For science fair, science should count

Lefty’s autistic son started doing science experiments at the age of two, but he’s never been chosen to represent his class in the middle-school science fair. Why not?

To make it past that first hurdle, it turns out, you have to be elected by the majority of your classmates. And for this, you are evaluated not on the scientific merits of your experiment, but on the quality of your presentation.

Thus, graphic design and public speaking skills trump scientific talent, further reducing what few opportunities remain for left-brainers to distinguish themselves.

Why not pick the best scientist — and then add a kid who’s good at graphics and a kid who’s good at public speaking to the team?

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  1. But of course then the question is – how to pick the kids who are “best” at science, “best” at graphics and “best” at public speaking? Doesn’t that really pidgeonhole them? I personally would have hated this: one, it completely changes the nature of an independent exploratory project, and two, this runs the risk of the “smart” kids getting the actual science role and the “dumb” or “not good at school” kids the less intellectually challenging graphics or presentation role (because lets face it, though there could be some awesome presenters and graph makers, many students will not put forth tons of effort on this). And isn’t this science project supposed to encourage scientific thinking by students who aren’t normally the science nerds?

    For this age group, I think there should be prizes/awards for a few different categories: one for best science, one for best presentation, one for overall best project, etc. Of course, limiting the number of categories is also important; every category should be something important enough to actually count for something to a student who receives it, and there can’t be too many categories, because then you have the “everyone’s a winner and therefore no one’s a winner” problem that cheapens any award given.

  2. Here’s a brain-wave. How about team competitions. Anyone who puts together a team can compete. Teams can then self evaluate as well as receive the evaluation of their peers based on a rubric that looks at some key elements (like the application of science, clarity of communication, cleanliness of presentation, etc). No prizes–just learning.

    BTW–My son with special needs spent an entire school career without getting close to anything that might be considered to be a “science project.” Very sad. No one thought it was very important. For him.

  3. L. C. Burgundy says:

    The class electing who gets to participate in the school science fair? What the heck?

  4. Well, the ability to commuicate *is* important to scientists & engineers…however, in a Science Fair, the emphasis should mostly be on the science part. We should be looking for a level of presentation skills analogous to those of a successful engineer who is presenting a project to his management and making it understandable and insteresting, not a level like that of a superstar salesman, a superstar preacher, or a self-help guru.

  5. Miller T. Smith says:

    I am the Science fair Coordinator in my high school and the best projects are picked by independent judges from local science and engineering businesses. The judges pick the best from their point of view. The presentation of a project is only 10% of the overall score with the actual science being the rest.

    Our science fair is on the 19th of this month and I am getting the judges in line, arranging their breakfast and lunch, getting ribbons for each catagory, and doing all set up in the gym for the next three days. ANd we have some schools letting student VOTE(!?!?!). This is outrageous. They should either do it right or not do it at all.

  6. Once again, junior high school as metaphor for life.

    (Yeah, I know, it’s an earlier grade but I’ve been known to say that life is just like junior high, only the people are older, meaner, and have more money).

    My schools didn’t do science fairs but if kids were selected on the basis of popularity, I wouldn’t have had a prayer of getting in.

  7. I think this is something actually playing out in a number of classrooms in our world. I work with plenty of teachers that give better grades to research papers with clipart (that’s right… damn clipart) while academically defensible, outstanding work (sometimes over their head) is given the brushoff… welcome to education…

  8. All of my children (boys and girl) were beyond grateful to get out of elementary school and its incessant arts-and-crafts focus. My older two went to a 7-8 junior high, with MUCH less of that, but the school had become a 6-7-8 middle school (even with an overwhelming parent NO vote) by the time my younger kids arrived seven years later. They were crushed to find that the artsy crafty focus had arrived before them.
    The most unfortunate part was that the elementary school practice of rewarding, via grades, appearance over content was carried over into middle school. It was not until high school that content was the major focus. I think that this practice is a significant part of what turns boys (and some girls) off from school, because more girls are willing to put in lots of effort to make something look pretty.

  9. Hey… even in the real scientific community we are starting to reward appearance and presentation over actual science – An Inconvenient Truth anyone?