During his State of the Union address last month, President Barack Obama showed the love for the science fair, saying winners of the science fair deserve the same kudos as winners of the Super Bowl. But this week, The New York Times has an article detailing how the American science fair is on the decline, placing the blame at the feet of the U.S. Department of Education and its policies on student achievement and accountability and the fact that science fairs take up a lot of work, both for the teacher and the student.
Personally, Eduflack is sick and tired of hearing accountability (and its bastard step-sister AYP) for being blamed for all that ails our schools. Anyone who has been a part of a successful science fair experience knows that doing so improves both student learning and student achievement. Done effectively, science fairs can spur a love for learning, better engage students in the classroom (beyond just the science classroom), and instill the sort of 21st century skills we are seeking from our students. And we won’t even talk about those pesky science accountability requirements that are supposed to be coming online any year now.
Believe it or not, Eduflack knows of what he speaks this time around. Yes, I am a former science fair geek. In fact, I once was the grand prize winner for the West Virginia State Science Fair. I competed in the International Science and Engineering Fair (and even took home an award). My project? A study in behavioral science, looking at the impact of verbal conditioning (both good and bad) and human subjects of different ages. (And for those who care, I found that positive verbal conditioning had far more impact than negative, even on my youngest test subjects.)
There is no doubt that science fairs can be time consuming. A good project requires a great deal of work from the student, from the student’s science teacher, and from all of the teachers and community members who help assemble and judge the fair itself. But it is one of those efforts where the payoff far exceeds the cost. Students learn to work beyond the textbook, thinking critically and solving real problems relevant to them. They are experimenting and writing and orally presenting and figuring out how to visually depict their project and its findings. They are seeing something through from start to finish, and they are getting supports from their teachers every step along the way. In many ways, it is instruction the way we all intended it — project based, relevant, comprehensive, measurable, and with long-term impact.
Perhaps President Obama is wrong. We shouldn’t be celebrating the winners of science fairs … we should be celebrating all of those who take the time to experiment and compete in the first place. We should be finding ways to support teachers in the process, giving them the time and resources to integrate fairs into the instructional day. We should be projecting the value of the science fair, not seeing it as an extracurricular burden but rather as a terrific tool for inspiring creativity and exploration in students, particularly those who are not the science “whiz kids” as defined by test scores or AP classes. And we should be thanking all of those teachers who continue to do whatever it takes to keep this wonderful practice alive, despite the added burdens and added hours associated with the science fair.
As a former competitor and a former winner, Eduflack thanks you.