President Obama held a science fair at the White House last fall, and he recently said that America should celebrate its science fair winners like Super Bowl champions. But participation in high school fairs is on a general decline around the nation. For example, the Los Angeles fair, though one of the nation’s largest, now has 185 schools participating, down from 244 just ten years ago. National numbers are hard to come by, but Michele Glidden, a director at Society for Science and the Public, a nonprofit group that administers 350 regional fairs, said that several major regional fairs have been unable to scrape together the number of high schools required to participate. “At the high school level, it’s one the decline,” she said.
Many science teachers say the problem lies with current education policy which holds schools accountable for math and reading scores without acknowledging the higher-order, independent exploration that science fairs require. “To say that we need engineers and ‘this is our Sputnik moment’ is meaningless if we have no time to teach students how to do science,” said Dean Gilbert, the president of the Los Angeles County Science Fair, referring to a line in the president’s Sate of the Union address.
Another problem may be a lack of financial commitment from schools to provide resources for science fairs. In many schools, fairs depend on teachers who shoulder the extra work. They supervise participants, find and train judges, raise the money for medals and poster boards—all on their own time.
Proponents of science fairs say that what has been lost is the potential to expose a much larger population of teenagers to the scientific process: test an idea, collect and evaluate data, and develop a conclusion based on the evidence. In whatever manner policymakers decide to address the issue, it is clear that teachers and schools are having difficulty balancing the demands on time and resources that an inquiry-based instruction requires with increased accountability to a standards-based curriculum.
For more information, see It May be a Sputnik Moment, but Science Fairs are Lagging