No Blue Ribbon: Reforming Science Fairs in Middle and High School Science Education

By Wilsey, Matthew; Kloser, Matthew | The Science Teacher, November 2015 | Go to article overview

No Blue Ribbon: Reforming Science Fairs in Middle and High School Science Education


Wilsey, Matthew, Kloser, Matthew, The Science Teacher


Imagine middle and high school science classes without a science fair. Participation in science fairs is declining (Harmon 2011), a trend that some teachers, parents, and students find disturbing. They might argue that without science fairs, students will have fewer opportunities to do real science and explore new questions about the world around them. We believe, however, that the decline in science fairs calls for critically reviewing the potential disconnect between the aims and outcomes of science fairs. All science fair providers should ask: Do participants engage in a diverse, creative, social, and exciting scientific community of practice?

Some science fairs do promote the practices of science and should be looked to as models of success. However, in our experience judging fairs and based on the little available literature (Carlisle and Deeter 1989; Craven and Hogan 2008; Windschitl, Thompson, and Braaten 2008), too many science fair projects overemphasize experimental design, underemphasize the development and testing of theoretical models, and unintentionally widen the gap between students from privileged and impoverished backgrounds. To promote reform, this article presents five critiques of traditional science fairs (Figure 1) and offers two alternatives that reflect the practices and crosscutting concepts described in A Framework for K-12 Science Education (NRC 2012) and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States 2013).

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The five critiques

The isolated nature of science fair inquiry

Popular culture often depicts scientific inquiry as a solitary endeavor. In reality, science is social. Scientists work in large lab groups and also within a larger scientific community. However, even in the case of the acclaimed Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, which allows students to work in groups of three, only 9% of the approximately 450 grand award winners in 2015 worked in trios; two-thirds worked alone (Society for Science and the Public 2015). Science fairs in general too often leave students to work alone or with a single partner, diminishing the benefits of the social nature of science, which is key to producing new knowledge and understanding about the world (Vygotsky 1978). Social interaction tests new science knowledge and spurs new ideas (Longino 1990; McComas 2004), and science fair projects benefit from the critique and support of a broader community.

As a science teacher or science fair administrator, what structures can you develop to leverage community to improve student learning?

Singular scientific method

Science fairs often perpetuate the idea of a unitary scientific method (Windschitl, Thompson, and Braaten 2008). In our experience, projects tend to default to a five-step scientific method that strongly favors controlled experiments (McComas 1996; Windschitl, Thompson and Braaten 2008) and ignores the wide array of tools researchers use to solve challenging problems. In addition to experiments, observational studies, taxonomical surveys, and the analysis of big data sets also require students to organize, analyze, and interpret data to justify claims (McComas 2004). Moreover, because science fairs are often justified as a way to have students conduct "authentic," hands-on research, a singular method, in which a series of steps is followed, misrepresents how scientists actually investigate problems (McComas 1996). As McComas (2011) shows, students need not focus solely on controlled experiments.

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How might your science fair encourage the use of multiple scientific methods and practices?

Participation and access inequities

In many instances, science fair projects require work outside of school to the disadvantage of students who lack adult support or access to resources beyond their classrooms. Poverty may lower students' odds of success in science fair competitions, not only for lack of funds but also differences in cultural capital and access to beneficial social networks (Bencze and Bowen 2009). …

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