On Science Fairs

Last weekend the girls participated in the Washington State Science and Engineering Fair. I participated in science fairs from sixth through twelfth grade, so it was a familiar experience to me, at least in some ways. The basic premise is the same, which is that kids learn about the scientific process by doing experiments, creating a display, and presenting their work to a panel of judges.

Our girls are at the age where learning and building up excitement over science is more important than winning, but in the high school division the stakes are higher than I remember them being. When I did fairs, the top rewards were some kind of monetary award in the $50-$100 dollar range, and the chance to compete at the International Science Fair (now the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair). There is still all of that, although the slate of special awards is much much longer. Also, there were a number of college scholarships (some of them for 4 years) being awarded. Several students won enough scholarships to go to college several times over. Julie told me that last year an 8th grade girl won one of those scholarships. Another significant change from my science fair days, was the number of women participating. The gender ratios looked much better than what I remember, and the top two students, the ones going on to the Intel Fair, were women. The Kitsap Sun did a pair of articles on the fair.

A few notes about homeschoolers, since our girls are homeschooled. The people that organize the fair made a big effort to get homeschooled children involved. Apparently, kids in regular schools are too busy, between trying to pass the WASL (thanks No Child Left Behind) and sports, to participate significantly in a science fair. Indeed, the two top ranked academic districts, Mercer Island, and Bainbridge Island, were barely represented, if at all. In contrast, homeschoolers took 1/7th of the 35 first place awards given in the 1st-6th grades, a pretty impressive showing. It will be interesting to watch how/if these children progress over the years.

These fairs are an important way to expose kids to science and to help them develop enthusiasm, curiosity, and an understanding of how science works. If you’re reading this blog, you are aware of the importance of science and engineering for the future of our country and for all mankind, really. I just wish that there were more kids entering these fairs.

4 Responses to “On Science Fairs”


  • Don’t you have to be fair and acknowledge that a home schooled child can work on his or her science fair project during school work hours, as part of their science work? Public schools don’t generally allocate any part of the school day for science fair projects.

    Also, future lawyers, CEOs and trustifarians don’t see a purpose in the science fair (a reference to your Bainbridge and Mercer island comment).

  • If the top ranked academic districts were barely represented, if at all, who were homeschooled kids competing against? Doesn’t this somehow make it obvious that homeschooled kids will be obtain better classifications, since they have less -and arguably lesss qualified- opposition?

  • Ed,
    Yes, of course home schooled (and some alternative schooled) children can work on their project during “school time”. This is offset by the fact that kids in a public school have easier access to a larger variety of resources and experience – like working with local university faculty or local research labs. Generally speaking, the effect of the No Child Left Behind legislation has been to reduce the amount of time for any “non-core” stuff – art, music, etc. So it’s not only science fairs that are affected. Plus there is the incredible emphasis on sports…

    Adriano,
    Schools from all over the state were represented at the fair. I’m not trying to argue that the homeschooled kids were superior to the regular schooled kids. The winners at the senior level were not homeschooled kids – that’s just a fact. I had no idea how homeschooled kids would fare at all, or whether they would participate in any sizable number, which was why I noted the statistics. More troubling to me is the fact that the top ranked districts don’t see these fairs as a worthwhile activity.

  • Having just witnessed the Science Fairs at two of the local schools (Sakai Middle and Wilkes Elementary) I can say that yes they do make a big point about doing it, and about using it as a learning platform. I was impressed with the caliber of many of the exhibits.

    Sakai also allocates class-time for the work – as a way of ensuring that the students are doing the work not the parents.
    (At the elementary school level there’s obviously more parental involement, to varying degrees. In our household though, with a former science teacher in the family, you can be sure that the kids do the work and understand the concepts!)

    Note that they also offer options for different students, including exhibits that are more expository than experimental.
    This allows more students to participate in a meaningful way.

    But only at the middle school level are they introducing any competitive aspect, and then it was just a minor prize based upon the number of visitors you had to your exhibit – the students had to verbally explain it to all such visitors. The students are graded on their ability to form a hypothesis, test it, and draw conclusions from it, or on the quality/accuracy of their exposition.

    In our case, we knew about the state-wide science fair, but did not feel the need to introduce our kids to the competition.
    Ours learned from their own experiments and conclusions, and that was really the whole point.

    I do have mixed feelings about the WASL series (or perhaps more plainly the emphasis placed upon it by the school districts), but I am skeptical that it can be blamed for any decline in science fair participation. i don’t know the facts at the high school level, which is where science fair perhaps does become more competitive.

    I think the “sports” emphasis comes from the parents, not the schools, but the schools are filling the role as they can. Many parents believe that such activities keep the kids “out of trouble”, as well as provide a social framework and the kind of teamwork education that they’ll need in the future.

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