Empirical research on the effects of science fair participation seems scant, but the research that does exist suggests that participation is generally a positive experience for students, that participation increases scientific literacy, and, importantly, that participation results in an increased understanding the process of science.
One study conducted in Canada, for example, found that in their project notebooks, students "frequently attended to claims-making practices recommended in science education literature, especially involving argumentation and concepts of evidence," and that their conclusions "were often supported through the use of replication, triangulation, and often statistical analysis, with their findings embedded in a broader research literature." In other words, students appeared to be using the same sorts of reasoning processes upon which scientists rely. The researchers concluded that students who participated in science fairs successfully learned "many of the normative practices of science investigation."
But that's for students who are already participating in science fairs. It is perhaps of greater importance that science fairs be able to reach those students who might not already eagerly participate whether due to motivation or circumstance. As Bora Zivkovic noted several years ago,
How do we increase scientific knowledge and understanding of the general population? No matter how good we are at science reporting and science communication as a whole - this will not matter as long as this is a “pull” culture and most people will never get to see any of that science communication anyway, be it good or bad.
And, as Danielle Lee wrote recently,
For kids like my students – inner-city kids from poor families (whether working-class or on welfare), average or below-average academic performance, some with behavior problems – interests in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) dies by 10th grade and one of three things kill the promise of opportunity.
Indeed, the researchers in the study mentioned above pointed out that they observed "significant signs of most participants’ elite status. For instance, students appeared to dress and speak well, and many seemed to have access to relatively expensive technologies, such as cell phones and laptop computers. It was not unusual, according to interviews, for students to spend hundreds of dollars on preparing their display—and some even utilised graphic design firms to maximise their impact." Only one student that they interviewed after a 2005 fair reported that he had dial-up internet at home; the rest had high-speed access. Not to mention the financial resources to purchase supplies and equipment, and the social support from their friends, teachers, and parents.
Meanwhile, a recent count indicated that in Los Angeles County, more than one million K-12 students receive free or reduced price meals - a whopping 65% of the total enrollment. Nearly a quarter of all students in LA County are English language learners.
These are students who will increasingly require basic scientific literacy if they are to become informed, healthy, voting members of society. These students - like all students - need to understand basic ideas governing health, medicine, and the way their own bodies work. They need to understand where the energy that powers their refrigerators and cell phones and cars comes from.
In America, it is generally during high school that we solidify our own perceptions of our selves. In a recent New York Magazine feature, Jennifer Senior pointed out,
Our self-image from those years, in other words, is especially adhesive. So, too, are our preferences. “There’s no reason why, at the age of 60, I should still be listening to the Allman Brothers,” [Laurence Steinberg, a developmental psychologist at Temple University] says. “Yet no matter how old you are, the music you listen to for the rest of your life is probably what you listened to when you were an adolescent.” Only extremely recent advances in neuroscience have begun to help explain why.
It turns out that just before adolescence, the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that governs our ability to reason, grasp abstractions, control impulses, and self-reflect—undergoes a huge flurry of activity, giving young adults the intellectual capacity to form an identity, to develop the notion of a self. Any cultural stimuli we are exposed to during puberty can, therefore, make more of an impression, because we’re now perceiving them discerningly and metacognitively as things to sweep into our self-concepts or reject (I am the kind of person who likes the Allman Brothers). “During times when your identity is in transition,” says Steinberg, “it’s possible you store memories better than you do in times of stability.”
Access to scientific information - or inaccess to scientific information - has real, tangible consequences. The relationship that children and adolescents have to science will likely stick with them for the rest of their adult lives.
The LA County Science Fair has a rich history. By 2010, the fair grew so big that it was moved to a larger space - the Pasadena Convention Center. That year, there were 1500 projects, and projects presented by young women outnumbered those presented by young men by thirty percent!
On the surface, this is great news. But all of this is a preamble to the following.
I woke up this morning to an alarming-if-unsurprising email from Dean Gilbert, President of the Los Angeles County Science Fair Committee. This year's science fair, scheduled for next month, may not even happen due to fundraising shortfalls, and as a result, a 2014 science fair has not yet been scheduled.
Wednesday night at the monthly Science Fair Advisory Board meeting, I stated that as of right now, having the 2013 Los Angeles County Science Fair is in serious question and that there will be no Science Fair scheduled for 2014. This is because we are $70,000 short of our current year fundraising goal and still need another 150 judges.
If you're in the LA area, consider registering to become a judge. I have.
If you'd like to support the LA Count Science Fair financially, click on the “Donate” button here. As they say, every dollar counts.
The Los Angeles County Science Fair is a 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization funded solely through contributions from businesses, corporations, foundations, elected officials, and private parties. Donations are tax-deductible.
Disclosure: Other than having registered as a judge, I am in no way associated with the LA County Science Fair.