This week we’re welcoming Erin Salter to Sci-Ed as a guest poster. Erin Salter is a biomedical engineer turned science writer. She left the academic environment where she used to grind bones and investigate osteonecrosis to follow her passion for outreach and communication. Erin currently works as part of the content team for Owen Software, where she sits at the desk next to Sci-Ed contributor Cristina Russo. In her spare time, she volunteers at the National Aquarium, writes the science blog Hypertonic, and swing dances. Find her on twitter @McSalter.
The room is crowded with row after row of trifold poster boards and judges squinting and taking notes. Among the posters illustrating the effects of soil character on worm health, or the effectiveness of hand sanitizer, I see a project on amino acid substitution due to missense mutations. I’m judging the middle school division, but this project is at the level of a high school or even college student. When it comes time to decide the winners, I battle the other judges who favor complex project topics over soundness of experimental design. The owner of the missense mutation project had access to resources and connections not shared by the students testing soil and hand-sanitizer. There are clearly two project tiers within the competition, and they aren’t separated by scientific understanding, but by access to the professional scientific world. If the mutation project wins over soil character, does it mean we are punishing students who don’t have pre-existing science connections?
A two tiered system: dividing students by access
This spring, science fairs like this one will take place across the country, culminating in the Intel International Science Fair, where students will compete for $3 million in prestigious cash prizes and scholarships. The fair I am volunteering at is a local event, far humbler in status, but still a chance for students to showcase their research skills. As the division I’m judging is middle school biology, I expected to see a lot of “kitchen cabinet” science: kids exploring the world around them through tools they can find at school or at home (e.g. comparing mold growth on different types of bread or testing methods to prevent cutting onions from making you cry).
What I didn’t expect was such a vast divide among the projects. On the one side are students equipped with minimal supplies and the basic science knowledge of 5th through 8th graders (10 to 14 years old). Their projects are simpler: factors that affect food spoilage or seed germination, household chemicals that can be used as insect repellant. On the other end, you have the students who have access to professional laboratory equipment — spectrophotometers, sterile culture hoods — and mentors who are professional scientists. Their projects are more ambitious and, from a sheer subject matter standpoint, far more impressive. These were middle schoolers dealing with RNA, bacteriophage, computer modeling, and proper statistics (something that is sometimes hard to find even in published scientific papers). It’s true that students show an impressive amount of knowledge of complicated subject matters and methods, but they also have the advantage of access to equipment and help the other students don’t.
Are we rewarding privilege as well as sound science?
The nominal purpose of science fairs is to promote student-led inquiry and give kids hands-on experience with the scientific method. Much of our science education centers on the “product” of science – established laws, facts, and theories. When we do classroom experiments, the outcome is almost always a given; these experiments are illustrations, not investigations. Student-led projects (like those done for the science fair) are one way to incorporate open-ended inquiry into education. In fact, the National Science Education Standards recommend that students be given opportunity to understand and practice the scientific process (hypothesis, testing, and conclusions). The newly released Next Generation Science Standards go further to recommend the integration scientific concepts and practices in the classroom, as scientific inquiry requires the coordination of scientific ideas with experimental skills. Science fair projects allow students to ask their own questions, design their own research methods, and analyze their own data, thus giving them the experience of the full arc of scientific inquiry. And, perhaps most importantly, science fairs are supposed to demystify science and take it from a just-so story to an accessible (and fun) activity.
Unintentionally weeding out students without access
However, the rewards system of the science fair is flawed. There is no equity of access to lab facilities and equipment or access to scientific mentors, meaning some students are disadvantaged from the start. Projects done in the lab or with the help of a scientist mentor are inherently more impressive. While a kid who investigates pollution in a local watershed and a kid who looks at the effects of a chemotherapeutic drug on different cancer cells may be equals in the rigor of their scientific method, the kid with the lab-based project simply stands out more. So, unfortunately, the students who win these science fairs will often be the ones with the best access.
A 2009 study of the Canada-Wide Science Fair found that found that fair participants were elite not just in their understanding of science, but in their finances and social network. The study looked at participants and winners from the 2002-2008 Fairs, and found that the students were more likely to come from advantaged middle to upper class families and had access to equipment in universities or laboratories through their social connections. Their posters were professionally printed or designed. They had parents or family friends who were scientists or engineers. While this isn’t to say that the parents did their children’s projects — the authors noted that the students displayed a high level of understanding of their project topic and procedures – students with a personal connection to a scientist who can help them with their project are at a significant advantage. In fact, most of the students used entirely non-school based resources, an option that is not available to many of their less well connected peers. Previous studies (Czerniak, 1996 and Gifford & Wiygul, 1992) also found that access to professional science facilities and mentorship were good predictors for science fair success.
It seems classic science fair competitions inadvertently weed out students who come from less advantaged backgrounds, and the kids who end up with the most positive outcomes are the ones who already have a strong connection to STEM at home. Furthermore, the competition aspect of the fairs may leave the non-winning students with the feeling that they’re not good enough for science. This can be especially discouraging for younger students just becoming interested in science. Having winners that primarily come from privileged backgrounds underlines the elitist idea that science is the lofty pursuit of few instead of a source of wonder that all can enjoy.
Can we fix the broken science fair system?
So how can we promote and reward student-led inquiry without creating a system that devalues the contributions of less privileged students? One quick solution would be to create two categories of competition: one for experiments done in a professional research lab setting and one for experiments done at home or schools. Awards would have to be given out equally to both categories. However, establishing an official two-tiered system would simply codify the unofficial two-tiered system already in place.
Another option is the “standards-based” science fair, where students compete against a set of standards rather than each other. Like the classic science fair, students are awarded points for meeting criteria like clear communication and quantitative data to support their hypothesis. Unlike the classic science fair, though, the winners are not the students with the highest scores. Instead, all students who reach a score benchmark are rewarded. The scoring guide and benchmarks should be rigorous and well established to avoid an “everyone wins” type of situation – you want to reward students for genuine effort and understanding rather than participation.
An added advantage of changing the system: diminishing the fear of “failure”
Taking project topic and sophistication out of the equation also allows students more room to explore, have fun with their projects, and (most importantly) – fail. Failure is simply part of the scientific process, as many of us who have torn our hair out over experimental non-results are aware. “Failure” of scientific experiments is valuable, however. It tells us that we need to change our approach and try something new. Screw-ups can lead us in directions we might never have explored, and in some cases, can lead to useful discoveries (post-it notes or penicillin are oft-quoted examples). However, negative results are practically unpublishable in scientific journals. Similarly, winning science fair projects are often those with positive results (the predicted outcome is correct or students build a working model of their design). The pressure to publish positive results is part of the reason for a sharp rise in paper retractions. Judging science fair projects on the rigor the scientific investigation rather than the flashiness of the topic or affirmation of the students’ original hypothesis may help instill the value of process over product early on in science education.
The sight that stuck in my mind as I left my science fair experience was not the beautiful posters of the “top-tier” projects or the confident smiles of the accomplished presenters. It was the transformation of a 6th grade girl with a “kitchen cabinet”-science project flanked by the posters of lab-science peers. It was the resignation that filled her mien as day went on, the way she went from smiling and joking with her friends to slumping in her chair, defeated. Traditional science fairs may reward excellence in science, but they also reward privilege. Students like that little girl are left behind, sorted out and discouraged early on by their lack of access. And that is, in a word, unfair.
Further Reading on science fairs: