Hard to believe, but at one point in my life I was actually eager for my kids to participate in the Science Fair. So help me, it's true. I loved being in the Chicago Public School Science Fair when I was a kid. One year I even won my school competition and went on to compete at the district level. It was very exciting being in this big space with kids from all over the city, presenting my project "How Bees Make Honey" against the backdrop of my beautifully done trifold board. Another year I did "Everything but Oobleck: What Makes Water Fall as Rain, Snow Sleet or Hail?". I didn't advance that year, but to this day I am still am interested in weather and I can trace my interest back to that Science Fair project.
My love of Science Fair extended beyond the desire to present my own project. I also looked forward to seeing what all of my fellow students were secretly doing in their basements. Everyone kept his or her topics under wraps so that on the day you brought your science fair project to school there was a whipping off of a sheet and a big "Ta Da!" reveal, very mad scientist-like. There were a few days throughout the school year that gave kids an insight into the hidden psyches of their fellow classmates. One day of course was Halloween. You didn't need a degree, or even a class, in psychology to know that October 31st was also "alter-ego" day. Another glimpse into the kid sitting next to you happened on Valentine's Day. Were the Valentines he/she handed out funny? Cutesy? Traditional? Tom & Jerry themed? February 14 was "how I feel comfortable expressing affinity" day. The annual Science Fair was a look into the minds of the kids you only thought you knew. Once a year, kids got to choose what they wanted to research, learn more about and present. The idea being that they were the experts on that topic. Science Fair could have been called "what fascinates me" day. I recall projects with topics like "What do Cigarettes do to Your Lungs?" "How a Water Filtration System Works" "Why a Volcano Erupts" and "How Fossils are Formed". Some kid would build a piston engine. Another would somehow come up with a demonstration on how a diamond was formed. And you could always count on some kid making a pinhole camera...always. All of these projects were fascinating to kids and none of them would be acceptable Science Fair projects today. According to a CPS website students must "Have a purpose and hypothesis for your project; they must apply to a definite scientific question. The reason for doing a research project is to make a significant contribution to the body of scientific knowledge or to solve a problem". My friends and I never felt the beyond our years pressure to "make a significant contribution to the body of scientific knowledge". Isn't that for adults to tackle? We didn't feel the need to solve a problem either. All we needed was the desire to learn more and to share what we learned. These current day Science Fair parameters cut out a whole lot of "I wonder how/what/and whys".
To be clear, Science Fair or no Science Fair, I think it is important that every kid learn how to run an experiment correctly...making a hypothesis, keeping a constant, changing only one variable. I completely encourage the scientific method being taught in school and I support those kids who chose Science Fair projects that utilized the scientific method, but science is not all about one method, not even THE great and wonderful scientific method. Over the years as a Science Fair judge, I have seen the rule for testable experiments produce a gym full of "Consumer Reports" type projects; which paper towel sucks up the most water? What detergent gets out stains the best? Which tissue is the strongest? Sure they all fit the criteria but what's missing is any kind of passion regarding the project.... and for the amount of time, money and effort put into these projects, there should be a genuine, heartfelt interest in the topic. The kids I grew up with had great answers for "Why did you chose this as your topic?" "My mom smokes and I wondered what cigarettes were doing to her lungs." "I saw the Apollo mission on TV and wondered how a rocket worked." "I wondered how they clean Lake Michigan water before we drink it." Now when asked, "Why did you pick this topic?" kids often respond "because I found it on the Science Buddies site...and I could test it."
The other aspect of Science Fair that has diminished is the "you are the expert" component. First and foremost now is the written abstract, complete with a lengthy bibliography, cited sources, graphs and charts. I confess, we didn't even do an abstract back in the '70s. We needed to research our experiment and create the all important trifold board, but it was the presentation that carried the most weight, how well you knew your topic and how interesting you could present it to the public. Walking around the Science Fair...and it did have the feel of a "fair" back in the day...you'd see reproductions, models, and demonstrations that were far more arresting than today's multi-paged abstract and carefully matted and meticulous placed charts and photos. The Science Fair has become a tedious, arduous, and totally stressful right of passage in public schools, but it's not doing much to inspire a love of science. In many Chicago Public Schools, the Science Fair makes up a substantial portion of the kid's grade, so the focus is on getting the maximum amount of points. This is especially true for kids in fifth and seventh grades, where grades are a key determinant for middle and high school acceptance letters. It's no longer about being an expert for a day. It's about meeting the rubric.
This is my seventh year of overseeing the Science Fair projects of my kids. Yes the projects were "testable". They had a hypothesis, a procedure and a conclusion. Yes the abstracts were thick and chock full of official citations and positioned exactly where they were supposed to be on the trifold board. Yes every project had its mandatory results chart or graph, also positioned exactly where it was supposed to be on the board. Of course everything was completed to spec and official looking, otherwise points would have been taken off. Most importantly from my children's perspective, the Science Fair project "was done." That is the overall feeling when completing the final swipe of the glue-stick..."it's done." This is why I have fallen out of love with the Science Fair. What once was a showcase of scientific interest, an opportunity to explore, a day that gave everyone an insight into where a kid's curiosity lay, has evolved into a tedious, arduous, rigid task to "get done". ...complete with twelve meticulously cited sources, a procedure written in step form, a hypothesis glued to the upper left hand corner of the trifold, board, and a ten-page abstract, located in the bottom middle of the board. My kingdom for a pinhole camera.