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2012 March 11

Santa Cruz County Science Fair 2012

Filed under: Science fair — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 12:48
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I spent all day Saturday judging at the Santa Cruz County Science Fair.  I did not judge at the senior level, since my son was competing in the senior division again this year.

I did not get statistics on how many projects there were this year—it seemed about the same size as previous years, with around 430 kids participating. It is a little hard to get precise statistics, because there are a lot of no-shows and a handful of kids who show up at the last minute with valid claims about being invited, but whose projects did not appear in the database (perhaps due to a teacher or administrative mixup).

There was a continuation of the shift away from senior (grades 9–12) projects, with only about 16 projects (out of an eligible population of about 12,000 high school students).  There was some growth in the primary (K–3) and elementary (4–6) levels. The shift this year did not seem to reduce the number of good high-school projects—we mainly lost the “fluff” ones where students had been doing it to get credit in school by going through the motions without actually doing any work.  Almost all the high-school projects this year were from kids doing it extracurricularly (often in addition to heavy school loads) and showed a real passion for the science that they were doing.  I believe that we sent over half the senior projects on to state this year (since I was not judging at the senior level, I only know about the junior projects going to state, and then only in the categories I judged).

One of the long-time judges told us that when she started judging (more than 20 years ago), the competition was primarily a high school one, and that is still where the money prizes are concentrated. All the senior judges and most of the other judges I talked to would like to see more participation by high school students.  I think that having 1% of the high school students in the county doing science fair is a reasonable initial goal—that would be 120 students, about an 8-fold increase over the current situation. How to get there is a challenge.  More prizes and prize money alone probably won’t help, since there are already a few thousand dollars in prizes.  More press coverage might, since most parents and students seem to be unaware that science fair exists at the high-school level, nor that there are fairly substantial prizes.

I have not found any press coverage of this year’s Santa Cruz County Science Fair.  It seems that the local reporters don’t work weekends, or don’t consider science fairs interesting.  (They cover teen events in sports and music, but that’s about it—they’d rather report only on gangs, drug dealing, vandalism, and car crashes—perhaps because they can copy that from the police departments without any effort.)  I didn’t even find any coverage in this year, though my son was interviewed at the fair by a Patch contributor.  Maybe there will be something tomorrow, but I’m not holding my breath. [ did come through eventually, with an article Monday morning.]

I’m being a little unfair here: the Santa Cruz Sentinel does cover the county spelling bee in great detail, with photos of every participant—because they sponsor it.  You won’t see a Sentinel reporter at the county science fair or the county math contest, though—I guess they figure that one educational event a year is all their reporting budget will stretch to.  The other newspapers in the county don’t even do that much.

Although I fault the newspapers for not doing reporting, a big chunk of the problem is actually the County Office of Education.  All the newspapers in the county publish interesting press releases (after light editing to make them look like original reporting).  Most of the “news” about what is happening at the university or community college are these doctored press releases.  Either the County Office of Education is not creating press releases, or they are so boringly written that the newspapers don’t see any point to tweaking them into publishable copy.  Perhaps they are stuck in the journalistic model of a generation ago, when you announced events to the papers, with the expectation that journalists would show up and report on them.  It doesn’t work that way any more—there are no paid reporters for local events.

So what can the science and engineering community do to stir up high school student participation? (I was going to do a bulleted list here, but the stupid WordPress editor does not accept multi-paragraph list items.  Even if you put paragraph tags in using the HTML mode, it throws them out again—stupid software!)


Someone has to write articles and press releases for the local papers.  I’ve no idea how to get them to print anything, though.  Perhaps the County Office of Education should approach the papers to become sponsors for the event, since that seems to have worked for getting excellent coverage of the spelling bee (which is just a written spelling test, with no audience—far less exciting than the science fair).

Perhaps the high school newspapers need to be approached and asked to do investigative or opinion pieces about why high schoolers don’t do science fair.  The high schoolers read their school papers, even if they don’t read the local general papers.  I don’t know how one contacts the high school papers, though, nor how one gets their journalists interested in the topic—they’ve been acculturated to think that science fair is irrelevant to high schoolers already.

Teacher education

High school science teachers are often overloaded in teaching their current science courses, and don’t have the time or the energy to encourage their top students to do projects in addition to the routine work of the courses.  The required “content” is often so rigid that there is no room in the course for any project work—making science into dull memorization of factoids and formulas, rather than the joyous (and sometimes frustrating) exploration that it really is.

But how do we get teachers to come? It would probably be fairly easy to get a core group of middle-school and elementary-school teachers to attend continuing-education workshops centered on science fair, because they see science fair as something they need to do, but which their teacher training did not properly prepare them for.  It would be very difficult to get high-school teachers to attend—none of the high schools do science fair, and there is no pressing need from the teachers’ standpoint to get involved.

Credit for research projects

In parts of the country where high-school science fair is taken seriously, high schools offer course credit for science research and have teachers helping student find resources (books, journal articles, mentors, lab space, equipment, supplies, … ).  The teachers act more as facilitators than lecturers, but get paid for their work (no high school teacher in this county gets any compensation for helping students do projects, which accounts for some of their reluctance to get involved).  I know that the Santa Cruz City Schools have a code in their transcript data bases for special studies in science (2 or 3 of my son’s courses this year fall under that code, since they have nothing else for Physics C, for robotics, or for computer science projects).  If an independent project course were offered at the high schools, I suspect that we would easily be able to get 1% of the high school students interested in doing substantial projects.  Unfortunately, that is only 10 students per school, and the school administration is reluctant to pay for any classes with fewer than 30 students—school budgets in California have gotten ridiculously tight.

More mentoring

Almost all the high school students in science fair have mentoring from the community—often from university faculty or researchers, but not exclusively.  Perhaps the university and the community college need to start a joint science-fair mentoring matching service, so that more students interested in doing projects in science and engineering can be matched with mentors.  The mentoring does not have to be advertised as “science fair”, since high school students don’t see that as an attractant.  Perhaps ‘”internships” and “research opportunities” would be more attractive.  The science fair could be thrown in as an afterthought, as a place to show off the work and practice presentation skills (that is, after all what the fair is for—a place for students to display the research they have done).

The mentorship has got to be seen as a real honors option though, not as a “let’s help the marginally passing students decide to go to college” thing, the way most of the “outreach” programs locally are done.  Many college faculty and grad students are delighted to work with students in the top 1–10%, but would quickly burn out working with average students.  Since the local high schools have mostly abandoned the top 10% of the students to find their own way, the colleges and universities need to be providing more opportunities for them.  One-on-one mentoring is perhaps the most effective way to get the next generation of top students to decide to follow STEM careers, and high school is where many of them make educational decisions that determine whether or not they can.

The County Office of Education supposedly has had a mentor-matching service, but teachers, students, parents, and researchers are all unaware of it, so it might as well not exist (and maybe it doesn’t any more). There are also “eMentoring” services, like, but I doubt that they are very effective in providing the sort of mentoring needed for good high school science fair projects, which often require help in finding local lab resources.

Summer opportunities

My son commented recently that he wished that science fair were at the end of the summer, so that he would have time to work on his project without having to keep up with all his other classes.  (As a home-schooler, his schedule is more flexible than most high school students, but even so he’s fallen a bit behind in calculus and physics, and way behind in history and English, in his attempt to get the poster and report for science fair done—despite several days spending more than 8 hours working.)  Although I’ve encouraged him to start his science fair projects in the summer when he has more time, the deadline is too far away to give the project much urgency.

Perhaps we could have summer research opportunities for high school students at the university, in the community college, and with various tech companies, culminating in an end-of-summer presentation with posters and reports.  The presentations could be in September, just as school is starting, and advertised to teachers and high school students. The university is much better at getting press releases into the paper than the County Office of Education is, so there might actually be some hope of having people other than the participants showing up.  Students can be encouraged to continue the projects at a much lower intensity level during the school year and to present the work again in March at the science fair. Having two venues a year (September and March) might actually make it easier for students to do long projects, and the repeated presentation of different drafts of the work as it progresses is more like real science than one report when the project is done.

Two problems I see:

  • getting enough mentors in enough different fields together that students see a wealth of research opportunities, and
  • getting enough students aware of the opportunities to have enough participants for the September presentation to be more than just 4 or 5 projects.

The summer research opportunities would only increase participation in science fair if there were at least 20 students involved. Just giving more mentoring to the students already involved in science fair would be nice, but not very helpful in increasing participation.

The COSMOS program is supposed to provide something like this sort of outreach:

Designed specifically for talented and motivated high school students, the California State Summer School for Mathematics and Science (COSMOS) is a 4-week summer residential program for high school scholars with demonstrated interest and achievement in math and science.

It is a pretty cheap summer camp ($2840 for 4 weeks, including room and board, with need-based scholarships available), and I know that the kids involved are motivated and interested in science, as I generally give some of them a 2-hour talk on bioinformatics each year and they ask good questions.

The COSMOS students do present posters at the end of their 4-week summer camp, but I don’t see them again at science fair—I wonder why not.  Are none of them from the county? Are the COSMOS projects designed to be completed in 4 weeks, so that they aren’t open-ended enough to be continued as research projects?  Are the connections between COSMOS students and researchers too much like “classes” and not enough like “mentorship”, so that neither students nor researchers feel any desire to continue the relationship past the end of the the 4-week camp? Is an intense 4-week residential camp the best way to reach the top students?

I suspect that the problem is all of these. There are only 4 COSMOS sites at 4 UC campuses (Davis, Irvine, San Diego, and Santa Cruz), and so UCSC is probably drawing from the entire San Francisco Bay Area and the central coast, with students from the county making up negligible proportion. An intense residential camp is an excellent vehicle for encouraging students to continue in science, but it has a very clear beginning and end, so probably leads to few continuing mentoring relationships.

I think we might have more success encouraging local students to do science projects with a less intense 12-week research opportunity program, where students may meet with their mentors for as little as an hour a week (or may spend 8 hours a day in the researcher’s lab).  A more flexible mentoring scheme would allow weeks off for conflicting events like theater camps, and would be more open-ended for continuing the mentoring past the “final” presentation.


  1. Note that RSI (Research Science Institute), sponsored by CEE and held at MIT every summer, might be a good prototype for a program that attracts top students to do research.

    Comment by Jo in OKC — 2012 March 11 @ 13:36 | Reply

    • That does look like a good program, though rather expensive to run. I doubt very much that we could do it a UCSC. I’m looking for a much cheaper program that could be run by volunteers without need to do grant writing or fund raising.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 March 11 @ 14:42 | Reply

  2. MIT’s PRIMES does a similar thing to RSI, but it’s during the year. It’s also math only. I’m not sure how well it would work for things requiring lab work as well as mentoring/guidance.

    Comment by Jo in OKC — 2012 March 11 @ 15:45 | Reply

  3. […] population of about 12,000 high school students)” (from my fellow parent-of-science-fair-kids Kevin, who is also a judge). In other words: we didn’t find the projects done by high schoolers because they were lost […]

    Pingback by What’s up with the science fair? – Avant Parenting — 2012 March 14 @ 19:39 | Reply

  4. […] Center at the Long Marine Lab and the COSMOS program for high schoolers (which I discussed in a blog post about improving the science fair participation by high schoolers).  There are a lot of summer camps for kids on the UCSC campus, but most of these are from […]

    Pingback by Kids on Campus « Gas station without pumps — 2012 May 7 @ 12:25 | Reply

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