If you are a parent of an elementary or middle school child involved in science fair, you may be familiar with this recent post by a fellow parent. Susan Messina created a humorous, mock science fair poster describing the feelings that almost every parent experiences during their child's science fair project. In her post, she offers advice about how to improve the process for students and parents alike, with an emphasis on advice for fellow parents about how to keep their sanity.
In her opinion piece on Huffington Post Parents, she brings up a few good points. As someone who is actively involved in local science fairs, but am neither a parent, teacher or student, one of her points still resonates with me:
"First, any elementary school project that requires a lot of parental time, energy, resources, support, cajoling and financial investment is just BAD. Such projects privilege students from higher-income families for all the obvious reasons. They also take away from family time that families at all income levels have less of these days. And they definitely are a challenge for any students living with parents who cope with physical illness, mental illness and/or substance abuse."
After working with the regional science fair for the past two years*, I can say first-hand that the science fairs are much more accessible if a student is in a higher-income school. It is quite easy for someone to see how much time, energy, and work parents must put into their child's science fair project. For example, the school that hosts the science fair every year has few participants enter the regional science fair. This is not the fault of the hardworking folks who put on the science fair, nor the teachers, parents, or students. It seems that resources are just scarce for students who are interested in pursing extracurricular activities (time, money, help). Or perhaps, there just isn't an interest in pursing science fairs in some schools. As any scientist, I wanted some numbers (although from a small sample size). After surveying 7th grade science students from a local middle school that feeds into the high school with few participants in the fall of 2014, 42% of students said they would be interested in pursuing science projects outside of the classroom, while only 33% of those interested students have ever participated in extracurricular science projects (n=21). Therefore, who should be responsible for helping these students get involved? I think this might be a debate for another day, but this is a topic that I am interested in working on during my time in North Carolina.
I don't want this to negate the good that science fairs do, even if parents/teachers (and students) are often frustrated by the process. First of all, they give students a platform to complete a scientific project and potentially receive an award (either placing or receiving a monetary award). In addition, they prepare students for post-secondary education by forcing them to learn how to analytically think about a problem, come up with hypotheses, design and complete an experiment, troubleshoot, and draw conclusions. Most students are taught the scientific method in elementary and middle school, but science fair is a way for them to actually put it into practice.
I wouldn't have become a scientist had I not been "forced" to do science fair when I was in middle school. My parents were absolutely miserable. One year they drove me around to different gas stations so I could collect soil, and another they let me take their blood pressure after every meal (imagine a 7th grader trying to take your blood pressure). Maybe they knew it then, but it played a huge roll in sparking my interest in science and giving me the opportunity to see what scientists do. Susan Messina's post was hilarious and very true, but sometimes driving parents insane enables your child's dreams to come true.
*You might be wondering why I am writing a post about science fairs. Our regional science fair occurred two weeks ago. Over 250 students from grades 3-12 presented scientific and engineering based projects. The winners from this fair will advance to the NC State Science and Engineering Fair in March and will have he opportunity to advance to INTEL's International Science Fair.
Some friends from Duke Biology participated in the science fair at a "Meet a scientist" event. It was great to see young scientists hearing about research at the university level! Thanks to Eleanor Caves, Patrick Green, Britany Morgan, Karla Sosa, Lydia Greene, Chase Nunez, and Mathias Berger (Duke University Graduate Students).