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2011 June 20

Rethinking Science Fairs (7 mostly bad ideas from John Spencer)

Filed under: Science fair — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 11:50
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John Spencer wrote an article (in his own blog and in the TeachPaperless blog): Rethinking Science Fairs (7 Ideas). He comes from a decidedly English-teacher view of the world, and seems to have missed the point of science fairs entirely, so his suggestions make almost no sense.  For my views on science fair, see some of my previous posts, or all the posts I’ve tagged with “science fair”.

Let’s look at his ideas one by one:

1. Quit giving awards: Instead of simply celebrating the individual achievements, highlight the collective research that the entire group accomplished.

John may really believe that individual effort should not be recognized and that only the group ever matters. Perhaps John also believes that all single-author writing should be abolished, and only committee reports allowed to be published.

I have seen teachers seriously propose that all awards (academic, athletic, citizenship, artistic, … ) be abolished from schools, and that no student ever get recognized for doing anything good.  I’ve never been clear how this helps students learn that there is value in doing things well.  Indeed, the main goal of such teachers seems to be to hammer down anyone who sticks out, and make sure that all students end up uniformly mediocre.

Given how little celebration there is of individual academic effort in most places in the US, though, I can’t see how this will help promote science learning and effort from students.  In collective research at the school level, either one person does all the work (and doesn’t get recognized for it) or very little actually gets done.  What is the incentive to spend much time working on a project that 29 other kids are also doing?  Large group science projects would make more sense if there were projects in which 30 kids could all meaningfully contribute (like a theater production), but I can’t think of any middle-school science projects big enough for that to work.

2. Broaden the definition of science:  My project was fictitious.  I get it.  However, I had a love of social science and sociology that a teacher could have tapped into for a more alternative, human-oriented project.

Behavioral science is usually the biggest category at science fairs, so I’m not sure what change he is asking for here—that only behavioral science be allowed?  That social activity without a science component at all be allowed?

3. Allow fiction: I’m not suggesting that we abandon scientific inquiry.  Yet, I can see a place for students proposing theories through allegorical science fiction.  Let a kid write a scientific dystopia where he or she examines some of the values inherent in science.

Spoken like an English teacher, who sees fiction as a suitable replacement for science.  I have no problem with English teachers having author fairs and celebrating writing, why do they object to celebrating science? Allegorical science fiction is a fine thing (I’ve read plenty of it), but it is no substitute for doing science.  Science fair is not the place for proposing “theories” (which have a very different meaning in science than what John is using the word for), but for doing experiments to test the predictions of a specific model.

4. Encourage collaboration: Rather than sharing experiments after the fact, let students collaborate in multiple projects throughout the process.  A student who becomes an expert in data analysis, for example, could lend his or her expertise in other projects.  Similarly, students could modify experiments based upon the observations of others.

Most science fairs (all the ones I’ve ever judged for) allow students to work either as individuals or as small groups. Collaboration is indeed encouraged by many teachers, though only in small groups—large group projects run into serious logistic difficulties, accomplishing less and less as the group gets bigger. I’ve talked about group projects before—group sizes that are optimal for science-fair-sized projects are from one to three students, depending on the project.

John’s proposal that students specialize (doing just data analysis , for example) seems more appropriate for college students than for middle-school students, and more appropriate for projects too large for middle-school science fairs.

5. Modify the presentation component: instead of simply boards or papers, allow for podcasts, websites, blogs, videos and social media reflection.  Create discussion groups where they share their data verbally in a group.

This makes some sense, as the poster presentation is a bit of a limitation on science fairs.  Most of the posters produced bear little resemblance to the posters used at real scientific conferences (except at the high school level, where many students are working with college professors on real science).

Google science fair has experimented with other media—entries had to be done by creating a Google web site, with either a 2-minute video or 20 slides in a Google Docs presentation (not both).  The constraints of these media were even more restrictive than the standard poster, and I know kids who looked at the Google contest as an advertising contest rather than a science contest (and so decided not to participate).

Podcasts and social media reflection are really poor ways to convey the content of a several-month scientific investigation, which is what a good science project is.  A blog recording the daily progress of a project would be an interesting accompaniment to a science fair project, but what is really needed is a solid written report.  It is indeed unfortunate that most science fairs do not judge the reports—indeed in many cases the judges do not get copies of the reports nor time to read them.

I don’t know why John thinks that “sharing data verbally in a group” is a good idea—chatting about data is such a tiny part of a science project (in the real world as well as science fair) that it has almost no point.  When scientists get together to talk, discussions of data only come up when the data are surprising—much more often they talk about methods for gathering data, models that arise from the data, and new experiments that can test those models.

6. Make it a real fair: In other words, instead of simply walking around and checking the grades of each project, create a festival.  Make it a carnival of inquiry.  Bust out the pond water.  Take out the magnifying glasses.  Let children experience the joy of scientific discovery.

John is talking about a different sort of event—one that is also quite common.  I organized a few of these as “Family Science Night”.  They are fun and get kids interested in science—great events and excellent edutainment. They are the advertising, while science fair projects are the work.  Perhaps John believes that science education should be only the entertainment part, and not the work of actually doing large projects.

7. Go global:  Let students compare similar experiments across the world.  Have students develop a shared experiment using Skype, social media, blogging, shared documents and video and then encourage hard dialogue about the cultural conflicts they experience.  Science can become the common ground for crossing the boundaries of presuppositions.

Why should “cultural conflicts” be what students talk about rather than the science itself?  This sounds like John only regards social interactions as interesting, and believes that the only point of science is to give people an excuse for socializing.  There are many easier ways to get at cultural conflicts, if that were the goal.

Running collaborations remotely adds a huge communication overhead to a project.  The science component of science fair projects would have to be scaled way back in order to accommodate this overhead.  If playing with social media is the goal, perhaps some other project could be devised—one that would actually benefit from geographic separation.  Sacrificing science on the altar of social media seems the wrong way to go.

All of John’s suggestions seem to be to take the “science” out of “science fair”.  O, I get that he doesn’t like science, but why take it out of one of the few places it is left in public education?


  1. Allow fiction?

    My issue with science fairs (with no actual experience whatsoever) is the worry that the work is not the children’s own. I think you’ve commented that this hasn’t been a significant issue at the fairs you’ve judged, but I’m interested in hearing more about how you know that.

    My daughter says that I underestimate the abilities of her age group (i.e. 10 year olds) and that they can do a lot more than I think they can, especially the superstars among them. So that’s a possibility. But, how are you able to judge the kids did the work when you look at their poster, do you every/sometimes/often suspect they didn’t, and how is their work assessed if the judge thinks they didn’t do the work?

    My daughter participated in Destination Imagination (like Odyssey of the mind) last year and the program has a strict rule against “interference”, requiring the children’s work to be the work of the group. But the enforcement is purely on the honor system, as far as I can tell.

    Comment by zb — 2011 June 20 @ 16:31 | Reply

    • If one has to judge strictly based on the posters (as I do at one of the school fairs), it is very difficult to tell whether there has been too much parental involvement. The other fairs I’ve judged all include interviews with the kids. It is pretty easy to ask them about their work, and within a few minutes to find out approximately how much help they received. There are 10-year-olds capable of doing amazing things, and I’ve seen the judges make more errors in the other direction (assuming that the work was the parents’ when I knew it was not).

      When my son was 10, he did a project involving bouncing balls that included deriving the coefficient of restitution from the height of the bounces and writing a computer simulation of the bouncing ball in Scratch. My help to him included taking long-exposure pictures with my digital camera (for him to measure the bounce height) and teaching him some calculus, so that he could derive the formulas he needed. ( )

      And that wasn’t even a winning project! He’s done better with his more recent projects (see for a list).

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 June 20 @ 20:07 | Reply

  2. 1. I am not opposed to individual work. Read my blog again. I didn’t say every project had to be a group project. I said that there should be a sharing of ideas. There should be collaboration. When I write, I ask for a team to read it, share ideas, question my ideas, etc. I want the same to be true of a Science Fair. Also to be clear, I don’t think awards are healthy for kids. It’s the wrong kind of motivation.

    2. I have not seen behavioral science in science fairs. I admit that my view of science fairs have been limited to lower grades (again, it was in my original blog post).

    3. For the record, I teach all subjects (science included). I see real value in blending subjects. Some of the best scientists out there test the social side of scientific theories in fiction. To me, a science fair should allow us to break past a simplistic view of science only through the scientific method.

    4. “Perhaps John believes that science education should be only the entertainment part, and not the work of actually doing large projects.” Wrong again in your interpretation of my words. I’m talking about the event that culminates at the end of the project. Spend days on the project in school. Let students see each other’s work. Allow collaboration. Allow the subjects to blend. That’s what I’m mentioning. Then, when it’s over, instead of an awkward walk around boards, create a true festival that celebrates the intellectual endeavors that occurred.

    5. Culture conflicts exist in science and need to be examined. To assume that there is a pure, non-ideological, cultural vacuum in the math and science realm fails to recognize the context of math and science. I want my students to engage in critical thinking as they conduct scientific experiments and much of this thinking will slip into the social or cultural realm.

    Comment by johntspencer — 2011 June 21 @ 06:59 | Reply

    • Thank you for responding to my critiques. It is good to hear that your opinions are not as extreme as your initial blog post made them sound.

      Let me continue this discussion.

      1) Science fairs do encourage collaboration. Small group projects are extremely common. The fair itself is a time for sharing ideas and celebrating them.
      Awards may not be the best way to motivate kids, but competition is surprisingly effective in getting some kids to put out phenomenal amounts of work. The multi-level competition of school, regional, state (or international) science fair is a powerful motivator for some kids. It also encourages students after one level of the competition to go back to their project and improve it—something that rarely happens with purely school-based projects.

      2) There is something strange in your area if there is no behavioral science in the science fairs, as it is by far the largest category in the schools, county, and even state levels. The science is often bad (the biggest problem being tiny sample sizes, which is ok for very repeatable things like physics, but does not work in behavioral studies). The fraction of behavioral science seems to me to shrink with increasing grade level, so it is even more surprising that you are not seeing it at the lower grade levels. Perhaps you need to talk with your elementary science teachers about that aspect of your science fairs.

      3) Blending subjects is good in some ways, risky in others. Learning to write about different subjects, for example, is universally valuable, and math can be applied to many things. One has to be very careful when teaching science, though, to make sure that students use scientific thinking, and not magical thinking. Allowing fiction in science fairs crosses that line and eliminates the science from the fair. The “scientific method”, though grossly oversimplified in our schools, is the essence of science. Without it, what is left is not science.

      4) “Days on the project in school” does not work well for science fair. My son’s 7th grade class tried that and it was a disaster—the kids did not have the resources in school for some of their projects (like the computer programming my son was doing or the animal behavior experiments with dogs at a dog park that another kid was doing), so many of them sat around doing make-work instead of working on their projects. The teacher also had very strict deadlines for various aspects of the projects that did not line up well with the timing of some of the experiments. As a result, the projects that year were poorly done and there seemed to be more last-minute parental intervention than usual. The time would have been better spent teaching some physics, chemistry, biology, statistics, … in class. One of the points of the science fair project is too encourage students to take on projects too big for in-class projects. Not everyone does (or needs to), but limiting the projects to in-class work reduces them to mere exercises.

      I agree with you, though, that more should be done at the end of the projects to celebrate and share the accomplishments. What you described in your blog though, sounded a lot more like a festival “in place of science fair” not “as an expansion of science fair”. The posters are generally up for too short a time for kids and parent to really learn from each other, and often have insufficient content. I like the layout of the International science fair (which I’ve visited once, but never judged), which dedicates a whole week to sharing the results of the projects. At the school level, it would be valuable to have students who did exemplary work present it to lower grades, to explain how they did the work and to inspire the younger kids to greater achievement. It would be good to have everyone read the reports of the other students, and to discuss ways that each project could be improved. The top reports could be published on the school web pages and kept in the school library, instead of buried on a teacher’s desk for a month and forgotten about.

      5. Culture conflicts exist in science, but they are not the point of science. Students need to learn scientific thinking in simpler contexts before they get into the morass of ideology that cultural studies of science are currently mired in. This is a major point of disagreement between us, I think, that you want students to dive into the cultural analysis even at the expense of the science, and I want to separate the two, to simplify the learning. I’m not opposed to doing cultural analysis of science, but not in place of science, as your writing seems suggest.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 June 21 @ 08:37 | Reply

  3. Oh, and let’s get this straight. I love science. I love observation. I love to test hypotheses. I do science experiments with my kids at home. (I believe I mentioned the raisin experiment on my blog recently).

    Love it.

    But I hate when science is tossed into a tiny box so that a kid like me could never connect it to anything other than “pure” science.

    Comment by johntspencer — 2011 June 21 @ 07:01 | Reply

  4. I have judged a lot of science fairs. It takes about 30 seconds of talking to the student to determine if they did the work.

    John’s suggestions do not seem to apply to real kids at a real school.

    Comment by Garth — 2011 June 21 @ 07:11 | Reply

    • In extreme examples, 30 seconds may be enough, but it generally takes me about 5 minutes to find out the edges of the kids’ knowledge on their project. A project that is only 10% the student’s work is easy to discover quickly, but distinguishing one that is 85% student work from one that is 95% student work is much harder. The schools I’ve judged at have a lot of parents who are scientists and engineers, and their kids have often been taught far beyond what the school teaches, so it is not always obvious where their own knowledge and skills end.

      It is particularly important to do the probing carefully on the very good projects that had mentors (parental or otherwise), to figure out how much of the thinking and doing was work of the mentors. A good mentor provides a lot of feedback on the presentation skills (verbal, poster, and writing) as well as the science, and the students learn a lot from that feedback, but sometimes an over-enthusiastic mentor “helps” too much. Again, one can’t tell this just by the vocabulary and content of the project. I’ve seen high school students doing PhD level work, and probed deeply to make sure that they were not representing someone else’s work as their own. I’ve seen other kids presenting rather poorly done work and found that they had no clue what they were talking about, because their parents had slapped the project together for them.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 June 21 @ 08:50 | Reply

    • I teach real students in a real school. I admit that the context is urban, low-income, which is a large part of why they often cannot do these projects at home (at least without strong dialogue between parents and teachers). However, a well-organized teacher can pull it off.

      Comment by johntspencer — 2011 June 22 @ 09:46 | Reply

  5. I don’t think awards should be abolished, but I do have issues with how they work at the fairs I’ve judged. The judges rarely have sufficient time to understand enough about projects to truly do a fair job of ranking projects. And judges have subjective and differing criteria, which means the winner is often more dependent on who is judging than an inherently superior project.

    Here’s what I’d prefer to see.

    Judges could spend most of their time giving meaningful feedback to participants (rather than spending time working with other judges on ranking decisions). If a project is superior, the judge can let the student know why. If it’s lacking, the judge can give helpful suggestions for improvement. Instead of “getting 2nd place or 1st place” the student knows that their careful experimental design, or thoughtful analysis, or innovative presentation was really noticed. Standout projects could be awarded an “Excellence in Science” award (or something similar that would make a student proud to include it on their college applications :-) This way, students would be compared not against each other (which at this level can be meaningless anyway) but rather against a scientific standard — which is probably far more relevant. If you do great science you get an award — even if other students do great science too. And if no student does great science, that’s reflected too.

    I can see the argument that a student might only try to do their very best if they are “competing for the gold”. But, in my opinion, this is not the scientific spirit. To me, our students are far more likely to become great scientists if their motivation is about doing great science as opposed to “beating other scientists for the gold” or “doing a project that plays well to judges.”

    Comment by Ron G. — 2011 June 29 @ 22:09 | Reply

    • I agree, and disagree. I too wish judges had more time to talk with the kids and give more meaningful feedback. At least at the County Science Fair, the judges are expected to spend a big chunk of their time leaving written comments for the kids (which are probably more valuable than verbal comments, which can be hard for kids to absorb at the moment).

      Of the various science fairs I’ve judged, I think that the feedback process works best at the County. The school fairs often have rather arbitrary criteria set by the teachers or lack the opportunity to interview the kids, and the state science fair is far too rushed—the judges have no time to read the posters, much less the reports, and there is no feedback at all to the kids. (On the other hand, the state science fair does do the awards the same day, rather than weeks later when all interest is gone, except for the kids who actually get the awards.)

      The school and county fairs do serve another function: selecting which projects are good enough to present at the next level. Whether a kid gets first, second, or some other designation is not as important (in my mind) as making sure that the good projects go on to the next level.

      One thing I’d like to see is more opportunity for people to see the projects after the awards, so that kids, parents, and teachers can spend some time looking at the top projects, knowing that they are top projects. Right now, the public viewing of most science fairs treats all projects as equivalent, and students often learn to copy the bad projects (because they are splashier) rather than looking at what makes a project good. At the State science fair, the public viewing occurs when the posters are being set up, and many of the top projects aren’t even there yet.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 June 29 @ 22:59 | Reply

      • I agree that there should be a better way for people to look at the top projects. Good point.

        I’m involved in a group called the Science & Engineering Council. Each year we provide some small monetary awards to the top winners in each category and have those top winners come speak at one of our monthly luncheons–usually after the county competition and before state. It gives the kids a chance to present their projects to a technical audience and answer real questions about the controls they used, their background research, and the implications of their results.

        We wish we could have more kids speak, because the top county winners aren’t always (or even usually) the ones that do best at state. But, with 5-7 minutes per winner and 10 categories, it already takes an hour.

        Of course, that just allows some people in the technical community to see the projects. Your suggestion to find some way for the kids to see the best projects in a group is equally or more important. Where we are, it’s mainly 8th graders that do the projects, so perhaps there’s a way to have the top projects travel to various jr. highs so 7th graders can see them or 8th graders at the start of that year could view last year’s top projects.

        Comment by Yves — 2011 June 30 @ 09:55 | Reply

  6. I’ve judged a lot at the county level, and I agree completely with Ron G.’s comments – I’d like to give them ‘good job’ and ‘excellent’ awards, in addition to designating some to go to the next level, e.g. state. All the judging should be against a standard of science and not against each other. I stopped judging because I didn’t like the arbitrary and time wasting process the judges went through to give 1st, 2nd and 3rd place ribbons.

    Comment by john welch — 2011 June 30 @ 13:18 | Reply

    • I agree that the 1st/2nd/3rd ranking is often pretty arbitrary, and it takes too long for some judges to reach consensus. The time could be better spent on providing feedback to the kids.

      On the other hand, I think that not enough time is spent on figuring out who goes on to the next level. There are sometimes categories with several fine projects and others with none, so simply taking the top 2 in each category is not a real solution. What we need is a system that encourages judges to look at several of the top projects outside their own category, so that judges can make reasonable decisions about the overall strength of the projects. The problem here is time—a good judging system would take more time with each project and would have multiple rounds of judging, so that the judges are thoroughly familiar with the projects and can ask questions of the kids after some preliminary judgements have been made. I think that the International Science and Engineering Fair comes closer to that sort of system, but I’ve not judged at it yet, so can’t say for sure. Of course, ISEF is the highest level of science fair available, so there is no selection for who goes on to another level.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 June 30 @ 13:31 | Reply

  7. I totally agree with you that the essence of science is the scientific method, which is used by sociologists, economists and psychologists to prove or disprove theories in social as well as “hard science” fields. One of the key components of the scientific method is understanding that all humans have bias, which can be reduced with experiments that try to compensate for the bias of the observer using blind and double-blind studies. Bias is something that kids can understand. I like this therefore I think it is better when I look at it. The concepts of observation, measurement, and bias can be explained to children using botany (growing beans with different fertilizers) or the social science of observing the usage, wait time, and fun-factor of toys in the playground.

    “One has to be very careful when teaching science, though, to make sure that students use scientific thinking, and not magical thinking. Allowing fiction in science fairs crosses that line and eliminates the science from the fair. The “scientific method”, though grossly oversimplified in our schools, is the essence of science. Without it, what is left is not science.”

    Comment by Christin — 2011 July 5 @ 12:08 | Reply

  8. […] be on everyone’s Fun Checklist. And hey, Barbara Park: When is Junie B. going to do a science fair project? We’re […]

    Pingback by "Junie B. Jones Essential Survival Guide To School" — 2013 July 1 @ 17:54 | Reply

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