Is holding a middle school science fair a worthwhile endeavor? A team of science educators and researchers funded by a $2 million National Science Foundation grant is hoping to find out.
The group is collecting data on science fairs’ cost effectiveness, as well as their impact on learning and on students’ interest in science.
Despite being a staple of American education, science fairs have “never been really rigorously researched,” said Abigail Jurist Levy, the principal research scientist for the four-year project, titled “Science Fairs Under the ‘Scope.” “As valued as they are by some, and as criticized as they are by others, we really don’t know what they offer students in terms of learning experiences and engendering enthusiasm in science.”
The research team at the Waltham, Mass.-based Education Development Center is currently recruiting middle schools to complete surveys on how their own science fairs are designed and implemented. (Schools that want to participate should email firstname.lastname@example.org.) From there, the researchers will choose 40 varied science fairs from across the country to study in depth.
“We don’t have an opinion about science fairs’ value,” said Levy. “We have a real passion for finding an answer about whether they do [have value] and what kind, and we have an appreciation for the scope and complexity of the question.”
While the sample will be limited to science fairs based in schools, Levy said the results could also have implications for settings that host informal science learning, such as museums and science centers.
Science fairs do represent a line in the sand for some people.
Last year, a mother made a fake science fair poster titled “How Much Turmoil Does the Science Project Cause Families?” that struck a chord with parents across the country. Afterward, in a piece for the Huffington Post, she wrote, “I’m definitely not anti-science or anti-intellectual in any way. ... [But] any elementary school project that requires a lot of parental time, energy, resources, support, cajoling and financial investment is just BAD. Such projects privilege students from higher-income families for all the obvious reasons.”
Meanwhile, President Obama has been hosting a White House science fair the last five years running. “We’ve got to celebrate the winners of our science fairs as much as we celebrate winners of football or basketball,” he said at the event in March.
We here at Ed Week have gotten involved as well (though we take no editorial positions on the value of science fairs): We’re asking students and teachers to send us photos and videos of their science fair experiments, in the hopes of building an online collection showing what’s going on in schools.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.