Judging science fairs: 10/10 Privilege, 0/10 Ability

Every year, I make a point of rounding up students in my department and encouraging them to volunteer one evening judging our local science fair. This year, the fair was held at the start of April, and featured over 200 judges and hundreds of projects from young scientists in grades 5 through to 12, with the winners going on to the National Championships.

President Obama welcomes some young scientists to the White House | Photo via USDAGov

President Obama welcomes some young scientists to the White House | Photo via USDAGov

Perhaps the most rewarding part of volunteering your time, and the reason why I encourage colleagues to participate is when you see just how excited the youth are for their projects. It doesn’t matter what the project is, most of the students are thrilled to be there. Add to that how A Real Life Scientist (TM) wants to talk to them about their project? It’s a highlight for many of the students. As a graduate student, the desire to do science for science’s sake is something that gets drilled out of you quickly as you follow the Williams Sonoma/Jamie Oliver Chemistry 101 Cookbook, where you add 50 g Chemical A to 50 of Chemical B and record what colour the mixture turns. Being around  excitement based purely on the pursuit of science is refreshing.

However, the aspect of judging science fairs that I struggle most with is how to deal with the wide range of projects. How do you judge two projects on the same criteria where one used university resources (labs, mass spectrometers, centrifuges etc) and the other looked at how high balls bounce when you drop them. It becomes incredibly difficult as a judge to remain objective when one project is closer in scope to an undergraduate research project and the other is more your typical kitchen cabinet/garage equipment project. Even within two students who do the same project, there is variability depending on whether or not they have someone who can help them at home, or access to facilities through their school or parents social network.

As the title suggests, this is an issue of privilege. Having people at home who can help, either directly by providing guidance and helping do the project, or indirectly by providing access to resources, gives these kids a huge leg up over their peers. As Erin pointed out in her piece last year:

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 (emphasis mine).

So the youth who are getting to these fairs are definitely qualified to be there – they know the project, and they understand the scientific method. They’re explaining advanced concepts clearly and understand the material. The problem becomes how does one objectively deal with this? You can’t punish the student because they used the resources available to them, especially if they show mastery of the concepts. But can you really evaluate them on the same stage and using the same criteria as their peers without access to those resources, especially when part of the criteria includes the scientific merit of the project?

The fair, to their credit, took a very proactive approach to this concern, which was especially prudent given the makeup of this area where some kids have opportunities and others simply don’t. Their advice was to judge the projects independently, and judge the kids on the strength of their presentation and understanding. But again, there’s an element of privilege behind this. The kids who have parents and mentors who can coach them and prepare them for how to answer questions, or even just give them an opportunity/push them to practice their talk, will obviously do better.

The science fair acts as a microcosm for our entire academic system, from undergrad into graduate and professional school and into later careers. The students who can afford to volunteer in labs over the summer during undergrad are more likely to make it into highly competitive graduate programs as they have “relevant experience,” while their peers who have to work minimum wage positions to pay tuition or student loans are going to be left behind. The system is structured to reward privilege – when was the last time an undergrad or graduate scholarship considered “work history” as opposed to “relevant work experience?” Most ask for a resume or curriculum vitae, where one could theoretically include that experience, but if the ranking criteria look for “relevant” work experience, which working at Starbucks doesn’t include, how do those students compete for the same scholarships? This is despite how working any job does help you develop various transferable skills including time management and conflict resolution. And that doesn’t even begin to consider the negative stigma many professors hold for this type of employment.

The question thus is: Are we okay with this? Are we okay with a system where, based purely on luck, some kids are given opportunities, while others aren’t? And if not, how do we start tackling it?




Disclaimer: I’ve focused on economic privilege here, but privilege comes in many different forms. I’m not going to wade into the other forms, but for some excellent reads, take a read of this, this and this.

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7 Responses to Judging science fairs: 10/10 Privilege, 0/10 Ability

  1. I know exactly how you feel and have this internal debate every time I judge a science event. I’ve seen judges dismiss a grade school project because it was handwritten and I had to bring attention to the fact that maybe the kid didn’t have a printer at home! At the same time, you can’t punish those kids who have access to resources. I think that a number of things could be done: 1) short training for science fair judges to bring awareness to potential biases during judging; 2) judges can be required to ask more open ended questions of the participants to make sure they did the work/thinking; and 3) science fair coordinators could help teachers in recruiting scientist mentors for students who need extra support.

    • Those are some really great suggestions Donna! The first is definitely something that can be done easily, and the fair I judged at really hammered that home in our orientation. As for the other points, I agree – there has to be a way of evening the playing field for all participants. Thanks for commenting!

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  5. Anon says:

    I judge science fairs on an annual basis and place far more emphasis on creativity (it’s obvious when a project comes from books and websites because you see many of the same ones over and again), clear communication, and following scientific method than I do on all the bells and whistles that their parents’ social network obviously afforded some of them. And I get suspicious when I see Specific Aims on a middle school science project.

    That said, I’m happy to see parents exposing kids to hypothesis driven science from an early age, regardless of their socioeconomic background. Awesome projects can be done in basements, garages, neighborhood parks, and backyards, just as much as they can be done in university labs.

  6. CM Doran says:

    I’ve seen this with history projects, invention competitions, and regular school projects too. There must be a mathematical way to deemphasize these resources and place more emphasis on the student’s thought process.

    Kids with amazing presentations of history had books and computers available…and video editing equipment….and knowledge of music.

    It is glaringly obvious 1) which students are exposed to a wide range of ideas and 2) which students have money to buy resources, and 3) which students know someone who can help. And a kid can have a very good teacher…but that teacher doesn’t go home with the kid.

    A most unique invention I saw once was a kid that did it purely on his own…you could see his own brain-wheels spinning as we showed his passion for his project….he used stuff he found around the house, but it wasn’t showy or overly-presented….Many kids are capable of this but don’t even have rudimentary materials, or inspiring environments.

    We as a society would be more productive and inventive if there weren’t kids left behind—and I don’t mean that in a policy-based, testing-sort-of-way. I’m talking about the kids without any “that’s real cool, kid, here’s how I can support you doing that great thing.”