Opinion
College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Reimagining the Science Fair

By Rebecca Bell — March 06, 2017 4 min read

Science fairs have always encouraged project-based learning. But in the technology-rich environment of today’s schools, it’s time to re-think the possibilities and the boundaries of these projects. Rebecca Bell, Associate Vice President, Education Practice at IREX, explains.

Join IREX this Thursday, March 9, at 8pm ET on Twitter for #Globaledchat to talk about the reimagined science fair and effective approaches for global, project-based STEM learning. (Type #GlobalEdChat into the Twitter search box to join the conversation!)

As low-cost technology enables a generation of teens to innovate and invent independently, traditional science-fair supporters are thinking carefully about how to grow the talent pipeline in STEM. News that Intel is dropping sponsorship of the International Science and Engineering Fair provides more evidence that the science fair of Homer Hickam’s day may be ready for permanent mothballing. Instead of relying on earlier models, let’s reimagine the science fair to globalize learning, facilitate cross-cultural collaboration, and get students excited about using science to help society.

High-Quality Project-Based Learning
Why use limited time and financial resources to promote STEM learning through international science competitions? Research shows that the high-quality project-based learning (PBL) leads to positive student achievement outcomes. PBL is particularly effective at building problem-solving skills, a key 21st century cognitive competency. Importantly, project-based learning is effective for learners of different backgrounds, including disadvantaged urban school populations. It also plays a role in motivating students to pursue STEM careers and may have an especially significant impact on female professionals in STEM.

Yet all PBL is not created equal. The tendency to frame superficial add-on projects as project-based learning threatens to dilute educators’ and policymakers’ understanding of what effective PBL entails. Science fairs provide an opportunity for high-quality project-based learning that involves sustained inquiry, student choice, and a public product, features identified by the Buck Institute for Education as design elements of “gold standard” project-based learning.

New Models
Technology now exists to exponentially expand the reach of international science competitions and to globalize the experience for students. New models include all-virtual fairs, competitions with virtual and in-person components, and challenges that require cross-cultural collaboration.

Google has led the way in leveraging technology to globalize and expand science competitions, with thousands of students worldwide participating in the all-virtual Google Science Fair. Among the winners of the 2016 Google Science Fair are students who designed solutions to combat drought, address foam waste, and reduce the cost of fertilizer for low-income farmers. These projects demonstrate an encouraging trend in international science competitions—students are pursuing projects that use science to help society by addressing problems of poverty and environmental degradation.

Others, like the BioGENEius Challenge, use technology to expand the reach of a science competition while still maintaining components of a traditional in-person science fair. Students entering BioGENEius submit research projects in response to one of three challenges in healthcare, sustainability, or the environment. In some states, students present at in-person local competitions while others enter through the at-large all-virtual competition. Winners of both tracks compete in-person at the International BioGENEius Challenge along with students from Canada and Germany.

Future City incorporates technology by including a virtual city requirement alongside more traditional project components. Student teams entering the Future City competition develop a tech-enabled virtual city plan designed in the game SimCity as one component of an entry that also includes an essay, scale city model, and in-person presentation. Like Google Science Fair and BioGENEius, Future City also motivates students to put their problem-solving skills to address a global challenge. In the 2016-2017 competition, students were challenged to design sustainable, multi-use public spaces for future cities.

At IREX, we’re equipping teachers to use effective project-based learning and virtual communication tools to engage students in an international science competition. Through sponsorship from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, IREX is piloting the World Smarts STEM Challenge, a virtual STEM competition between students in the U.S. and Ghana. Each student team includes a mix of Ghanaian and American students who communicate virtually to develop their project entry. Designed to improve science content skills and pedagogy while also engaging students in global learning, the World Smarts STEM Challenge requires students to develop cross-cultural understanding and take action on local and global issues like defending their community against hazardous waste or repowering their community’s energy use. Both challenges are inspired by the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

As science fairs becoming increasingly global, they have the potential to encourage cross-cultural collaboration and direct the curiosity of young scientists toward finding solutions for society’s most pressing challenges. By requiring entries from cross-cultural teams or creating challenge prompts that motivate students to take action on a global issue, a global citizenship component can be adopted by other international science competitions. Now is the time to get creative about reimagining the science fair to reach more students and develop global citizens.

Connect with IREX and Center for Global Education on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of IREX World Smarts STEM Challenge Team Oxon Hill High School.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Events

School & District Management Live Event Education Week Leadership Symposium
Education Week's Premier Leadership Event for K12 School & District Leaders.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Law & Courts Webinar
The Future of Criminal Justice Reform: A Sphere Education Initiative Conversation
America’s criminal justice system is in crisis and calls for reform are dominating the national debate. Join Cato’s Sphere Education Initiative and Education Week for a webinar on criminal justice and policing featuring the nation’s
Content provided by Cato Institute
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Equity, Care and Connection: New SEL Tools and Practices to Support Students and Adults
As school districts plan to welcome students back into buildings for the upcoming school year, this is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and our systems to build a
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

College & Workforce Readiness Fewer Students in Class of 2020 Went Straight to College
First-year college enrollment dropped steeply last year, a study finds, and the declines were sharpest among poorer students.
6 min read
Image shows University Application Acceptance Notification Letter with ACCEPTED Stamp
YinYang/Getty
College & Workforce Readiness Letter to the Editor Are Students Ready for Post-Pandemic Reality?
Schools must make improving students' essential skills a priority for college and career success, says the CEO and president of CAE.
1 min read
College & Workforce Readiness This Is Not a Good Time to Fall Off the College Track. Students Are Doing It Anyway
Fewer students in the Class of 2021 are applying for college financial aid, continuing a drop that started last year.
6 min read
Applications for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form are on the decline.
Applications for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form are on the decline.
Jon Elswick/AP
College & Workforce Readiness Student Interest in Health-Care Careers Takes Off During Pandemic
The coronavirus crisis is boosting a trend toward health-care and medical pathways. The challenge is getting students hands-on training.
7 min read
Nurse giving man injection
Getty