Science Fair Parental Involvement

Mark Williams mark_williams at
Mon Jul 17 15:02:28 EST 1995

I used to judge in the San Diego science fair, but I do not any longer.
One reason I stopped is a subject this thread has taken up-how to judge
science fair projects that are associated with professional scientific
institutions and personnel.  All too often, I found that projects which
used good scientific method and drew valid conclusions, and where the
student knew what the implications of the work were, lost to more
"flashy" projects.  The latter projects, to me, often seemed to be
presentations of the student's summer job, when s/he followed around a
grad student or postdoc in a parent's or neighbor's laboratory and did a
couple of experiments using methods out of the lab cookbook, but where
all the thinking was done before the student arrived.  (Not unlike my
undergrad research project.) ;-)  I agree with the previous suggestion
that rewarding the latter projects is not a manifestation of scientific
meritocracy, but reinforces the elitism of science.  I think, too, that
science fairs in general have an unintended consequence of educating
budding scientists without access to the "old-boy" network that their
ideas and hard work are less valuable than being born with advantages.

Maybe it is a Monday morning attitude, but I cannot help but reply to
some of the things that DEBROC at ("DARRYL E BROCK")
wrote concerning the St. Louis science fair.

Excerpted, emphasis mine.

>   Ms. Allendoerfer's question about excessive parental help is an
>   important concern I think most science fair organizers share and
>   agonize over.  Solutions are not readily apparent without creating a
>   science fair police force, an impossible and undesirable solution.
>   Despite some percentage of this unfortunate tendency, our experience
>   is that most projects are done primarily with student inputs and
>   that the fair is overall a positive experience.

My experience in judging is that while most projects are done with a
minimum of help, the _winners_ amongst junior and senior high school
students almost invariably come from the "followed standard methods in
somebody's research lab" cohort.  I recognize that this is probably
enhanced in San Diego, with the concentration of university, research
institute, and computer and biotech labs.  YMMV.

>   In the almost 50
>   years of our fair (it is the 3rd oldest in the nation), we have
>   many, many letters of testimonial about how some aspect of the
>   experience changed people's lives and led them into science careers
>   or somehow else led to more productive lives.  Many women said when
>   they went to school in the 50's, 60's and 70's that the science fair
>   was one of the few affirming experiences bolstering their self-
>   confidence, giving them the assurance that they could succeed in
>   science or other male-dominated fields.

When judging a science fair project, how do you value anecdotal evidence
from a skewed sample?

>   (sterotyped "inner city" parental apathy deleted)

>   1.  Our formula for judging follows the international fair criteria
>   and no more than 15% of judging points can be awarded for visual
>   presentation.  Thus, slick graphics from NYC publishing houses (or,
>   more likely, Macintosh PowerPoint graphics) can only take a project
>   so far.  The meat and potatoes of hypothesis, references, expt,
>   discussion, etc. are the primary judging points.

I should hope so.

>   4.  For our HS Honors Division, we do have the liberty of
>   interviewing the 30 or so students who commit to above-and-beyond
>   projects for consideration for scholarships and  a trip to the
>   international fair representing St. Louis.  Our approach is much
>   like that described by Amy Walker of Stony Brook in her response to
>   this science fair query.  For the $20K in Monsanto scholarships, our
>   team of academic judges (we do not use Monsanto people here because
>   students sometimes test our herbicides or Nutrasweet products) often
>   gives a $4 or $5 K scholarship to a "diamond-in-the-rough" project.
>   That is, there might be a very classy genetic engineering project on
>   one hand, and a bit amateurish "testing pigments of lobsters grown
>   in home aquaria project" on the other hand. The latter might clearly
>   be the fruit of a student's diligent efforts in her home basement
>   (this is a true story).  The other guy, who did credible work and
>   learned a lot, simply did what he was told to do using standard
>   methods in a professor's lab.  Our judges will generally award the
>   former more handsomely.

!!!  Excuse me.  Perhaps I have misundertood, but this seems to go to
the point of the discussion.  Beyond the patronizing descriptions and my
overly(?)-sensitive gender bias detector,  why would you be _proud_ of
choosing a project that followed a cookbook rather than one that grew
from curiosity and creativity?

>   The guideline is something like this:
>   Considering the resources at the student's disposal, how much did
>   they invest in the project and how far did they take it?  This does
>   not penalize the student with superior advantages, there is simply a
>   higher expectation.

I can't accept this argument.  Let's put it this way:  In high school
and college, we do not penalize girls for their lack of math skills, we
simply expect more from boys due to their advantage of being encouraged
in the early grades.  The real-world consequence is that those without
the "superior advantages" recognize their second-class status and have
less incentive to try again.

>   Going back to the general question and perceptions of elitism, etc.,
>   I think there are problems and needs for continual improvement but a
>   broad look shows a restatement of the problem is an important
>   positive.  What are we talking about really?  We are talking about
>   the problem of parents spending time with their kids and working
>   with them.  This is actually a pretty good problem to be having.  We
>   need more of it in a way. Whether it is reading books to kids or
>   working on science projects, our children desperately need this
>   interaction with parents.

No, IMHO we are talking about parents using their influence and money to
give their children undue advantage over others.  We are talking about
the public's perception that you must "know someone" to be a success in
science.  We are talking about the effect of science fairs on the
 Soapbox mode off.

>   Discussion of team entries deleted, except:

>   But
>   specific to the comment of promoting team involvement and the idea
>   that this might be suited more to a female approach, this trend
>   might be considered positive.

What exactly is a female approach to science or science fairs?

>   Very nice discussion on secondary effects of science fair participation deleted.

This is a very difficult question for science fairs to tackle-how to foster interaction of students with real scientists while not penalizing those without these opportunities in the competition nor penalizing students who take advantage of thier opportunities.  Without seeing current rules, I think improvements could be made in guiding students away from cookbook experimental methods, and in educating judges to look beyond the flash of the presentation and to the students' knowledge of subject, scientific method, validity, novelty, etc. that demonstrate good science.  This discussion has made me re-think my position on judging in the science fair.  I wonder if they will have me, now that I've gone and shot my mouth off? :-)

Delurking in a big way,
Mark Williams

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