Science fairs aren’t open to everyone

President Obama reacts as Joey Hudy of Phoenix, Arizona, launches a marshmallow during the 2012 White House Science Fair. Photo: Kevin Lamarque, Reuters

At this week’s White House Science Fair, President Obama showcased young scientists and inventors and urged girls to pursue STEM fields. “We’re not going to succeed when we’ve got half the team on the bench,” he said. “Especially when it’s the smarter half.”

“Diversity is important,” said Jo Handelsman, associate director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “We need more STEM workers, and we need to recruit the best talent of the world, and some of the talent will come from people who have not been traditionally involved in STEM.”

Science fairs have “became an exercise in privilege,”writes Carl Zimmer, a science writer, in STAT. Girls aren’t excluded. But children who don’t have educated parents and access to high-quality labs won’t go very far.

Veronica was able to carry out her science fair experiment in a Yale lab.

Told her seventh-grade science fair experiment required expert supervision, the author’s daughter was able to use a Yale lab. Photo: Carl Zimmer

His daughter decided to compare different ways to clean a toothbrush for her seventh-grade science fair.  She planned to brush with a new toothbrush,  clean it with water, lemon juice or vinegar, then see how much bacteria grew on a Petri dish.

Her proposal required filling out “an avalanche of confusing paperwork,” Zimmer writes. It was considered “so potentially dangerous that Veronica would have to carry it out under the supervision of a trained expert, who would first have to submit a detailed risk assessment.”

Most kids would have quit there. But Zimmer knew a Yale microbiologist who agreed to let the seventh-grader work in his lab. She ended up winning an honorable mention at the stair fair.

“When you look over the projects that win the Google Science Fair and the Intel Science Talent Search these days, it’s clear that they’re mostly the products of very bright, motivated students lucky enough to work in university labs where they can take advantage of expertise and equipment,” Zimmer writes. Kids without those connections are out of luck.

I’m tired of doing my kids’ homework

I’m always stuck doing my kids’ homework, writes Karol Markowicz in the New York Post.

For her daughter’s “100th day of school project,” she cut out 100 pictures of American Girls from the catalog, so her daughter could glue them on a board.

“I have a smart, independent, motivated daughter, but it would take her three days to cut out 100 pictures of something for her project,” she writes. Her daughter is in kindergarten. Cutting is hard work.

Even for Mom, it took over an hour and her child spent another hour glueing them on. (Doesn’t this sound like a way to make kids — and moms — hate the number 100?)

Homework should be tailored for the child’s abilities, not the mother’s, Markowicz believes.

As kids get older, their parents face ever more complex science fair projects, writes Hana Schank in The Atlantic.

Last year my son, who was in third grade at the time, came home with a sheet of paper from his school that listed three categories for appropriate projects: developing a hypothesis and conducting an experiment to test that theory, inventing something new, or researching “something specific.” The guidelines listed “whales” as an example of something specific.

Given that my son was 8 years old, the idea that he could, on his own, do any single one of these things seemed ludicrous.

It’s not fair to kids who don’t have a parent who can help and it’s not very educational for those who do.

Science fair vs. Maker Faire

Intel is investing in Shubham Banerjee’s  low-cost Braille printer, which win a Maker Faire award. Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez , AP  

Science fairs have lost pizzazz, argues Hana Schank in an Atlantic story speculating on Intel’s decision to stop sponsoring the Science Talent Search (STS). The Maker Faire — technology rather than pure science — is the hot new thing, according to Schank. And it’s seen as more democratic and diverse.

Despite science celebrations by Google and the White House, “local school and county fairs have been on the wane,” writes Schank. Many schools don’t provide guidance, time or lab space for science fair aspirants.

Crystal Zheng and Ien Li, both seniors at Jericho High School in New York, were finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search this year.

Crystal Zheng and Ien Li, seniors at Jericho High in New York, were finalists in the Science Talent Search this year.

In the last 16 years, 10 schools have dominated the STS prizes, she notes. “Eight of them are in the greater New York City area, where there is widespread access to both labs and working scientists, highly motivated parents and students, and a large number of second-generation immigrants.”

By contrast, Maker Faire, which started in 2006 in the Bay Area, “feels more like Burning Man meets Radio Shack.”

Maker also does away with the lab-access issue that many science-fair hopefuls run up against by favoring projects that can be done with readily available technologies like Raspberry Pi and Arduino. Recent winners at Maker have included 3D printed robots, a Raspberry Pi teletype that wirelessly connects an iPad to a 60s-era teletype machine, and an Arduino-compatible processor.

Intel may see Maker Faire participants as the sort of kids they’ll want to hire in a few years, while STS competitors are starting their doctorates in physics, math and chemistry.

When seventh-grader Shubham Banerjee used Lego parts to build a low-cost Braille printer, he entered the Maker Faire rather than the STS. He won an award — and got Intel to invest in the product.  “The next version of the printer will include an Intel Edison chip,” writes Schank. It “won’t be made out of Legos.”

STEM gets broader — and shallower

In a vain attempt to make STEM appealing to right-brained students, educators are ignoring and alienating the left-brained math and science guys, writes Katharine Beals in Out in Left Field.

Efforts to Inspire Students Have Born Little Fruit, reports the New York Times. The story cites President Obama’s Educate to Innovate initiative and the lack of improvement by U.S. students on the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) tests.

Beals sees it differently.

. . . our schools, and our society more generally, are no longer encouraging and educating the kind of student who is most likely to persevere in STEM careers. These are the left-brained math and science types, more and more of whom face a dumbed-down, language-arts intensive Reform Math curriculum, and a science curriculum that increasingly emphasizes projects over the core knowledge and quantitative skills needed to succeed in college level science courses.

At the expense of encouraging this type of student, K12 schools are trying to broaden the appeal of math and science—by making them even less mathematical and scientific. And so we have algebra taught as dancefraction muralsphotosynthesis as dance, and science festivals featuring showy displays of gadgetry as well as theater, art, and music.

“The kind of student who finds these approaches engaging and enlightening” isn’t likely to persevere through a STEM major, she predicts. Those with the potential to be STEM specialists want to learn math and science.

At Auntie Ann’s school, the science fair used to require students to conduct an experiment. Now they can make a Rube Goldberg machine or a robot or research an environmental issue. “This year they’ve also connected it to an art exhibit to make it the full STEAM experience.”

It used to be the only time students did a research project and wrote a “serious paper,” she writes. Now students get full credit for writing 30 sentences. “The kids who did Rube Goldberg machines had nothing to write a paper about, so they had to write a biography of Rube Goldberg.”

Teacher suspended for kids’ science projects

A Los Angeles teacher was suspended because two students’ science fair projects shot dealt with shooting projectiles, reports the LA Times.

Students and parents have rallied around Greg Schiller after his suspension, with pay, from the Cortines School of Visual & Performing Arts, a very expensive new high school in downtown LA.

One project used compressed air to propel a small object but it was not connected to a source of air pressure, so it could not have been fired. (In 2012, President Obama tried out a more powerful air-pressure device at a White House Science Fair that could launch a marshmallow 175 feet.)

Another project used the power from an AA battery to charge a tube surrounded by a coil. When the ninth-grader proposed it, Schiller told him to be more scientific, to construct and test different coils and to draw graphs and conduct additional analysis, said his parents, who also are Los Angeles teachers.

Administrators told Schiller that he was removed from his classroom for “supervising the building, research and development of imitation weapons,” according to teachers union representative Roger Scott.

“As far as we can tell, he’s being punished for teaching science,” said Warren Fletcher, president of United Teachers Los Angeles.

This may not have been zero tolerance gone wild, the Times suggests. As the union rep on campus, Schiller had been negotiating with administrators over updating the employment agreement. 

My first husband submitted a design for an atomic bomb for his fifth-grade science fair and nobody said boo.

Science fairs lose funding

Science fairs are struggling to survive as backers pull funding, reports the New York Times.

Sponsors have dropped out of local science fairs, while some schools are scaling back extracurricular activities, including science programs, because of state budget cuts.

In Missouri, two prominent science fairs in the St. Louis area are having financing problems after losing corporate donations. One California school district did not have a science fair last school year, and Louisiana’s statewide competition was almost canceled last spring.

If the U.S. is going to compete globally in technology, we’ve got to create opportunities for smart kids to compete against each other.

Singapore parents push math

U.S. students are below average in math skills, according to PISA, while Asian countries excel. Parents’ attitudes, beliefs and behaviors make a difference, concludes a study of parents in the U.S., England and top-scoring Singapore.  From Curriculum Matters:

Parents in Singapore are far more likely than those in the United States and England to engage a math tutor to help their child, they’re more likely to get assistance from teachers and others in how to help their child, and their children more often take part in math competitions and math/science camps.

. . .  75 percent of Singapore parents said it’s important to provide math learning opportunities outside the school curriculum, compared with 53 percent in the U.S. and 49 percent in England.

Compared to Singapore parents, U.S. parents are much more confident they can help their children in math, noted the study, which was conducted by Eduventures for Raytheon. “Whether this U.S. confidence is well-placed is hard to say, but the report suggests that one explanation may be that the middle school math curriculum is more advanced in Singapore than in the United States.”

'Cool' science (and math)

President Obama promised a national science fair to spotlight young inventors and show young students how “cool science can be.” It’s part of his Educate To Innovate campaign:  Sesame Street’s Elmo and Big Bird, corporations, companies, video game programmers and scientists have pledged to promote science, technology, engineering and math learning.

Most activities will be outside the classroom, notes the New York Times. Science Channel has pledged to devote two hours of afternoon programming to commercial-free science shows aimed at middle schoolers. The MacArthur Foundation and partners will offer prizes for new video games that teach science and math.

Sounds like fun. But will it help students master difficult subjects, such as math?

Critics said the effort will flop if there’s no plan to improve the curriculum and the ability of teachers to teach it. “It has nothing to do with the day-to-day teaching,” Mark Schneider of the American Institutes for Research told the Times.

I fear the gee-whiz emphasis will undercut the need to teach students the basics so they can go on higher-level studies that will enable them to be innovators.

In Curriculum Matters’ STEM initiative story, Sean Cavanagh challenges Obama’s claim that the U.S. is behind other countries in math and science. It depends on what test you look at.

By the way, a new study has found No Child Left Behind increased math scores, especially for low-scoring groups, but had no effect on reading scores.

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?