Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Rethinking Science Fairs (7 Ideas)

By John T. Spencer

When I was in the fifth grade, I realized that my classmates were outsourcing their science fair projects to their parents (think child labor in reverse) while others were making up their amazing experiments altogether (think Three Cups of Tea).  So, I went entirely fictitious with my poster board.

I asked the question, "How does music affect plant growth?"

My results were astounding.  The country music group became depressed.  The gangsta rap group shot each other in a turf war (I thought I would win points for the pun at least).  The classical music group became pretentious and refused to interact with the country western group.  Eventually the Norteno music group started doing all the work for the classical music group.

I used it as a chance to explore stereotypes, music and cultural norms.  More importantly, though, I was writing a hell of a plant-based story through the scientific method.  The final conclusion ended with questions such as: what makes us different than plants?  Is it wrong to kill plants for food?  Do plants actually experience music outside of our human lens?

I failed the project altogether.

I was told it wasn't real.

I didn't believe that reality was the same non-fiction or that fiction couldn't lead us toward scientific truth.

I walked around the cafeteria and noticed the ribbons and judges comments on each science fair board.  I couldn't find mine anywhere in the collection.  I figured that even if the science was a failure, maybe they'd keep it around for aesthetic reasons.

And thus I learned that I suck at science.  I didn't shake that thought until last year.

*     *     *
So it has me considering ways to rethink science fair projects.  Here are a few ideas:

  1. Quit giving awards: Instead of simply celebrating the individual achievements, highlight the collective research that the entire group accomplished.  
  2. Broaden the definition of science:  My project was fictitious.  I get it.  However, I had a love of social science and sociology that a teacher could have tapped into for a more alternative, human-oriented project. 
  3. Allow fiction: I'm not suggesting that we abandon scientific inquiry.  Yet, I can see a place for students proposing theories through allegorical science fiction.  Let a kid write a scientific dystopia where he or she examines some of the values inherent in science.
  4. Encourage collaboration: Rather than sharing experiments after the fact, let students collaborate in multiple projects throughout the process.  A student who becomes an expert in data analysis, for example, could lend his or her expertise in other projects.  Similarly, students could modify experiments based upon the observations of others.
  5. Modify the presentation component: instead of simply boards or papers, allow for podcasts, websites, blogs, videos and social media reflection.  Create discussion groups where they share their data verbally in a group.  
  6. Make it a real fair: In other words, instead of simply walking around and checking the grades of each project, create a festival.  Make it a carnival of inquiry.  Bust out the pond water.  Take out the magnifying glasses.  Let children experience the joy of scientific discovery. 
  7. Go global:  Let students compare similar experiments across the world.  Have students develop a shared experiment using Skype, social media, blogging, shared documents and video and then encourage hard dialogue about the cultural conflicts they experience.  Science can become the common ground for crossing the boundaries of presuppositions.
John T. Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, AZ who blogs at Education Rethink.  He recently finished two books, Pencil Me In, an allegory for educational technology and Drawn Into Danger, a fictional memoir of a superhero. You can connect with him on Twitter @johntspencer


  1. The good thing about your information is that it is explicit enough for students to grasp. Thanks for your efforts in spreading academic knowledge.

  2. I think there's a lot of room for your way of looking at this - but not necessarily at Science Fairs where Natural Sciences are celebrated as a way of viewing the world.
    As an IB teacher, I'd say we try and do this at the MYP (middle school) level and in fact, for grade 11 and 12 as part of the TOK (theory of Knowledge) subject - that's an epistemology course. Are you speaking as a North American teacher and does this issue reflect the current way of doing things there?

  3. I've seen it only through the lens of my experience, which is North American. Each time, it's been a mess of random poster boards with some pretty shoddy science.

  4. I understand your idea about the parent produced projects. In my small catholic school growing up I thought about the Science Fair as a competition between parents to see whose child would get the ribbon. When I became a teacher at the same school, I helped to turn it around and a lot of the projects became family projects where the whole family participated in the projects. The parents seemed to enjoy the process more and did not seemed overwhelmed trying to help their child. I am not sure that the students could have used technology as a way to show the project. Maybe they could have videotaped the experiment if possible and shared them online.

  5. I found your ideas here to be quite wrong-headed, but I wrote a separate blog post about it, rather than try to do a long comment:

  6. I posted my reply on your blog.


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