My third-grader will be entering a project in her first science fair this week, and while she and her partners at least aimed higher than a vinegar volcano, nobody’s expecting to found a new company from their work either. That’s fine- the point of a science fair, particularly in elementary school, isn’t to set a kid up for a Nobel Prize. Even if one’s experiment (or let’s be honest, demonstration) isn’t completely successful, the real goal of a science fair is to give kids a hands-on opportunity to work within the scientific method. Unless, of course, we’ve somehow lost sight of why science fairs were ever started in the first place…
Shows for students to share the natural world
The earliest science fair on record was more of a general exposition, in 1828. The American Institute of the City of New York assembled exhibits on a variety of topics, from agriculture to manufacturing to the arts. The engineering on display included show-stoppers like an iron plow, so it wasn’t exactly a showcase of scientific progress. Still, kids did participate, although they were noted for doing things like making black veils instead of growing flowers in food coloring.
100 years later, the American Institute organized the first Children’s Fair. While there was more of a scientific focus, the mission of these events was to get high school students thinking about nature. In that context, it makes sense that the top entry from 1931 was a diorama about how dogwood trees function in their habitat at different times of the year. The Children’s fairs were popular, although by 1941, the American Institute realized they couldn’t financially support them any longer. This created the opening for what most consider to be the first ‘modern’ science fair for students.
Competitions to launch careers
In 1942, a non-profit institution called Science Services worked with Westinghouse to launch The Science Talent Search. World War II had demonstrated the utility of science and engineering most convincingly, and the competition was squarely focused around promoting what we now call STEM careers for high school students. Westinghouse has been replaced as the primary sponsor by Intel, and later by Regeneron, but mission to promote up-and-coming scientists has been consistent throughout the completion’s history. Out of the nearly 150,000 high school students who have participated, alumni have gone on to win 13 Nobel Prizes, two Fields Medals, 11 National Medals of Science, 18 MacArthur Fellowships and more.
Students finding their way forward
A fair majority of those winners probably didn’t need a ton of encouragement though. Since 1942, students from specialized, science-focused schools have garnered the lion’s share of semi-finalist and finalist accolades, suggesting that they were starting from a substantially different position than most students in the United States. For many kids, a science fair is one of their first times thinking about how to come up with a testable question, make observations, etc. For many parents who are recruited to help see these projects through to competition, it’s a time filled with stress as they balance managing their kid’s progress while also allowing the student to have enough leeway to still learn something useful. Many parents report not knowing how to help, a dynamic that’s sadly reflective of survey results that show many American parents want their children to be well-versed in science, but also feel like it doesn’t really intersect with their own lives. We don’t have numbers on how many kids are scared away from science because of a bad project, but these factors probably don’t make for a good introduction to science or engineering.
Obviously, no iteration of science fairs or expos was meant to be confusing and frustrating. Fortunately, steps are being taken to help guide students if they don’t have all the resources they need to get started. ScienceBuddies.org is a website designed to help students find a project that is not only interesting, but practical as well. Aside from the pragmatic assistance this provides, it also seems to be looking to make science accessible to a wider audience, which is just what (I think) a science fair should do.
Source: The Rise of Science Fairs (And Why They Matter) by Rebecca Hill, Parent Map