t yet mastered the ability to browse the Internet. (As a parent and the founder of a tech company, I’ve observed that in order to browse the Internet one needs to know how to scan the screen, differentiate between actual content and ads, and evaluate the trustworthiness of a resource—elements that are far out of reach of most 8-year-olds.) I should also note that none of those three categories was a topic that had been covered in his science class, which instead was studying the food chain.

An often unspoken sentiment, which Dave Barry gave voice to in a children’s book about rich kids who buy their science-fair projects, is that there’s something inherently unfair about science fairs. These events often turn out to be a competition among parents—not children. And many children don’t have the luxury of parents who have the time to engage with their schoolwork. This dynamic became obvious to me the night before last year’s fair, when I spent over an hour building a model of DNA out of licorice and gummy bears. And it is probably obvious to anyone who has ever stepped foot into an overheated gymnasium chock full of tri-fold boards, irritable kids and their over-eager guardians. Lots of research supports this observation, with one University of Toronto study of four national science fairs in Canada concluding that students from "advantaged, resource-rich backgrounds" were more likely to both participate in and win these competitions.

Shree Bose, who won Google’s first science fair in 2011 and is now a junior at Harvard, told me that she started noticing signs of parental over-involvement when she was in elementary school: children with beautifully presented boards and sophisticated, completed projects that were clearly the work of adults. And at the higher-level competitions, she again vied against students whose projects, she said, clearly benefitted from the help of parents.

"I had a state science fair once where my project was pretty simple but I had done it myself," she said. "The kid next to me had the exact same project except with [what looked like] five more years of work. And I thought: I’m definitely going to lose. And then his dad came by. He was a professor and the son had worked in his lab."

In addition to favoring kids whose parents can either spend time or money (or both) on a project, many science fairs seem to include little in the way of actual science. A scientific experiment, by definition, includes an exploration of the unknown. But at the three fairs I’ve attended over the last several years, the unknown rarely makes an appearance. At my son's fair last year, at least a handful of students did the popular "experiment" in which the "scientist" waters plants with three different liquids—one of which is typically soda or detergent—to determine which is best for plant growth.

"Were you surprised that water made the plant grow?" I asked one child after she presented her experiment.

"No," she said.

And the fact that Google provides nearly 17 million results for a search on "science fair projects" doesn’t help. It may make parents’ lives easier by reducing the amount of effort it takes to look up a project, but it also greatly increases the chance that a kid will do an "experiment" that has been done by possibly thousands of other kids across the nation.

Not only do many science fairs include a doubtful amount of science, but according to the results of a 2003 study from Arizona State University that surveyed over 400 middle-school students, they don’t serve to engage kids much, either. The study found that they hardly increase students’ interest in science or influence their understanding of the scientific method, at least at the middle-school level.

So how did science fairs get to this place—where people pretend that children are "doing science"? It turns out that the path to all this busywork and parental angst was paved with good intentions. The first science fair in the U.S. was held in 1928 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. It was an outgrowth of the progressive nature-study movement, which held that kids should observe the environment in order to counteract the effects of an increasingly industrialized society. The idea was a noble one: Give overly urbanized kids a chance to get in touch with nature so that they can learn scientific truths and develop an appreciation of that world.

Sarah Scripps, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin—Stevens Point who has studied science fairs, says these events once looked much more like agricultural exhibitions than the competitions they’ve evolved into today, with students presenting crops they’d grown, for example, or plants from their school’s garden.

But by the early 1930s the fairs had shifted to incorporate categories like astronomy, physics, and engineering. Pictures from fairs during this era are reminiscent of those in modern times, though the topics tended to focus more on telling a story around science rather than presenting a hypothesis. Instead of a encouraging tri-fold posters describing an experiment, the fairs were an opportunity for students to create a visual display depicting something at the intersection of science, industry, and agriculture. The fairs caught on, and they spread to become a national phenomenon by the end of that decade. But as they did, they shed their agricultural roots and became more about hard science and less about storytelling. And then came World War II.

"After World War II, [the fairs] took on a dimension of national security," Scripps said. "Instead of being about children’s learning and general appreciation of science they became more about grooming a workforce."

Rather than producing pretty dioramas about the proper way to use a public park, students were now expected to create something that would propel them toward a career. And the content of the projects shifted accordingly, with dioramas giving way to arguments that made scientific claims. This is also the point when national fairs sprung into existence, with the launch of the Science Talent Search in 1942, as well as the first country-wide competition in Philadelphia in 1950.

The catalog of exhibits from that Philadelphia competition provides a poignant window into the shifting science-fair landscape. Old-school projects—like "Model of an Earthworm" and "Insects Collected in St. Louis Missouri"—still dominated the fair. But a few "experiments"—including one that looked at the effects of radiation on fruit flies and another that analyzed "pregnancy urine"—joined the mix, too.

As a whole, these projects contrast sharply with those by last year’s winners of the big Intel Science Talent Search. These students developed a learning-software tool to aid in the study of cancer; invented an electrocatalyst that may, according to the competition’s website, "significantly improve batteries of the future"; and built a smartphone app for performing complex math functions.

So what caused the move from earthworm models to electrocatalysts?  Part of the answer lies in the evolving goals of these competitions, which by the 1960s were focused primarily on identifying students who were scientifically gifted. According to Scripps, the organization that ran the national fairs during this time had become obsessed with the idea that budding scientific talent across the country might be overlooked. "They were worried that there was some student in rural Montana who was a genius who might never fully realize their full potential," she said.

Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with identifying and fostering gifted students. And there’s nothing wrong with the fairs’ other stated purpose, which started in the ‘60s but still applies today and emphasizes the importance of hands-on learning and competition in promoting interest in science. A 1965 study of science fairs from Kansas State University describes nearly utopian classes preceding fairs that involved original thinking, reflection, and individual attention from teachers.

Unfortunately, it seems that this scenario seldom occurs in the classrooms of today. In my son’s school, and in the bulk of the elementary schools in my neighborhood, children are asked to participate in the science fair with no additional support from the school or a mentor. Classroom activities (and particularly test prep) move on as though the science fair isn’t even happening; the kids don’t get access to their teacher or, frankly, anyone who knows anything about science. Instead, according to parents, students get a sheet of paper that describes the scientific method and are told to go make something.

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.

But on another, standardized testing is taking over classroom learning these days, leaving little room for the throw-out-the-textbook atmosphere that science fairs require.

"There is a disconnect between the materials that teachers have to teach with, which are basically textbooks, versus the hands-on materials that they would need to do inquiry work," said Marian Pasquale, a senior researcher at the Education Development Center, which recently launched a three-year study that is looking closely at middle-school science fairs. Abigail Jurist Levy, the study’s principal investigator, envisions classes like those at Ward Melville that make science fairs an explicit part of the curriculum rather than an extracurricular afterthought. If that happens, Levy said, "the science fair experience may be viewed very differently."

Imagine a science fair that ensures all students can engage in hands-on scientific investigation. Imagine classrooms across the country that equip kids with the tools they need to come up with their own inventions and experiments. It would be lovely—that imagined world in which no one hates the science fair.