School science fairs get a bad rap. They are often criticised for not promoting real learning, being overly-competitive, advantaging students from already privileged backgrounds, putting extra stress on children, teachers and families, not representing science as it really is, and so on. Despite this though, some people do leave school with very positive memories of science fairs.
Recently I spoke with eight participants in NZCER’s longitudinal Competent Learners study who are now working in STEM careers. Four of these young people remembered school science fairs fondly.
We did science fairs at school – that was fun. It was an opportunity to be creative. My father helped me with it – he brought the gear home and showed me how to use it but it was my project.
In fact, these fairs were the only thing about science at primary school that any of these young people could remember! Rather than abandoning science fairs, could they be refocused so that they become one way of making school science more like science in the real world? Rather than focusing on competition and a final product – what if we shifted the focus of science fairs to students participating in a science community? This would involve working together, and critiquing each others’ work at all stages of the investigation. In this way students would be participating in the practices of science – and developing a functional understanding of what science is all about (ie the intent of the Nature of Science strand of NZC). Students would develop and practise their capabilities to gather and interpret data, use and critique evidence, and represent ideas.
Science fairs thought of in this way could provide opportunities for innovation and creativity, to build new knowledge, develop resilience, and a greater sense of what it means to be scientifically literate. However, such projects would take time. Time needs to be put into finding questions in the first place that students are genuinely interested in. There needs to be time for finding out what is already known about this topic, time for critique and multiple iterations of the design of the investigation, time for collecting sufficient data (and making sense of it), time to make mistakes and go down blind alleys, as well as for group discussions and feedback. If you were to run a science fair project like this how would you manage it? What could you give up or do differently in order to work in this way? What resources in the local community could you draw on?
I think science fairs do have the potential to provide opportunities to embrace the principles of play, passion and purpose which Tony Wagner argues are essential for developing innovators – even if they often don’t currently. In my next blog I will be further exploring the role of play, passion, and purpose in school science through the eyes of the eight Competent Learners participants already mentioned.