Granite Geek: No More Science Fairs?

Feb 28, 2017

The science fair has been a staple of science education for decades. But recently the loss of Intel, the computer chip giant, as a sponsor of the International Science and Engineering Fair is prompting some soul searching about the purpose of this educational mainstay. Do these science fairs, complete with a tri-fold poster board, really help students learn the kinds of things that prepare them for today’s science-based challenges?

NHPR's Peter Biello spoke with David Brooks about the future of science fairs. Brooks is a reporter for the Concord Monitor and writer at granitegeek.org, and is a regular guest on All Things Considered.  

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

So the question is, David, what is so bad about this time-honored tradition of the tri-fold poster board?

When Intel decided to drop their sponsorship, the CEO gave an interview. And you know what I’m talking about here? We’ve all done them, right? The teacher says you have to find a project, you think of a project, you work on it for a few weeks, you gather some data, and you sort of fudge the data sometimes.

You paste things to the tri-fold poster board.

You get the poster board, paste it up, write it up, bring it in and put it in the cafeteria.  Then you have Science Fair Night and your parents and teachers come by.

And you have to explain it to everybody.

Exactly. So the argument was that it’s a very passive, old fashioned method of teaching kids science and it just doesn’t fit today. They argue more hands-on projects like Maker Fairs are the way they should be going. So that was part of the argument which led to some soul searching.

What’s working for students in this tri-fold poster tradition?

Frankly, they need to explain it. It really is a pretty darn good distillation of the scientific process. As I pointed out in my column, the semi-ironic thing is that real researchers do this stuff all the time. They go to scientific conferences and have what are called “poster sessions”, which are just like science fairs, really. They make these big posters. They’re nicer than the tri-fold thing where you cut pictures out of a magazine and tape them to the board, but it’s the same idea. They’ll stand there and explain it to other researchers at the convention. So it’s a reasonable model on how the scientific process happens, and it forces you to be able to communicate it to laymen like your parents or the gym teacher who was roped into being one of the judges.

So tell us a little bit about the New Hampshire State Science Fair.

There is a state science fair in which kids from various high schools can bring their science fair project and judge them against each other. It’s been around for more than a decade. It’s called the New Hampshire Science and Engineering Expo. And because this is New Hampshire it gets no state support because heaven knows we don’t want to spend money on anything. So it’s been entirely volunteer-run.

As a result it’s been pretty feeble by the standards of most states. Most other states support it, and they have lots of kids and they have money, and they get judges and are able to meet the standards so they can be part of the national and international competitions. New Hampshire has not been able to do that until the last couple years. It took the volunteers a long time to have enough people and time to make up for the lack of funding to meet the standards of the Intel science fair. They are finally a part of the Intel science fair, and now Intel’s pulled out. It’s a little disturbing.

Okay, David. Personal question. Did you do science fairs when you were in school?

Yeah, I had to.

What did you choose to do it on?

Just like 50 million other kids I did the exploding volcano thing. Just like everyone else.

But yours successfully exploded?

Well, it sort of burbled. I don’t remember what grade I got, but I graduated eventually so I suppose it wasn’t too bad.

My last science project was pitiful. There were all sorts of new computer gadgets, so I basically brought a disassembled computer and laid it out. One judge came by and said, “Why are you doing this?” And I said, “Well, isn’t this cool?”

And that’s why you went into radio.

And that’s why I’m in radio today.

Well, as we’ve said, science fairs are not for everybody and a lot of people have horrible memories of them. But I really think they can be an effective way to get kids interested in and focused on science and science-type thinking. And goodness knows we need more of that.