Education Science
Why Are Fewer Students in Science Fairs?

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 is the leading advocate of the Maker Movement. He founded Make: Magazine 2005, which first used the term “makers” to describe people who enjoyed “hands-on” work and play. He started Maker Faire in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2006, and this event has spread to nearly 200 locations in 40 countries, with over 1.5M attendees annually. He is President of Make:Community, which produces Make: and Maker Faire.

In 2011 Dougherty was honored at the White House as a “Champion of Change” through an initiative that honors Americans who are “doing extraordinary things in their communities to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.” At the 2014 White House Maker Faire he was introduced by President Obama as an American innovator making significant contributions to the fields of education and business. He believes that the Maker Movement has the potential to transform the educational experience of students and introduce them to the practice of innovation through play and tinkering.

Dougherty is the author of “Free to Make: How the Maker Movement Is Changing our Jobs, Schools and Minds” with Adriane Conrad. He is co-author of "Maker City: A Practical Guide for Reinventing American Cities" with Peter Hirshberg and Marcia Kadanoff.

View more articles by Dale Dougherty