Science fairs in decline

| 34 Comments

An article in today’s Times notes that participation in high-school science fairs is declining. At fault?

[M]any science teachers say the problem is not a lack of celebration, but the Obama administration’s own education policy, which holds schools accountable for math and reading scores at the expense of the kind of creative, independent exploration that science fair projects require. … [looong ellipsis] … Many educators said they wished the projects were deemed important enough to devote class time to them, which is difficult for schools whose federal funding hinges on improving math and reading test scores.

Additionally,

The Obama administration has urged broadening the subjects tested under the law – possibly including science. But some teachers say they are already burdened by state requirements to teach a wide range of facts – say, the parts of a cell – which prevents them from devoting class time to research projects.

“I have so many state standards I have to teach concept-wise, it takes time away from what I find most valuable, which is to have them inquire about the world,” said Amanda Alonzo, a science teacher at Lynbrook High School in San Jose, Calif. …

34 Comments

Problem: There’s not enough time to teach all the basics, let alone the extras. Solution: Longer class days, and more of them. Yeah, it costs more money. But that’s not the fault of the Standards, that’s the fault of society and the politicians who represent them.

I have my general doubts about the real value of science fairs. I saw the state competition in my state a couple of years, and at the highest level there were some very interesting things being of course these students/ schools (and their $20,000/ year tuition) had access to college professors and resources comparable to what I had as an undergrad. For everyone else maybe they were as good as a bad Mythbusters episode. It seems to me that there are far simpler and more efficient ways to teach the skills needed to do research.

Testing of the sort we prescribe is of course a v.serious problem and makes a mess of education. But there are other problems as well. Public school children almost everywhere are at a disdavnatage now for several years as the tax base has become stagnant. In contrast the private schools with their $25-40k/year tuition are flourishing, which is where the rich kids study and then onward to the fancy colleges out East. But there is one more problem - our children don’t spend enough time at school. The last semester of the senior year (at HS and at college) is a joke. By then in HS, most students have already been accepted by the college of choice, and with their 1st semester finals done, and the grade report sent to the college concerned, graduation is a formality. It’s an endless round of parties, last day of this, last day of that - for the last day of sports, last day of music etc., and of the last day of all those student activity clubs. Come March it is time to plan for the most important event of high school - Senior Prom.

JGB said:

I have my general doubts about the real value of science fairs. I saw the state competition in my state a couple of years, and at the highest level there were some very interesting things being of course these students/ schools (and their $20,000/ year tuition) had access to college professors and resources comparable to what I had as an undergrad. For everyone else maybe they were as good as a bad Mythbusters episode. It seems to me that there are far simpler and more efficient ways to teach the skills needed to do research.

I spent the last ten years of my career working with such high school students. We had them doing research from the time they showed up as freshmen so that by the time they were juniors and seniors, they were familiar with how one sets up a research project and communicates results. Every student was required to display a research project every year they were in the program.

It is also true that we hooked many of them up with local researchers in a pharmaceutical company, at nearby universities, and at other companies with active research departments. What is more, these students were in demand by these local researchers.

And it was possible with these students to bring them up to a level at which they not only had the mathematical and scientific knowledge to do research, they were actually comparable to the upper level undergraduate and graduate students I mentored in industry.

Many of them had several publications by the time they graduated from this program.

But you are correct about most of those other “research” projects you see a those state and regional science fairs. I have had very ambivalent feelings about what those kids went through to get a project into a science fair.

Not only are many of them not familiar with the idea of a research protocol, many of them could not articulate what it was that they were trying to do. In fact, it was pretty obvious in many cases that the kid’s parents did the project.

We could guide our students into research because they had matured enough and had covered a substantial amount of college level science and math. I was also able to see these students in the contexts of the colleges and universities they ultimately attended; and they were at the tops of their classes and fully engaged in research as undergraduates. A large percentage of these went on to get PhDs and are now active researchers or physicians scattered all over the world.

But I am skeptical that most public school programs are capable of providing the kind of background necessary for students to progress to that level. Perhaps some of the larger school systems can do it where there is a large population of children of professional parents who are engaged in maintaining a top-notch school system and science program.

One of my responsibilities in this program was as a consultant for surrounding school districts on matters of science instruction and labs. From what I could observe during my visits to those schools, such advanced programs seemed completely out of the question. The teachers as well as the students were struggling with other problems that precluded any significant improvements in their science programs. It was really heartbreaking to observe.

Mike could I contact you offline to discuss your experiences with your high school program? I do have a number of students that would benefit from some of these types of well developed experiences, and I do have the good fortune of teaching in a city with a major research university, so I’m interested in learning more about how your program was set-up and maintained.

Scott F said:

Problem: There’s not enough time to teach all the basics, let alone the extras. Solution: Longer class days, and more of them. Yeah, it costs more money. But that’s not the fault of the Standards, that’s the fault of society and the politicians who represent them.

I noticed that the Obama Administration has picked Carl Weiman as an associate director for science in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

I first met Carl when he was at Michigan, and I have run into him at a number of conferences in which he has been displaying some of his developments of instructional materials. He is an extremely competent and clever researcher; and his interests in physics education places far more emphasis on the lab and research kinds of activities, instead of just sitting watching lectures.

The big question in my mind is whether or not the current administration will take any of his advice. It is always so much easier to do paper-and-pencil kinds of things to “improve” education; but the real need is to get students involved in actually doing things.

I can weigh in as a math/science teacher for 35 years. Our science fair grew to the point where the entire system, K-12 participated in a huge blow-out. It was a lot of fun, but also a lot of stress for teachers and students. With state standards and passing a state test needed to graduate (in English, Math and a science area), time for projects was squeezed, and participation at the high school level fell. I live in a town with famous research entities, and the children of the scientists still do science fair projects, but many of them come from their parents’ labs. Some of the projects are excellent, and prepare students for future lab work. I taught Physics to sharp kids (mainly seniors) whose ambition at this time of year was low. I forced them all to do a project, and gave them extra credit if they presented at the science fair. The focus (and maximum credit) for my projects was “you have to build something” that you use to “measure something” that depended on a “variable”. My room looked like a combination Radio Shack (old School) and Home Depot from Jan 20 to March 20. Many students had avoided using tools or were not allowed to use them at home, so they had an excuse to go into the cellar or garage and build stuff. In physics, of course, you have to use your apparatus until it breaks. We disturbed our end of the building with noise and a few explosions, but at least projects did not smell bad (like chemistry). I am not surprised the reduced participation is widespread.

My school district never had a science fair… I always felt a bit left out. However, I can definitely see how it would be a drain on time and resources. While some kids would benefit, many would see it as a waste of time or just have their parents do the project.

If we want more kids to use critical thinking in science, but don’t want to take time out of the school day, I think there should be a push for more participation in the Science Olympiad. It’s an after school activity, and only requires one or two teachers to organize.

I participated from 7th to 12th grade, finally making it to the state level competition in my senior year. It was an AMAZING experience, and allowed a group of science nerds to have a lot of fun. It also really helped us all to see just how many other students our age were interested in science. (I’m still annoyed I got SECOND place in the entomology event though).

The over emphasis on testing started long before Obama, although he has seemed inclined to not challenge the trend. But NCLB was not done on Obama’s watch.

Mike Elzinga said: The big question in my mind is whether or not the current administration will take any of his advice. It is always so much easier to do paper-and-pencil kinds of things to “improve” education; but the real need is to get students involved in actually doing things.

I was thinking more of the local and/or state level (rather than the federal level), where the bulk of the education money comes from (at least here in Oregon). When budget woes hit, one of the first things the state does is to cut school funds (it’s one of the largest chunks of the budget). If you keep cutting the number of school days, and reduce the number of contact hours, it’s hard to provide an “enriched” program, when there aren’t enough remaining hours in the remaining days to even cover the basics. And heaven (or the Republicans) forbid that we might actually raise revenues to actually pay for a functional schools system.

I am greatly soured by the way science fairs are being done in our part of the country. I think the great influx of Tiger Moms/Dads like Amy Chua and her counterparts in my Indian-American community have just killed its spirit. Moms and Dads pile on to the kid’s project and assorted uncles and aunts doing Masters and PhD “help” the kids are told “Just do what I say, memorize the following stuff, stop asking pesky questions, if you try to understand everything you will never get anything done. Got to get the first place finish OK? Now,back to powerpoint and practice again. You are taking 10 minutes and 47 seconds. Cut down 17 seconds. Make full use of the 30 sec grace period.”

And you go to the fair to find your kid who found which kind of coffee mug holds the temperature longest, designed the experiment, did it on her own, understands the difference between temperature drop due to thermal inertial of the cup material versus the heat loss due to convection, conduction and radiation gets third place finish. And the seventh grader who implemented a genetic algorithm to fine tune the capacitor and resistor of a op amp circuit, which curiously coincides with a similar Masters thesis by her uncle in CMU, walks away with first prize with distinction, and gets picked to go to State level… You walk away with disgust.

Ravilyn,

You are right. Research, especially scientific research moves towards the deep and narrow. Science fairs, if they are to encourage children to do science or at least engineerng, should reward understanding of a few important principles in depth. Instead it is big results and some technological execution that is rewarded. I am Indian-American and live in a public school district that is v.good, not for its science, but for the humanities. We do have some good science teachers and some terrible ones. But maybe by default, our science projects have tended to be unspectacular although deep.

Rimpal said: Research, especially scientific research moves towards the deep and narrow.

“Experts are people who know more and more about less and less until they know absolutely everything about nothing at all.”

I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. Not sure if the decline is bad or good. Having gone through high school myself in the 70s and having a daughter gone through it in the 2000’s - I know that science projects tend to be a drain on resources, especially time, (parent’s and student’s). Many of the postings here give me the impression that the high schools in question were focused on preparing students for college. Is that the role of the public schools? Prepare people for college? Is it reasonable to expect everyone to go to college? Somehow - I feel that is not the purpose of the public schools. Business leaders will say schools prepare students to join the work force. Others say public schools aim to produce an educated citizenry (whatever that is). I have seen many science fairs - and many seem to be more about who is who in the community than about the kids. Perhaps the drop in Science Fair participation has to do with parent and student exhaustion?

I teach high school biology; we gave up our science fair many years ago, in part because of teacher exhaustion and in part because we just got tired of seeing lovely projects done by parents. Since then, I’ve tried to incorporate more original type research into my day to day curriculum; since our local science fair rules preclude projects done in the classroom, this is as far as we go. For my freshmen, that means using protocols we learned in cookbook labs to investigate simple questions that can be answered in a day or two.For my seniors - well, we’re working on identifying Wolbachia in local aquatic insects using PCR. Last quarter, we isolated antimicrobials from local plants. Beats a science fair I think.

Jack Krebs said:

The over emphasis on testing started long before Obama, although he has seemed inclined to not challenge the trend. But NCLB was not done on Obama’s watch.

Amen, Jack.

For many years I’ve required my freshmen to run in-class research projects. Before NCLB, we ran 2 projects each year; now we only (barely) have time for one.

Until 2 years ago, the closest science fair was 180 miles down the road. Now that the kids can compete locally, I’ve offered extra credit to those who enter their projects at the science fair. Usually about half of those who qualify go ahead and enter.

Yes, their projects are sometimes amateurish. Yes, they have a lot to learn about experimental design and data analysis. But these 14- and 15-year-olds come away from the process with an understanding that variables must be controlled, that conclusions must be supported by the data, and that being able to communicate science is critical for success.

The parents in our district have been extremely supportive of these efforts; I’m fairly certain they’re not doing the kids’ work for them because of the in-class work I require.

When these kids qualify for state they’re absolutely radiant with joy, that they can *do* science and be recognized outside of school.

And when they win state … they’ve just leveraged district support for subsequent academic competitions.

teach said:

I teach high school biology; we gave up our science fair many years ago, in part because of teacher exhaustion and in part because we just got tired of seeing lovely projects done by parents. Since then, I’ve tried to incorporate more original type research into my day to day curriculum; since our local science fair rules preclude projects done in the classroom, this is as far as we go. For my freshmen, that means using protocols we learned in cookbook labs to investigate simple questions that can be answered in a day or two.For my seniors - well, we’re working on identifying Wolbachia in local aquatic insects using PCR. Last quarter, we isolated antimicrobials from local plants. Beats a science fair I think.

I agree with you. That is also a sad story to see some projects which are actually done by parents or anyone other than the students. I love your idea though and to me it seems to be very effective.

Eric

teach said:

I teach high school biology; we gave up our science fair many years ago, in part because of teacher exhaustion and in part because we just got tired of seeing lovely projects done by parents.

Isn’t that cheating? Why should any parent get away with helping his child cheat at anything?

Robert Byers said: How many patents have been given relative to prizes?

For a high school science fair? I would almost hope that answer is “none.” I’ve always thought the goal was to give the kids an exciting and interesting chance to practice their skills. To flex their intellectual muscles, with a potential reward at the end for doing so. No one expects the next Stephen King novella to come out of a high school essay contest. Its not a “failure” of the essay contest system if you don’t get a Stephen King novella, because producing one isn’t the point. So why would you expect a patentable discovery out of a high school science fair?

Would creationist science be allowed? Or banned as religion!

Excellent question Robert. Why don’t you describe what a creation science science fair project would look like. Describe a testable creation science hypothesis, and then describe the methodology the student could use to test it.

I have just removed another inane comment by the Byers troll. Please do not respond further.

Matt Young said: I have just removed another inane comment by the Byers troll. Please do not respond further.

Good luck. I consider it embarrassing to jeer at handicapped individuals, but a lot of people can’t restrain themselves.

eric said to he who will not be named:

“Why don’t you describe what a creation science science fair project would look like. Describe a testable creation science hypothesis, and then describe the methodology the student could use to test it.”

Well, it has been done (at least the first part).

Here, http://www.tccsa.tc/fair.html , is a home school science fair that stresses “please include your Bible verse on the poster, not just in your report.”

Oddly, but perhaps not surprisingly, not one project provides a testable projection of special creation.

Better yet is this spoof: http://objectiveministries.org/crea[…]ncefair.html

Read and enjoy.

John Vanko said:

Better yet is this spoof: http://objectiveministries.org/crea[…]ncefair.html

Read and enjoy.

GREAT! That man is a genius and the site is really good satire!

physics shows that women have a lower center of gravity than men, making them more suited to carrying groceries and laundry baskets;

LOL!

(disclaimer: I know who Mr. Paley is, more or less. I was joking, JOKING!)

Back when I was in grade school (5th grade Colfax School Pittsburgh PA) we had to do a “Special Interest Report.” The name is pretty descriptive of what it was about. Basically anything we were especially interested in. If we wanted to we could team up with another person. It was not specifically limited to science. Some kids did some aspect of history (development or writing), some did some sort of sports, my SIR was on “Telecommunications” which was hardly the household word that it is today back in 1969. The main object of the project was, as I recall, how to research a particular subject thoroughly and present it to others. How to read up, keep a bibliography, make notes, determine what was important and/or interesting,… We had to use at least ten books on the subject, a similar number of periodicals, and anything else we thought was useful. Our report had to be written up properly with ALL references cited. We were given a whole year to do this and two class periods each week were dedicated to working on the projects. The teacher made sure that we all kept a notebook/journal and a stack of 3X5 cards with our references current and properly done. It was difficult… I don’t think I have ever worked so hard on anything since (even in college.) The main thing I took away from it was a sort of mastery-of-the-subject well beyond the fifth grade level though, of course, nowhere near a professional level of understanding. I remember learning a lot and I remember it being fun.

This post is good timing. My brother just told me that his son (in 5th grade) has to do a science project for a science fair. He especially loves the ocean. They have asked for my help since I love science so much. Any good suggestions?

No, but when the time comes you might consider the National Ocean Sciences Bowl. (I will volunteer in a few weeks for the Trout Bowl, the only landlocked regional competition. Last year’s competitors were very impressive indeed.)

Thanks!

Problem: There’s not enough time to teach all the basics, let alone the extras. Solution: Longer class days, and more of them.

hmm.

As our breadth of knowledge and understanding only increases, we are continually faced with increasing amounts of what could be considered “basic knowledge”.

this will not change; it will geometrically, if not exponentially, increase with each new generation.

the time available in a given day (aside from the few seconds added each decade as the earth slows) will not change.

thus, there is an elephant in this room that is not being acknowledged:

How DO we decide what basics are important to teach, and what should be left to the student to find out on their own? Because, at some point, there simply will not be enough time, PERIOD, to teach everything that would even be considered “basic” information.

Case in point-

pre-med and medical school have become cramming grounds for facts, at the expense of emphasis on critical thinking and diagnostic skills.

I see only ONE solution:

we have this thing called the internet now, and it is FULL of information regarding basic facts. It’s the largest library on earth, by a long ways, considering that it not only contains its own information sets, but links to uncountable already existing ones as well.

Sure, basic language and math skills are indeed critical in forming the ability to even function in a modern society, but I think it’s far more important to spend more time now than ever before teaching kids how to critically evaluate and analyze information.

less rote memorization, and MUCH more emphasis on critical thinking and logic.

otherwise, you simply will run up against of wall of there being too many facts that are considered “important” to memorize.

so, IOW, there should of course be MORE science fairs, not less, MORE emphasis on learning how to apply skills, than memorizing specific sets of information.

we’re already past the point where there is too much data to absorb; and again, I give medical school as a great example of what is happening out there.

standardized testing is not necessarily a bad idea, but it cannot be used as a political tool (which it often is), and MUST focus more on encouraging students to learn how to apply the skills they learn, instead of just encouraging them to fill their heads with information.

“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”

-A. Einstein

Icthyic,

+1 on that. Again… back when I was in high school I was good friends with the AP Biology teacher (he was my foster father) so we talked about his classes quite a bit. Many of the students in his AP (Advanced Placement) Biology classes had parents that were professors at UC Berkeley. Some of them were even profs in the, so called, life sciences. On “parent-teacher day” some of them would come in and comment that, “I didn’t have to learn all this stuff even when I was taking college level freshman biology. Why do you load up my kid with so much work?” To which the teacher would reply, “How long ago was that? How much more do we know about biology today?” The parent/professor would nod. “I have to teach them all the stuff that we didn’t even know about ten to twenty years ago that is now basic to an understanding of biology.”

That was almost forty years ago.

Math, Physics, and Chemistry on the other hand hasn’t changed all that much since then. Yet we still fail to teach even those subjects adequately. IMO we don’t even teach them as well as we used to from what I can see with our first year students. We spend far too much time doing remedial math with our incoming freshmen.

Many of the students I help with physics will tell me that, “I did great at algebra in high school, no problem.” Which is probably true. When I give them equation with an x in it and ask them to ‘solve for x’ they can usually do it. Yet most equations in first year Physics are fairly simple when compared to exercises they had to do in high school. Give them a ‘problem’ that is described in words and numbers and perhaps an illustration or two and they are completely lost. They can do exercises but they can’t solve problems.

The following (long-winded) article raises a basic point about Science in the US. Summary:

It’s not insufficient schooling or a shortage of scientists. It’s a lack of job opportunities. Americans need the reasonable hope that spending their youth preparing to do science will provide a satisfactory career.

http://www.miller-mccune.com/scienc[…]e-gap-16191/

Americans need the reasonable hope that spending their youth preparing to do science will provide a satisfactory career.

Actually, in this age of outsourcing, Americans need the reasonable hope that spending their youth preparing to do anything will provide a satisfactory career.

Actually, in this age of outsourcing, Americans need the reasonable hope that spending their youth preparing to do anything will provide a satisfactory career.

indeed.

Lance Drager said:

The following (long-winded) article raises a basic point about Science in the US. Summary:

It’s not insufficient schooling or a shortage of scientists. It’s a lack of job opportunities. Americans need the reasonable hope that spending their youth preparing to do science will provide a satisfactory career.

http://www.miller-mccune.com/scienc[…]e-gap-16191/

That is an interesting article highlighting the deterioration of job opportunities for scientists and others with advanced educations, especially PhDs.

There were other factors as well; namely the dismantling of industrial labs starting in earnest back in the 1980s. There were a number of industrial labs in the US that produced not only superb science and technology; they also produced a number of Nobel laureates.

But changes in the financial system and tax codes induced most companies to dismantle their labs. Management became infiltrated with people who knew nothing of research nor cared.

Exacerbating this breakup of industrial labs - and the layoffs of thousands of skilled scientists and technicians - was the breakup of the Soviet Union. Thousands of nuclear scientists were displaced in the former Soviet Union; and the West – especially the United States – instituted formal policies of absorbing these scientists so that they would not be tempted to find jobs with rogue states wanting nuclear weaponry.

Many of us here watched in complete disbelief as the management of some of the top scientific and technology companies in the US began making some of the stupidest, most short-sighted decisions possible and shooting all their research people. Many of these companies then found themselves in exactly the positions predicted by scientific and technical experts; they could no longer even make what they originally made, let alone build for the future. Hence they started shipping research and development over seas to countries that could see much farther into the future.

Many of the people responsible for the meltdown of the financial system were PhD physicists working on huge computer programs that milked money out of derivatives and short-term financial fluctuations. These were PhDs who couldn’t find work in physics research but could find jobs on Wall Street with starting salaries of around $300,000 back in the 1980s. I knew some of these guys; and they bragged that within the first year of their employment with these Wall Street firms they brought in hundreds of times their own salaries for the companies they worked for.

Coupled with all this is also peak oil. We passed the peak of US oil production back in the 1970s; and world oil production is now passing its peak. World population is rapidly approaching 7 billion.

My generation has lived during the most prosperous period in world history; and during that time, our political and industrial management systems have become gorged with unimaginable stupidity.

and during that time, our political and industrial management systems have become gorged with unimaginable stupidity.

Depends on your frame of reference, I suppose. Everyone within the system acted according to their most concrete understanding of the reward system, and many of them did so brilliantly.

What I see is a culture-wide impatience. Heads rolled if quarterly numbers were not met, and so EOQ necessarily became long-term planning. Many billions rested on beating consensus estimates, or missing them. More than once in my career, I literally worked all night the last day of the fiscal quarter shipping ordinary bricks. Just to get the numbers up for the bean counters. Yeah, we knew the customers would be steamed to find bricks rather than products in the box, but hey, that’s a problem for tomorrow and customer support, not for me!

And if we didn’t meet the numbers, then investors looking for immediate gratification would invest elsewhere. Without that investment, we’d miss our numbers by even more next quarter, and so on down the drain.

We see this everywhere. OK, says the average American, so I’ve been a sedentary fast-food couch potato for years, I’m obese and my hair is falling out at 45, gimme a pill to fix it. Right now! I don’t have time to exercise; if my boss doesn’t see me at my desk 10 hours a day (he’s there 11), I can be replaced by someone a lot cheaper in Bangalore. And my boss will get a bonus for saving money.

And when the economic bad times come around, courtesy of the efforts by those derivative physicists, it’s not the high-income people who get dumped; they’re the ones who decide who goes.

Being far-sighted doesn’t pay, it’s often fatal, in a culture where we want it yesterday or else. And it takes real brains to figure out how to get it yesterday or finger the guy who couldn’t cut it until tomorrow.

(But very indirectly and in small ways, I’ve benefited from this orientation. Used to be kids collected baseball cards to root for their teams or their heroes. Now they buy packs hoping to hit that super-rare insert card worth $hundreds. Of course, they never do, and they just walk out leaving the cards sitting there. I scoop them up for free, and have a very nice collection. Missing only the super-rare cards whose value had a half-life of about 3 days anyway!)

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