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?