Re-Imagining Science Fairs

Abigail Jurist Levy has over 22 years of experience in the fields of K­–12 education and adult workforce development. She leads teams of researchers in multiyear, multisite studies focused on issues such as science teaching and learning, the teaching workforce, and sustainability of K–20 education reform. Currently, Levy is leading the first large-scale study of science fairs in the United States, "Science Fairs Under the 'Scope." In this post, she shares some thoughts about the “Fake Science Fair Poster” that swept social media this past spring and the new science fair study.

It is no wonder that Susan Messina’s “Fake Science Fair Poster” went viral on Facebook and Twitter. The poster hilariously captures the angst that science fairs can provoke—and likely triggered haunting memories for some parents and children nationwide. Yet amidst the humor, Susan had a sound and serious point. When she blogged about her poster on Huff Post, she expanded on that point, went on to suggest some ways in which schools could “re-imagine science fairs,” and noted, “Surely, we can figure out a better way to excite students about STEM fields.”

At EDC, my colleagues and I have been thinking about some of the same questions that Susan poses—along with many related questions. We share Susan’s desire to do a better job of getting kids interested in STEM. And, as a first step to re-imagining science fairs, we want to find out whether some science fairs do make a difference for kids, if that difference is for all students who participate or just a select few, what makes some science fairs better than others, how much a good science fair experience costs, and who foots the bill.   

Science fairs have been around for over 60 years. In the U.S., schools in over 47 states have offered science fairs reaching students as young as 9 and 10 years old, and there are many regional science fairs. We know science fairs have their critics—witness the explosion of Susan’s poster—but they also have devoted fans. The trouble is, there is no real evidence to show what kids learn from science fairs and whether they are worth the cost. Maybe they really can boost kids’ interest in science and their ability to investigate interesting questions, but maybe not. And we should know the answer, especially now, because the need to strengthen our kids’ science and engineering skills has never been greater.

That’s where we come in. With support from the National Science Foundation, EDC science educators and researchers are “putting science fairs under the microscope.” Over the next several years, a team headed up by myself, Jackie DeLisi, and Marian Pasquale will conduct the first real study of science fairs in the U.S. (“Science Fairs Under the ‘Scope”). This school year, we are starting our study by carrying out a national survey of middle school science teachers whose students participate in their schools’ science fairs. Then we will spend 2 years studying 40 science fairs held in schools across the country. When this study is over, we should have real answers to the questions about science fairs and be in a good position to help schools rise to Susan’s challenge to “re-imagine science fairs.”

So, to Susan and all those who laughed and shuddered knowingly when they saw her “Fake Science Fair Poster”: Please watch for findings from our Science Fairs Under the ‘Scope study! And, we’d love to hear from parents, students, teachers, principals, judges, funders, and others who are involved not just in the science fair event, but in all of the work that leads up to the big day. By sharing your experiences with us, you can help spawn a new breed of science fair that moves far beyond the sad materials list on Susan’s poster: “…at least 1 kid, at least 1 grudging parent, half-baked idea of very dubious merit, and procrastination.”