Science fairs: rewarding talent or privilege?

 

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.

A typical science fair scene. Photo by Flickr user RichardBowen | CC BY 2.0

A typical science fair scene. Photo by Flickr user RichardBowen | CC BY 2.0

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.

Sources:

Bencze, J. L., & Bowen, G. M. (2009). A national science fair: Exhibiting support for the knowledge economy. International Journal of Science Education, 31(18), 2459-2483.

Gifford, V. D., & Wiygul, S. M. (1992) The Effect of the Use of Outside Facilities and Resources on Success in Secondary School Science Fairs. School Science and Mathematics, 92(3), 116-119.

Czerniak, C.M. (1996). Predictors of Success in a District Science Fair Competition: An Exploratory Study. School Science and Mathematics, 96(1), 21-27.

Rillero, P. (2011). A Standards-Based Science Fair. Science and Children, 48(8), 32-36.

Further Reading on science fairs:

The science fair a new look at an old tradition

Rethinking the Science Fair

 

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Science fairs: rewarding talent or privilege? by Sci-Ed, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

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21 Responses to Science fairs: rewarding talent or privilege?

  1. Chad Atkins says:

    Thanks for writing this piece.

    I have a few comments. I’ve judged numerous science fairs during the last seven years — on district and regional levels — and I’ve certainly seen projects that use advanced instrumentation above the level of the student. I do have to advise caution when suggesting such a project always represents privilege. Over the last four years I’ve volunteered in an outreach program affiliated with a Canadian organization called Let’s Talk Science (http://ubclts.com/mentorship). The idea of this program is that graduate school volunteers visit an underprivileged / underfunded high school and assist them through the scientific method. Keen students sometimes come up with projects that could benefit from advanced materials & instrumentation, and if a graduate student has access to those resources in their research lab, an on-site visit is arranged. This doesn’t guarantee their projects are going to be winners, but it ensures they’ll have sound familiarity with the techniques they present.

    The other thing I’ll say is regarding the judging rubric — in my experience, whether the project has used a professional lab or done something in their kitchen, the originality/inclusion of statistics/presentation are weighted much more heavily than how advanced the topic is. I don’t know the exact details of a standards-based fair, but the judging process of a fair certainly needs to remove emphasis on the “how it was done” and place it on the “why it was done”.

    Just my two-cents.

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  4. Because of the issues with traditional science fairs noted in this article, a group of scientists, outreach professionals, and teachers started the Student Bio Expo in 2001 (http://studentbioexpo.org/). It is a different model for a science fair; one that promotes access to resources and values connections students make between their own interests and science. We provide mentors in the scientific community to all students who request one. This year we had nearly 400 students participating. In addition to traditional science fair projects, students can enter projects in 13 categories as diverse as art, drama, music, web design, 3-d molecular modeling, multimedia, etc. (but the science behind their topic must be well-understood). For example, this year in art we had a costume designer who made a series of garments screen-printed with DNA nucleotide sequences. She then photographed people who themselves had the disorders or conditions – such as albinism – referenced in some way by the garment they were wearing. Another year we had a woman who tap-danced and simultaneously rapped a song called “Tap Synapse” – about what was happening in her body’s synapses as she was tapping – with a high level of scientific detail. We struggle to find funding for this program, and we are outside of the traditional science fair frameworks, but we have had many success stories over the years – particularly in the long-term professional supportive relationships students often build with their mentors. This year we had nearly 400 participants, and our model has the potential to be readily replicated elsewhere. We believe that students need support structures and opportunities for connecting to the science community, as well as ways making science relative to their own interests. Our fair feels more like a celebration because we value the creative spirit and science interests of all types of students.

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  5. John says:

    Hi, we homeschooled our daughter with a household income of less than 25,000 per year. As I write she is at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair presenting her project. Money had little to do with this success. The love of learning and the excitment of science just requires dedicated parents and teachers. We don’t drive 30,000 dollar cars or have a show off house. These things would have been a distraction of time away from our daughters education. It’s really a matter of where you put your priorities.

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  8. J C says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful article. I have been both a participant and a judge at science fairs and think you are (unfortunately) spot-on.

    I remember my first science fair, in which the boy who won was the son of an owner of a research lab; he joined a corporate-funded study for his project. I was the kid who got a “100%” grade (for scientific rigor) on my kitchen-cabinet project, but he’s the one who won. It was patently obvious to everyone that his privilege was rewarded, not his own work — even he was embarrassed about it.

    It was such a shocking life-lesson that I never participated in another science fair after that — what was the point?

    As a science fair judge, I have been genuinely disappointed in the many “canned” projects I have seen — things taken directly from the internet, as well as the P.T. Barnum aspect. There’s as much if not more show-biz involved in science fairs than science — a situation that definitely rewards privilege.

    Who knows how many future scientists were so disillusioned by this reality that they gave up, and at a great loss to society?

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  9. Michael Bowen says:

    I’m always distressed by that “little girl” who was “left behind”…..the number of those at regional or national fairs always saddens me. I’m also generally stunned by the “image over substance” thing that can happen at even national science fairs. I was in one judging group once that had two reasonably identical projects….one by a Grade 9 farm kid whose parents didn’t have post-secondary education and the other by a Grade 9 kid whose mom was a government soil scientist. The project by the farm kid was better done BUT didn’t include inferential statistics. The project by the other kid “looked” better but used inferential statistics…incorrectly (scarily, given that mom had helped)….and drew incorrect conclusions from them. Which project got a prize? Well, the one with incorrect stats and conclusions did. Why? Because it looked better. AND because the other judges didn’t know enough about statistics to know that there were problems with what that student had done and just ignored my input because there was only ONE of me (sure, I was the one with a PhD and they were science department heads from a high school OR people with recent undergrad in science degrees but *I* was the one ignored). Apparently just *trying* to do statistics was sufficient to win a prize, even if they were done incorrectly. I was incensed. I’ll add that this was not a unique experience on my part as a judge either. (I’ll note, btw, that I’m a co-author on one of the studies cited above)

    This sort of thing is not an easy problem to solve. Science fairs rely on volunteers, and if you can’t get sufficient good quality volunteers (and really, how do you tell anyways?) then you take ones with lower and lower credentials.

    One solution to the problem identified in this article is separating “researcher-influenced” projects from “independently student done projects”….perhaps that might fix things some. However that doesn’t solve the reality that there are students who, even without help, do absolutely astounding projects by themselves and then there’s the rest who do pretty great projects. How, then, do you stop the first group (few in number, but still quite prevalent) from acting as a disincentive for the second group (many of whom will become scientists but without the top-of-the-peak stuff that characterizes some. Do we really need to identify the first group so early on? In high school where their effect on others could be corrosive? This is a real issue.

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  10. A scientist says:

    I am being sarcastic here (or am I?). You cannot blame the kids while the grown-up scientists are doing the same thing in their own scientific research. In other words, if you run the system in a competitive model, these side effects are bound to arise. In many ways, this kind of competition may be a good thing for the kids because it tells them what is actually happening in the real world. Unless the adults wise up and work together to improve our research system, it is perhaps better to give the kids the reality check earlier rather than the warm fuzzy feeling that may not hold true down the road.

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    • Josh Witten says:

      While professional science is full of privilege and inequality, the purpose of a science fair experience is to give kids hands on experience with the scientific method with the hope that understanding the scientific method will help them be better people than previous generations.

      If we want realism, science fair projects should have a budget limit, including time for personnel like mentoring by a parent’s scientist buddy.

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      • Jean Flanagan says:

        Yes, I think it’s important to remember that science fairs aren’t just for future scientists, they’re for all citizens to gain some understanding of and experience with what science is and how it is done.

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  11. Susan Tremblay says:

    Your objections to the first solution are correct, and the 2nd solution will never fly. Why not a 3rd solution, that students be required to be creative and work with resources available to all students and that posters not be professionally printed? Or printed on site or otherwise with funds available to all students? There is no reason why middle school students need to be working in universities or professional labs. In fact, the first examples listed sound more interesting to me, and reinforce the idea that science is a part of our everyday lives. We should be rewarding creativity, not access.

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  12. Janis says:

    You know, this reminded me of a “science fair” that I participated in as an extremely bright working-class kid with almost no professional resources whatsoever and no family connections. It was a fair that was a citywide thing, and I still remember my mother’s reaction to it when we walked around and she overheard kids talking about getting eland and cheetah blood from daddy’s laboratory, and how cozy and chummy the awards ceremony was when the Big Name Scientist was talking about the kids who won and how the winners’ parents had spent time at his house the weekend before.

    I had never seen my mother seethe so thoroughly before, and it sent a very, very powerful message to the overly bright teenager that was me: no one cares how bright you are. You’ll never get these opportunities. You’re only 15 and already behind the curve and destined to stay there. Nature made a mistake making YOU so smart, no one cares about some working-class nobody with a brain. It sent a similarly damaging message to my parents who were there: You have a bright child, and you’ll never be able to do right by her.

    I always flash back to that memory, still at the age of 47, when I hear stories and read articles about Super-Smart Little Prodigies whose parents just happen to be CEOs, surgeons, and college professors. Oh, FFS. And in this “you can always get ahead if you work hard enough” country, try saying that out loud.

    The problem is, I don’t see a solution in a two-tiered system. Win the second tier, and you’re still just the kid who came in first among the losers. And try putting it on a college application where the exact same people judging it are the ones whose labs were used by their kids, who won the first tier award. As much as this would probably garner a “No, no, not at all!” response, as a kid who grew up with a frightening brain in a poor-to-working-class family, I will tell you right now it would be better not to mention winning the Trailer Trash Award on the application at all … because that is exactly how it will be interpreted, as having gotten the consolation prize given to the stupid poor kids and being further stupid enough to think it would impress anyone.

    One might get the idea that I find these “science fairs” a crock. One would be right.

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  13. I really appreciate the thought that went into this piece, this is an issue that’s always been of concern to me that I regularly deal with.

    I was in the ISEF as a high school student (back when it was sponsored by Westinghouse, in 1988). I was fortunate to have even gotten there, and was blown out of the water by the level of detail and sophistication in projects done by these high school students that were clearly coming out of schools which farm their science fair students out to big research organizations.

    Since that time, I’ve judged for the ISEF, when it was in LA last year. It was interesting to go back as a judge and see it from that angle.

    There were a few things that I found shocking. First of all, the amount of cultural bias in the judging was more than troublesome. In my category, it was overly clear that the person who won did so, in part, because of her shared cultural background with most of the judges. The science had little to do with it, but rather, how charming the person was. I was ashamed to be associated with the process, and did everything I could to communicate my concerns to the organization, which has ignored me. (I’ve been thinking about writing an op-ed piece for the newspaper but it’s hard to find the time.)

    I get contacted by high school students on a regular basis who want to do research in my lab. I work at an urban university with a population of underserved and underrepresented students. We are, though, 10 minutes away from a community that’s a bastion of wealth and privilege. They often want to come to us to get “research experience” that they can take to science fair and to get into fancier colleges.

    I tell them that they’re definitely welcome in my lab, once they commit to enrolling in our university. I never hear from them again. These entitled high schoolers want to use our university as a stepping stone to other universities, even though this one isn’t good enough for them once they go to college. I am spending my time working with students who really need every little bit of help they can get, and I’m not going to waste it on someone who wants to divert public university resources away from the people who need it.

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    • Holly Merrill says:

      They may seem privileged, buts having parent who direct them to you as a stepping stone only seems wise? You surely don’t get paid to help high school students, that’s a lot of extra work for you.

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  14. Will Slaton says:

    Fantastic post! Thanks! Will save and share with my colleagues who judge science fairs. We too think about the differences between the students who have done their work with minimal lab equipment vs those who have friends/family or internships at well-equipped labs. Usually, conversations with all students quickly demonstrates who understands their experiment and who doesn’t. Those who understand their science, their technique, & their data, are the ones I nominate for prizes.

    A project I would like our Society of Physics Students chapter to take on is to mentor Elementary/Middle/High school students/teachers on their projects. Our undergrads could act as mock judges and ask probing questions of the students throughout the year as they work on their projects.

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  15. Andrew Farke says:

    This topic hits very, very close to home. I grew up on a farm in South Dakota, with the nearest college over 40 miles away. The nearest major research university was 100 miles away. Speaking completely immodestly, I did win top awards at ISEF (including category awards for four years, 1996-1999). How? I worked my behind off, and had extremely patient parents who didn’t mind me mailing and calling an endless string of scientists for assistance. Every day our mailbox housed a string of reprints, which I then utilized for my own research. Of course, I also worked on dinosaurs–simple morphometric studies that I could do from home, by begging for measurements and photos of specimens at distant museums or gathering from the literature. This was also at the time when ISEF still had “Zoology” as a category, into which I entered my projects (one year arguing off an attempted disqualification because a fair official felt I should have been in earth sciences–I countered with the statement that I was looking at dinosaurs as living animals. It worked). Now that zoology has been absorbed by the gene-squeezing categories, I fear that homegrown projects like mine just couldn’t compete against stuff coming out of R1 labs. I certainly saw the effects of privilege at the international competitions–I never really blamed the kids (no more than you could blame me for being born into more modest means), but it was a little frustrating at the time.

    As this article notes, my experience was the exception, not the norm. Looking back, I was very, very fortunate to have the success I did. This success at science fair opened numerous opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise–an invitation for fieldwork, loan of a digitizer from a researcher at the Smithsonian (sent by mail–thanks for trusting me, Ralph!), etc. I first contacted my grad school advisor as part of this high school research, and my senior year project fed directly into my Ph.D. work. I owe a lot to science fair–and am disappointed to think that similar young students are cut out of the process merely because of where they’re born.

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  16. Mary Williams says:

    I agree, it’s sad to see the rewards and prizes so often going to projects done in universities, when those kids often don’t fully understand their projects. Both the two-category and the standards-based systems are good ideas and could help to make the science fairs feel more inclusive. Thanks for writing this.

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