THE BLOG

Science Fairs -- A Key to Training Future Scientists

04/22/2013 11:37 am ET | Updated Jun 22, 2013

Science Fairs play a crucial role in STEM education. They are not only important to student participants, they are also important to our nation's well- being and growth, which is historically built upon innovations in science, engineering and technology. In effect, Science Fairs are the early proving grounds for the development of the young scientists and engineers that we will rely upon in the future.

From the globally known events such as the Siemens Competition and the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, to regional municipality or state events, and smaller single school events, the basic benefits of student participation in Science Fairs are the same. Student immersion into problem-solving in science leads to enhanced creativity, innovation, and critical thinking. Students also gain considerable strengths that lead to improved communication skills, accountability, as well as information and mathematical literacy. Socially, a Science Fair gives students the opportunity to interact with judges (often themselves volunteer scientists, mathematicians, and engineers). Giving short presentations to, and answering questions from, the judges enhances communication skills and provides a confidence that comes from a deeper understanding of the science question they studied in detail. Students will also interact socially with many other adults outside of their family group and, importantly, evolve new collegial relationships with their own peers. All in all, a Science Fair builds a broad community of learners that brings even previously 'disenfranchised' students enthusiastically into a community based celebration of science understanding, literacy and achievement.

Recently I had the opportunity to attend a meeting in the East Wing of the White House with members of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the leaders of several private foundations. We were discussing the new frontiers of science, and how a convergent scientific approach and new funding streams catalyze innovative and high risk/high reward research programs focused on grand challenges in science, such as the recently announced Brain Mapping initiative. In the course of our discussion we also aired concerns about how to identify, enrich, train, and sustain the human science infrastructure necessary to undertake these new, and very likely highly-collaborative, research adventures.

By chance, and unknown at that time by us, in the Indian Room in the East Wing (immediately next door to our conference room) President Obama was meeting with 40 of the Nation's top scientists and engineers. Among those present was the inventor of an inexpensive filter that reduces toxic bacteria titers in water by as much as 99 percent; the developer of an algorithm that detects oncoming brain seizures before they happen; an innovator who identified a new drug candidate to treat a common blood cancer; and a visionary who created an imaging agent that helps surgeons visualize malignant tumors. These extraordinary individuals all had one thing in common in addition to their research genius: they're all in high school. These exceptional young scientists were the finalists in the 2013 Intel Science Talent Search competition.

The enthusiasm of these young scientists echoed through the corridors of the East Wing as the President praised them and extolled them to continue their journey to become the individuals who will lead our nation to new levels of discovery and achievements in science and engineering. Our own conversation halted for some moments, as we looked at one another and gave a collective smile that quietly affirmed for us that the scientists of the future that we need will be there so long as we can help them, and their colleagues in Science Fairs nationwide, sustain their enthusiasm, excitement, and spirit of discovery.

A few days later I was honored to be a 'Science Fair Judge' at John B. Wright Elementary School (a Public STEM school in Tucson, AZ). The ecology of the school is important to understand. Unlike the Charter Schools and other superb private and public schools nested in quality environments that promote student learning, John B. Wright Elementary School is a K-5 institution that resides in a significantly impoverished area of the city. The neighborhood is a 'food desert' and school meals are the primary source of full and balanced nutrition for the large majority of students. Many parental and family relations are strained because of the significant poverty levels and, sadly, the in-school presence of Police or from individuals from Child Protective Services is mind-numbingly frequent. There is a wonderful array of dedicated teachers at the school, but not least among their challenges is the fact that over 20 different languages spoken by the students and - for the purposes of STEM education - very few of the teachers were trained in science or have had greater than a one science course in college. And yet, despite their tough circumstances, with the leadership of a dedicated and visionary Principal, and the support of a few volunteer scientists from the Business Community and the University of Arizona, the students at John B Wright are becoming remarkable 'scientists-in-training', and their teachers are becoming very good and committed STEM educators.

The students at John B. Wright are beginning to understand that the world of science is open to them, and daily they hunger for science knowledge. This Title1 School is now flourishing. And their Science Fair? A Second-grade student explained to me about the 'Science of Farts,' a First-grader demonstrated for me the wonders of baking soda volcanoes, and a Third-grade student did her best to help me to understand that colors do have different flavors. Award winning research? Perhaps, but importantly, individually and collectively, a true celebration of science occurred. Students took pride in their work, and beamed with accomplishment. The students also tackled a group project. Small teams of students learned about solar energy through the building individual solar ovens (cardboard covered with aluminum foil that was folded at a precise angle) to cook their own solar hot dogs (and a myriad of culturally-diverse other foods) using the warm Arizona sun. The zeal of the students for knowledge, and their inquisitive nature, was astounding. I had a hard time keeping up with them. They answered questions about how much energy was needed to cook a hotdog, and how they thought solar energy worked, and many other queries with a joyful thoughtfulness and creativity that was not only delightfully entertaining but inspirational as well.

Later, as I stood and looked at a sea of young faces comprised of girls and boys of many ages, of many ethnicities, and highly-challenged economic backgrounds, I realized that - given the opportunity - someday one or more of them might indeed stand before a future U.S. President just as the Intel Finalists did a few days earlier. They were all winners because - in fact - they had confidence in themselves and they tried.

All of the student scientists - from the National Intel Finalists to the John B. Wright students, as well as Science Fair students of all ages nationwide - deserve our praise and their teachers deserve our accolades. These STEM students are the individuals who will eventually carry the legacy of scientific leadership forward for our nation. It is imperative that - as a nation and as individuals - we continue to invest in their education (at all types of schools and all levels of education) through the STEM-training of their teachers (in- and pre-service), by enhancing the infrastructure of our schools through appropriate public and private methods, by guaranteeing the safety of students in their schools, and by demanding and supporting a STEM curriculum that provides 'hands-on learning', that builds quantitative skills, while taking greater advantage of, and enhances, the ability of students to think critically, to create and, and to ask questions and does not merely focusing on the memorization of scientific trivia.

We must promote and continue Science Fair adventures at all grade levels, and in all public and private institutions and Charter Schools. If we do, then each of the young scientists involved can continue to aspire to achieve success that is not just recognized by a future U.S. President, but perhaps more importantly will help them to build a STEM career path that will allow them to make a difference in the world.