…as science fair season kicks into high gear, participation among high school students appears to be declining. And many science teachers say the problem is not a lack of celebration, but the Obama administration’s own education policy, which holds schools accountable for math and reading scores at the expense of the kind of creative, independent exploration that science fair projects require.
“To say that we need engineers and ‘this is our Sputnik moment’ is meaningless if we have no time to teach students how to do science,” said Dean Gilbert, the president of the Los Angeles County Science Fair, referring to a line in President Obama’s State of the Union address last week. The Los Angeles fair, though still one of the nation’s largest, now has 185 schools participating, down from 244 a decade ago.
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If you do good you get to take harder classes (ie AP classes), but not particularly “broader” classes. And no electives like electronics shop. Some of the fun and/or important things I remember from HS seem to be missing from modern schools, in favor of more college-like content (in particular, I really liked chemistry in HS, and disliked the college version. My daughter’s HS chemistry class (NOT AP, BTW) reminded me a lot more of my college chemistry class.
And don’t get me started on how science fairs have become too “dogmatically correct” to be any fun. I’d rather see “Science, Engineering, and Technology” Fairs where a neat gadget built from plans in a magazine would be well accepted.
At my daughter’s school they don’t have a “Science Fair” but an all-encompassing “Project Fair” which allows them to do projects involving art, science, or other areas of interest. I’m torn on whether this is better or worse than a pure science fair.
Oddly, while science fairs seem to be in decline, programs such as FIRST are seeing a massive uptake in participants in their robotics competitions. In my state, (Rhode Island), where we have an exceptionally poor and test-centric public education system, we still had 58 teams of 9-14 year olds competing in the FIRST LEGO League robotics competition last year. This program is, in my opinion, brilliant, because it includes the cool robotics that bring in students and at the same time a real research component as well as students research problems the world faces (related to the year’s theme) and develop and present solutions to these problems.
At the high school level, we had 28 teams competing in a pure robotics competition, building microwave sized robots to grab PVC batons, move them across the field, and drive up onto ramps.
While I think that science fairs can be cool, especially when the projects are done under the supervision of good mentors, the vast majority of students who even compete end up bored to tears by their advisors. Perhaps it is time to start looking at other options for getting kids excited about science, technology, engineering, and math.
(Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I competed on a FIRST LEGO League team for 4 years, mentored teams for 2 years, and refereed at the last Rhode Island tournament. However, I have no direct financial interest in the program.)
I remember the first science fair project I did, a binary arithmetic demonstration. It had you pick a number from a set of cards and after asking some simple questions you would be given some ball bearings to put into a simple computer. It was an inclined track with metal Y shaped flip-flops. When done you could read the binary coded number and tell your answer. 🙂 My uncle was an engineer at the local AFB. He was a great mentor when it came to technology and I fear a lack of mentoring also is responsible for the decline.