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According to the New York Times article, “It May Be a Sputnik Moment, but Science Fairs Are Lagging“, fewer students may be participating in science fairs because there’s not enough time in school to do science. An education policy that aims to produce greater interest in science and technology is increasingly at odds with a standardized model of instruction that relies too heavily on testing.

The article says:

Yet as science fair season kicks into high gear, participation among high school students appears to be declining. And many science teachers say the problem is not a lack of celebration, but the Obama administration’s own education policy, which holds schools accountable for math and reading scores at the expense of the kind of creative, independent exploration that science fair projects require.

The overemphasis on standardized testing is establishing the wrong incentives for both teachers and students. Testing has become a national obsession. A good education is wrongly equated with a “standardized” education. If there’s no room in the school day for “learning by doing,” then I think we can say that students won’t be doing much learning. Too many schools teach “science by the book,” which is not only dull, it’s not science. (You can teach religion by the book all day long.)

Such reliance on standards and testing only makes school more and more irrelevant and means that children will have to do real learning outside of school.

Check out this article, “The Children Must Play” about education in Finland. Finnish schools encourage play, arts and crafts, and hands-on learning. The Finnish system relies very little on testing. It’s hard to imagine educational leaders in America backing away from its own system of testing. Instead, we will double-down with technology to increase the level of standardization and testing. The kind of learning, described in the article as “creative, independent exploration,” will be marginalized more and more. (Of course, this kind of exploration is at the heart of making.)

There are also other reasons why participation in science fairs is in decline. Each year, a few elite students are lauded for their achievement in producing a science-fair exhibit that wins a national award, and that’s a good thing. But what’s the experience like for the rest of the participants? And what about those who never think of participating? Are local science fairs doing enough to encourage broad participation by all students to explore and discover science? Have science fairs themselves become overly structured and bureaucratic? I also wonder if they’ve come to offer a fairly narrow view of science?

One question to ask is how can science fairs be more open and fun? How would you re-invent the science fair? What could we learn from Maker Faire?

Dale Dougherty

I’m founder of MAKE magazine and creator of Maker Faire. I am CEO of Maker Media, the company that produces MAKE, Maker Faire and Maker Shed. I am Chairman of the Maker Education Initiative (www.makered.org).


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Comments

  1. I participated in 1, maybe 2, structured science fairs in school. They were a pain in the rear. Like you suggested, the structure was good for teaching me that I didn’t want to become a “scientist”, so I became an engineer instead. I don’t need a clearly defined and well-written Hypothesis and a Method and a Conclusion to create something.

    But don’t be mistaken, I love the underlying science. I recognize that the method has its strengths. While I tinker and Make: things often, I learn best from that “book learning” style. Don’t neglect the power of the “standing on the shoulders of giants” principle.

  2. I participated in 1, maybe 2, structured science fairs in school. They were a pain in the rear. Like you suggested, the structure was good for teaching me that I didn’t want to become a “scientist”, so I became an engineer instead. I don’t need a clearly defined and well-written Hypothesis and a Method and a Conclusion to create something.

    But don’t be mistaken, I love the underlying science. I recognize that the method has its strengths. While I tinker and Make: things often, I learn best from that “book learning” style. Don’t neglect the power of the “standing on the shoulders of giants” principle.

    1. Anonymous says:

      I found your comment interesting: I’m a scientist and I’ve judged science fairs a couple of times and I’ve sometimes noticed a huge disconnect between the way science is done and the way science fairs are done. As you say the science fairs tend to be obsessed with this very formal hypothesis/method/conclusion model, and I don’t think that most scientists really work this way (at least most of the time). My experience is that real scientists spend a lot of time just playing around with stuff, and that by the time you are at the point where you can even formulate a clean hypothesis the work (as well as the fun) is mostly done. Hypothesis testing has a place but it is really only one small part of the process.

      I’ve always been afraid that the way science fairs are run scares away as many smart, creative kids as it attracts. Your letter seems to support this, unfortunately.

      1. Anonymous says:

        I’ve always thought that science at that level should be more about, “what happens if…” instead of, “I think this will happen let’s test it.”.

  3. There are extensions beyond the focus on just testing. Over-scheduling of kids in many different areas, with the presumption that it’s for college extra-curriculars some day (well-rounded) is yet another culprit. Advancement should be focused on ability, however specific it may be, not breadth. Einstein couldn’t dunk.

  4. I suspect we’re looking at the obvious answer without considering the other possibilities (Bad science! Bad bad science! ) …The answer provided is the ‘obvious answer’ …What if it’s something else. Maybe science is not interesting to kids these days because it has become too complex. Not the basic stuff, but the reality of science in the world around us. As an example, I began programming on a Timex Sinclair and did so on my next few computers. It was fun, my abilities grew with the computers and it was a new field that everyone could participate in. What aspect of science that is available for kids these days isn’t exceedingly complex, hasn’t been worked to death and still has a feeling of novelty?

  5. Garry Barzel says:

    We are just living in very lazy times…..

  6. Garry Barzel says:

    We are just living in very lazy times…..

  7. Garry Barzel says:

    We are just living in very lazy times…..

  8. Garry Barzel says:

    We are just living in very lazy times…..

  9. Dagny Scott says:

    We had a science fair when I was in first grade. After consulting with my fiance (two years my junior and from the same middle/upper-middle class suburban high school), I think that 1989 was the last year our district HAD a science fair.

    How do you get students to participate? Well, they have to exist, to start with.

    I suspect they suffered the same extinction as our music classes, when the administration decided it was more important that we have a second gym class.

  10. Dagny Scott says:

    We had a science fair when I was in first grade. After consulting with my fiance (two years my junior and from the same middle/upper-middle class suburban high school), I think that 1989 was the last year our district HAD a science fair.

    How do you get students to participate? Well, they have to exist, to start with.

    I suspect they suffered the same extinction as our music classes, when the administration decided it was more important that we have a second gym class.

  11. Dagny Scott says:

    We had a science fair when I was in first grade. After consulting with my fiance (two years my junior and from the same middle/upper-middle class suburban high school), I think that 1989 was the last year our district HAD a science fair.

    How do you get students to participate? Well, they have to exist, to start with.

    I suspect they suffered the same extinction as our music classes, when the administration decided it was more important that we have a second gym class.

  12. pete rip says:

    http://www.projo.com/news/content/tech_challenge_02-06-11_MCMBKLT_v12.16af6af.html

    Just saw this after reading this post. Its about a robotics competition in rhode island featuring students from 32 public and independent schools. while not a science fair, its still good to see this kind of turnout

  13. I would contest this point -> “You can teach religion by the book all day long.” You might be able to teach *about* religion all day long, but the religion itself or at least the faith that underlies it is really only rooted in a person when they have tested it and not found it wanting.

    1. Chris Gowen says:

      Came here to say this. That was a clumsy and unnecessary jab that weakened an otherwise insightful article.

      The competitive bureaucracy of science fairs never really appealed to me. Sadly, I’ve not really escaped that aspect as a professional scientist either, although at least it’s not the whole ballgame.

    2. Chris Gowen says:

      Came here to say this. That was a clumsy and unnecessary jab that weakened an otherwise insightful article.

      The competitive bureaucracy of science fairs never really appealed to me. Sadly, I’ve not really escaped that aspect as a professional scientist either, although at least it’s not the whole ballgame.

  14. Anonymous says:

    I’m a high-school student, and while I was able to participate in the FIRST Lego League working with robotics, I have not even had the opportunity to compete in a science fair. In order for kids to participate, there has to be a fair first. There are less students competing in science fairs because there are no fairs in the first place.

  15. Anonymous says:

    I’m a high-school student, and while I was able to participate in the FIRST Lego League working with robotics, I have not even had the opportunity to compete in a science fair. In order for kids to participate, there has to be a fair first. There are less students competing in science fairs because there are no fairs in the first place.

  16. Anonymous says:

    I’m a high-school student, and while I was able to participate in the FIRST Lego League working with robotics, I have not even had the opportunity to compete in a science fair. In order for kids to participate, there has to be a fair first. There are less students competing in science fairs because there are no fairs in the first place.

  17. Katie Fulton says:

    I think part of the problem, at least in my area (DC suburbs) is that the fairs aren’t pushed. Only once was I aware of a science fair going on, and that was only because my science teacher made it a requirement for us (an act that got her punished, as I learned later). I asked a friend of mine how he knew about them, and he said that it was something that seemed to require insider knowledge. You had to know which teacher to talk to, when to talk to them, and you had to know the drill already because the teacher wasn’t going to take their sweet time to explain it to you.

    I’m not sure where they were advertising it, since I always listened to morning announcements, participated in the geeky clubs, and was attentive in my science classes.

    These days, I have a son in elementary school, and the only thing they seem to have are morning science groups who’s participation numbers are severely restricted. These, too, are poorly advertised. I missed the last one because I didn’t get the notice until the day after submissions were closed.

    I wish there was some way that they could accept help from me. FFS, I work at NASA. I have connections in numerous industries. I CAN BRING IN A MODEL OF THE ROVER. But whenever I offer my help, they point to some art supplies that need to be sorted.

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  19. Kevin Webb says:

    I agree with the method of teaching in Finland, where they make it fun for kids to learn a subject that’s already as boring as it gets. It’s all about the foundation. If they think of fun activities and associate it with science there’ll be more interest.