Okay, back again at last! I've been all tied up with administrative work, including a review of our undergraduate program with the generation of new proposals that took much much much much much much much much more time than I had figured for, so I've been lost to cyberspace for lo these many months. I really look forward to getting back on track (or if I can't find the old one, clearing a path through the electron dust bunnies that have piled up and seeing what turns up)!
As my class in Science and Popular Culture winds down this semester its that time of the year when students begin formulating their individual projects, giving 30 different perspectives on how to end the class as they have their own final say. In revisiting the work from 2007 (yes, it takes me that long to convert piles of stuff on my office floor to files that I can actually access, sad to say!), I came across one cluster of particularly thoughtful projects that honed in on the phenomenon of science fairs, with some participant-observer recollections and mini-surveys. I'll start with some of what they had to say about science fairs, but also feature two offshoots that really got me thinking: one having to do with engineering, and the other with natural history.
The "science fair" idea goes back to 1942 when Science Service (now called Society for Science and the Public) partnered with the Westinghouse corporation to create the Science Talent Search, which would spawn a program for coordinating high school science fairs into a network of regional and then national contests. I've become interested in thinking about these competitions as a part of science and popular culture for lots of reasons: Do they accentuate the idea that some kids are "science people" and some aren't? Projecting ahead from what a science fair entails, what conclusions would students draw about what science is like later on in college or as a profession? What's the effect of focusing on science as a "contest"? For a sense of some of the contemporary aspects of science fairing today, this 2003 article from the New York Times is helpful: "Those Simple Science Fairs Go the Way of the Dinosaurs." One unlucky kid with a modest experiment was dumbstruck to find that "kids had boards that were monsters, nine feet tall," and, the reporter recounts, "one judge laughed out loud at his display. 'And it was not a fun laugh. I wanted to take my board and beat him over the head.'" Yikes! Although one young man -- who came to be known as "Cockroach Boy" back at school -- triumphed with a project that did not entail lasers, DNA testing kits, or time on the Hubble Space Telescope, so it appears there is still a place for a kitchen table kind of project, if it's got a great angle (see it described at the end of the article).
Okay, back to my students and the traditional science fair. Students who had participated generally remembered the experience as a good one, as with one philosophy major stating how important it was to have "hands on learning experience, as opposed to reading out of textbooks," and he judged that his opportunity to compete in a science fair project proved to be "important in that it helped develop my reasoning skills with the application of the scientific method." Sounds like exactly the kind of outcome a science fair planner wants!
However, when the student running the survey asked her interviewees "whether or not science fairs did a good job of facilitating thoughts about science outside of the experience," the answers were much more varied. One middle-aged adult, the student interviewer noted, made a particularly "interesting point. She believes science fairs did a good job of facilitating thoughts about science throughout the progression of the projects and into the exhibition, but felt that without further reflection on the experience in the classroom, she lost much of what she had gained during the process." Another student suggested, however, that "I don't believe it is absolutely necessary for science fairs to bring about additional curiosity within students. As long as they are actively participating, they are gaining valuable knowledge." The student author also was surprised to find, within her admittedly small sample, that the male science fair participants went on to maintain a strong interest later in life in science, while her female participants had not. I love it when the students turn up data that surprises them! It gives me hope that they'll keep thinking about this stuff even after we've all said good-bye...
One issue the student reported back concerned the dynamics of whether or not the science is fair is held as part of the regular school curriculum or outside of it. As one high school principal who was interviewed stated about science fairs:
"Most of ours have been out of school and optional because of the amount of instruction time needed to prepare for projects. End of [term] instruction testing requires most teachers to use every minute of instruction time to prepare for the test. Unfortunately, when projects are prepared outside of school it's hard to determine how much parents have done instead of the students."
Another student recruited her colleagues in the local chapter of Alpha Sigma Kappa (Women in Technical Studies), where she found little enthusiasm for the traditional science fair, which appears to have not been optional. She reported that:
"the general consensus was that teachers mandating a submission from students, in addition to little guidance in terms of expectations, led to the fair being approached as an assignment. The easiest approach to this assignment would be to submit the simplest project, which required the least amount of effort, possible. Oftentimes, the 'individual investigation of something of interest,' which the fair tries to promote by not providing much guidance results in using experiments found in science fair books. . .These books defeat the 'inquiry process' by providing the problem and solution to the readers."
And she's not kidding! When I checked on amazon.com there were a slew of titles offering to show you the way: from Glen Vecchione's 100 Amazing First-Prize Science Fair Projects to Joe Rhatigan and Rain Newcomb's Prize-Winning Science Fair Projects for Curious Kids -- or, if you're not overly ambitious on the prize front, perhaps Science Fair Projects for Dummies by Maxine Levaren will do -- and then those who haven't proceeded in a properly organized manner (waiting for inspiration to strike?) can pay the surcharge for overnight shipping and the advice offered by Sudipta Bardhan-Collen's Last Minute Science Projects: When Your Bunsen's Not Burning but the Clock's Really Ticking. . . and there are more!
This student made a further insightful point: Looking back from her vantage point as a college senior, she argued that the science fair misses the mark in emulating scientific work in several ways:
"in comparing my personal experiences with conducting research in microbiology with my memories of science fairs, science fairs are not representative of 'real-life' scientific work. In presenting my senior thesis, I had to defend my decisions made while conducting my research and the interpretation of the results afterwards to established scientists in the field.To maintain objectivity in judging, contestants [in a science fair] are not confronted by the judges, and therefore, a winning project does not require the contestant to have a thorough understanding of the project. Additionally, 'real-life' science requires teamwork, and science fairs give an unreasonable impression of individual work."
The issue of judges looks like it varies depending on the school district and whether or not it is a formal competition, but the issue of teamwork is a striking one (being mentored by a professional -- allowed in most cases with science fairs -- is not the same thing as teamwork with colleagues). The answer to this artificiality: she suggested that a more compelling experience that turns the teamwork issue inside out was found when she joined the newly formed robotics club at her school, and they competed in three competitions: Botball, FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) and BEST (Boosting Engineering, Science, and Technology). Botball is particularly of interest here locally since it is the brainchild of University of Oklahoma Engineering Professor David P. Miller, the Wilkinson Chair and Professor of Intelligent Systems and Chief Technical Officer of the KISS* Institute for Practical Robotics [KISS being an acronym for "Keep it Simple, Stupid".] My student reporter writes that "the purpose of Botball is to be both inspirational and educational through building and programming autonomous LEGO robots. The entrance fee for teams includes a training workshop for teachers and robotic kits so that teachers can continue creating robotics projects year-round." The robotics competitions look like they have a whole different feel to them than do the science fairs, and yet they too are seeking to foster creativity and problem-solving. I'm very interested in learning more about this, as it appears that robotics competitions can reach a wider variety of students and sustain their interest and intellectual curiosity and confidence longer than the science fair, at least as traditionally conceived. I love it when my students turn up data that surprises me -- it gives me hope that I won't stop thinking about this stuff after we've all said goodbye!
But the biggest twist was one student's report about how her small Catholic school, through the inspiration of their junior high school science teacher, create anew each year a natural history landscape through their "Hall Project" that brings the idea of teamwork to a whole other level: her project paper was entitled "How to Inspire Nature Lovers, One Papier Mache Animal at a Time." This is how she described the habitats they created inside the ordinary four walls of their school:
"Once the hallways are completely decorated with cellophane rivers, plastic grass, papier mache rocks, and braided vines, they are now ready to be filled with their inhabitants that the students have spent weeks molding and painting. Fish are laid in the rivers, while the birds are hung with fishing line from the ceiling. Lastly the mammals and reptiles are strategically placed within the forests and meadows. It is now, as the last little lizard is placed on top of a nestled rock, that the hallways have been entirely transformed from manila brick walls into a maze of forests, oceans and plains that mimic the wondrous nature rare to the human eye."
She relates that she had been anxiously waiting for her chance to participate since third grade, being primed by observing the hours her brother had spent in the garage making two blue-footed boobies for his year, the first one which "stood with its head turned sharply right to look for predators while perched on a tree trunk, and the second flew, wings spread, over the nearby waters to catch fish." She was, she recalls "ecstatic" when her time finally arrived: "The Hall Project was something that every younger student adored...it is humorous to reminisce, seven years later, about how obsessed my classmates and I were with all aspects of it. The Hall Project seemed so enjoyable since it wasn't just another science class of sitting quietly and taking notes; it was creative and stimulated the adolescent, keen sense of curiosity which made us want to learn more." She contributed two Australian Sooty Owls, which hovered over a river where her friend's platypus swam. She astutely points out that the Hall Project "unconventionally revealed the importance of respect for the environment, in the sense that [we] built it, so it was [our] job to take care of it...[we] learned to respect the 'habitat' by protecting [our] animal creations from swinging backpacks or trampling feet between classes."
The Hall Project educated on multiple levels, as students crafted their animals and the habitats, wrote up note cards with interesting facts about an animal's life that they could convey during tours they conducted during the school's "tourist season" for the elementary school children and for their parents at open house weekend. My student notes that: "The Hall Project made it acceptable for its adult tourists to not have all the answers, as children and society expect of them; so parents were given the opportunity to continue their learning and experience something new, which is often forgotten about and trivialized in the world of raising a family and paying the bills."
She was very proud that her work had allowed her mother "to 'visit' the Galapagos Islands and Australia simply by wandering our halls. For her, as a working adult, this allowed her to imagine these distant lands. As she described her memory of the Galapagos Islands Hall Project: 'I did not know anything about that place, but it opened my eyes to a wonderful island that I never would have a chance to experience otherwise."
A decade later, this college student states, she still carries with her the message of this novel twist on the science fair:
"Nature should inspire awe in people, children and adults alike. If we could love and cherish our simple papier mache exhibits, those feelings should be exacerbated by the knowledge that each of those creatures actually exists. The Hall Project gave [our teacher] a creative way...to warn her students about dangers to the environment. Following in the belief that knowledge is power, the more children (and adults) know about the world and its wonders, they grow more interested. With interest comes love, with love comes respect, and with respect for nature people are more willing to save it ..."
In doing it themselves, I bet they experienced the natural world in a way that -- even with all their big budgets and spectacular camera work -- an Animal Planet or Discovery Channel documentary can't match.
For more: Here's a blog entry on the 2006 student essays from my scipop class, "Student Anthropologists: Through the Looking Glass." For a bit on the history of science fairs, see this blog entry at Women in Science on a 1951 Popular Science article on some female science contest winners in the World War II era; here's a reproduction of the original article itself: "Wanted: Science Talent." Intel has a downloadable glossy brochure from 2001 on the Science Talent Search (which it took over from Westinghouse): Celebrating 60 Years of Science [it's a pdf file with a bit of a download time]. If you're interested in more descriptions and discussion see: "Six Decades of Science Contest Prowess" from the New York Times as well as "A Fine Hour for Squishy Sciences"; "'Go for it, kid': Looking Back on Five Decades of the Science Talent Search" from Science News; and "Is Science Talent Squandered? How Future Scientists Come Undone" from Science News Online.
Images: The first image is from the resource page on Science Fair Projects from the Athens Public Library System, at http://www.clarke.public.lib.ga.us/images/klscifair.jpg. The second one is of a 1950 finalist in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, located at http://blog.modernmechanix.com/mags/qf/c/MechanixIllustrated/8-1950/lrg_tick_tack_toe.jpg. The third one is the cover image at amazon.com for the book 100 Amazing First-Prize Science Fair Projects, while the fourth and fifth are from the Botball site which has a gallery of their best photos. The last two are of a lesser sooty owl from Nov. 22, 2007 at the Politics and Environment blog and a papier mache dodo, which is the work of British sculptor David Farrer, who specializes in using recyclable materials to make papier mache trophy heads -- a very clever green project.