science fairs

Karen Allendoerfer ravena at CCO.CALTECH.EDU
Wed Jul 12 11:22:14 EST 1995

	We've had a couple of postings about science fair judging recently, and 
this brought up a few questions in my mind about the value of science 
fairs in general.  In part I'm writing this post because I've never been 
in a science fair myself, and I wanted to get more information, 
especially from people who've had positive experiences, since from the 
outside looking in a great deal of what I've seen has been rather negative.

	First of all, I was wondering, how do the organizers of science fairs 
deal with what seems to be a very difficult and thorny problem, the issue 
of parental help?  
	When I was an undergraduate working in an Immunology 
lab one summer, I supervised my supervisor's teenage daughter, who he 
also had working there.  I enjoyed doing this, and we had a number of 
long talks.  One of the things she told me about was how every year her 
father had entered her into these County science fairs, designed her 
project, and helped her with it.  She worked hard on these projects, in his 
lab, and won gold medals.  Needless to say, I'm sure this is not exactly 
what the organizers had in mind, and furthermore, my sympathies lie very 
much with the students whose parents wouldn't think of doing such a thing (the 
thought of my father designing a science fair project for me and helping 
me with it was about as likely as a trip to the moon), who didn't win any 
	I've also read an article about a Westinghouse winner whose 
uncle won a Nobel Prize in the field in which she did her research, and 
had a discussion with an astronomer friend who agonizes over whether and 
how much he should help his daughter in school science fairs, when he 
sees what the other parents do.  
	My examples are only anecdotal, but I have gotten the impression 
that your "average" (or economically/culturally disadvantaged) bright kid 
without an "inside track," that is, 
without a parent, relative, or friend to provide the ideas and/or working 
environment, hasn't got a chance in a science fair.  Is this problem 
considered "minor," that is, "it happens sometimes, but not often enough 
to worry about?" or is it really endemic?  And if it's not minor, then it 
seems like this could be a problem for the pr of science, making it seem 
elitist and competitive.  Is the country producing voters who, 
as adults, have bad memories of their own project being blown away by the 
slick presentations of "Scientist-Junior" at science fairs, and parents 
who view the approach of a science fair at their child's school with 
dread, because they know they'll have to spend a significant part of 
their own time working on their child's project?  How do these people 
come to view science?

	The other thing that I was wondering, based on these musings, 
was, have any alternatives to the "traditional" competitive science fair 
format been explored?  For example, in a classroom situation, having all 
the students work together on some larger project, like measuring water 
quality in a nearby river and finding out what industry, individual 
homeowners, and government were contributing to the water quality (or 
lack thereof)?  

	Through my own science instruction (which was admittedly 
rather spotty, until college) and from that I've seen of friends and 
friends' children it seems that science is being taught much more on the 
"science fair" model, that is, with the emphasis on competition and 
individual achievement, rather than on the "classroom cooperation" model, 
with emphasis on science in the service of society and the common good.  
I don't think that this bodes particularly well for either public 
perception of science or for continued relevance of scientific training 
in the face of limited funds and increased public accountability.  
(That's just my 0.02).  
	I think this issue may have some specific relevance to women in 
bio because of the allegedly different ways women may approach issues of 
competition and cooperation.  

Karen Allendoerfer

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