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The Science Fair Crisis: Not a Sputnik Moment

science fairs, sputnik moment

Are science fairs dying off?

Sign of the times or canary in a coal mine? Science fairs in America are dying.

Though President Obama said last week that science fair achievement should be lauded as much as athletic ones, his words of support might be coming too late. Participation in science fairs across the country is down significantly. Know who might be to blame?

Obama.

The New York Times took a look at science fair participation around the country and they didn’t find a single district saying all is well and good. Fewer students participate in them. There’s not enough interest from outside mentors. Finding sponsorship is a slog. Resources are limited.

But also, there simply isn’t time to sit back and think about science. Students are loaded with extra-curricular activities. Science fair projects are typically worked on outside the class. Some teachers say they’d like to use class time to work on science projects, but with school funding now often hinging on standardized test scores, plenty of teachers and schools wouldn’t dare give up class time to do something as luxurious as thinking about the physical world.

From the NY Times:

The Obama administration has urged broadening the subjects tested under the law — possibly including science. But some teachers say they are already burdened by state requirements to teach a wide range of facts — say, the parts of a cell — which prevents them from devoting class time to research projects.

“I have so many state standards I have to teach concept-wise, it takes time away from what I find most valuable, which is to have them inquire about the world,” said Amanda Alonzo, a science teacher at Lynbrook High School in San Jose, Calif., who advises her science fair students during her lunch and late evenings after school.

Obama’s education secretary Arne Duncan calls the fact that our nation lags in core subjects when compared to other industrialized countries our “Sputnik moment.” The launch of Sputnik triggered a huge investment in science and science education, which itself started this whole science fair thing in the first place.

I’m not sure if the old model of science fairs — with the tri-fold boards and the strict enforcement of margins and random judges awarding plaques, etc. — is the right way to approach a demonstration of scientific investigation. But I do think you can’t teach science without letting students act as little scientists. And you can’t get kids to act like little scientists if you really only want them to be good test-takers.

Do you think science fairs are important? Another opportunity for smothering parents to do their kids’ work?

Photo: scienceblogs.com

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