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What’s up with the science fair?

Regular readers will know that we are big fans of the science fair. Ever since the first time we wandered in, having seen an announcement somewhere, we haven’t found any local event cooler for our kids to take part in. My husband and I marvel at the fact that we didn’t even know about science fairs when we were kids, while our kids enter it every year. [See: A few words about scientists and inventorsScience inspirationsWinning and losingScience Fair… And I’m sure I’ve written more but that’s what you’re getting right now!]

The thing that was particularly interesting about the science fair this year was the lack of high school division projects. We couldn’t find them, and thought perhaps they had split them off due to high demand. No such luck. There were “only about 16 projects (out of an eligible population of about 12,000 high school students)” (from my fellow parent-of-science-fair-kids Kevin, who is also a judge). In other words: we didn’t find the projects done by high schoolers because they were lost in the sea of elementary and middle school projects. Kevin points out that getting 1% of our high school students to do science fair projects seems like a fair goal—and that would mean “about an 8-fold increase over the current situation.”

There are plenty of reasons not to do the science fair. It takes lots of time, parental involvement, teacher leadership and determination on the part of the students. The thing is, I can’t really believe that everyone doesn’t do it—at least at their school science fair. It’s so fun! But apparently I’m a bit out of touch. As far as teens in this county goes, the science fair is nothing special.

At the stream

A future scientific breakthrough in process?

I think this probably reflects the general trend in our society away from a culture that “does” toward a culture that “watches.” It has shocked me to see how few kids are willing to sing these days—they have gotten the message that if they don’t have a hit song, no one wants to hear them. It’s not like science is as dorky now as it was when I was a kid: With cool science-based shows like Myth Busters, it’s possible that more kids now have a positive view of science than before. It just seems to be a general lack of interest in actually “doing” anything. Kids are content to watch.

It probably also has to do with what’s been happening in our public schools (though I do note that in our county at least, it’s the public schools who send the most kids to the science fair). Since NCLB doesn’t test for science, it sends that general “science isn’t important” message right down the line. Teachers in schools under program improvement in this county have pretty much had to cut science from K-8 curriculum, even though studying science improves the scores in math and language arts tests in an enjoyable way.

And for high school kids, it probably has a huge amount to do with our culture of homework which has so bogged down today’s students. (See Race to Nowhere.) More and more homeschooled kids are turning up at the science fair, and it’s easy to see why. We allow our kids the time to relax into science and really be able to explore it. Without hours of worksheets due every night, a kid has time to dream and create—time that is necessary for real scientific exploration. When kids have hours of homework every night, and then more on weekends, how can they possibly follow through on a high-school level project? That takes not only a deep interest, but deep learning, deep commitment, and most importantly, supportive adults who mentor the student through a difficult process.

Today it was finally raining in the way we expect on the Central Coast—steady wet ranging from drips to downpours all day long. Mid-morning, my daughter said she’d had enough of percents and wanted to go for a rainwalk. I could have insisted that the worksheet was not done and that was her commitment to math today, but instead I said, well, OK. I know she loves rainwalks.

And so we went out and splashed down into the redwood forest, where she sang and wandered and wondered about the things we saw. For all I know, that was the time in which a scientific idea coalesced in her brain. For all I know, by planting my boot in a puddle and getting a soaker, I may have planted the seed for next year’s science fair.

Posted in Education.

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. Are Academic Competitions a Thing of the Past? | Umbral Ciencia linked to this post on April 12, 2012

    […] Suki Wessling, a homeschooler in California, wondered the same thing. In her area, out of over 12,000 eligible high school students, only 16 individuals participated in the science fair this year. As participation by public school kids in California declines, the number of homeschool kids who are getting involved is steadily increasing. […]

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