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February 28, 2017

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Innovations on the science fair format

“COMING to an exhibition hall near you. A thriller you will not want to miss. Individuals in the pursuit of excellence, desiring to push the balance of life as we know it. To go where no human has gone before!”

Is this how you would describe the last science fair you experienced? Perhaps it is, but often it is not. The “science fairs” of today are more varied than ever, opening up the world of science, engineering, and making to students across the globe.

There is a good chance that the science fair you remember resembles the first fair in 1942 when the world was in the midst of World War II. In a quest for top high school science talent, The Science Talent Search made its grand debut — although it was probably only back-of-the-paper news. Throughout the 1950s the science fair concept caught on and spread into the halls of thousands of schools. The traditional science fair mainstays include the properly formatted display board, a visual representation of the scientific process, and a fierce competition for awards.

The stereotypical science student stiffly standing alongside a properly formatted display board, articulating the hypotheses, experimental procedures, data collection, probable conclusion, explanation of errors, and extensions may come to mind. This linear approach is what many of today’s adults envision when they hear the phrase “science fair.” Although it continues to serve a particular audience and purpose, it alone cannot reach all students. The purpose, pace and variety of science fairs is accelerating inside and outside of the classroom.

Today, tens of thousands of science fairs occur around the globe in multiple flavors, for varied purposes. Some have online formats like the Google Science Fair, others are high stakes like the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, and many are small localized events. These fairs have evolved within and outside of the classrooms at a surprisingly fast pace.

I would like to expand on three of these science fair-like events that I have been involved in: mini maker fairs, robotics’ fairs, and science and engineering fairs. Each has its own unique flavor, purpose, and audience.

The advancement of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education and the igniting of passion for science in participants are two of the most significant common threads binding them together under the science fair umbrella.

There are a variety of “maker fair” formats to fit the tastes and goals of any school or organization. Its main focus is to create a sharing and noncompetitive environment of learning. It is festive, full of color, and involves makers sharing their passions with others, often through interactive booths. Maker is a term that has been defined by the maker movement of late; it is a do-it-yourself-person that likes to create and build for no other reason than to satisfy their own passion. Maker fairs lack rigidity and therefore an observer will see a mishmash of booths ranging across a variety of themes — including hacking, technology and computers, robotics, colossal art creations, music, acting, metal and wood work.

Robotics fairs range from workshops to competitions. The workshop format brings students together to learn how to code and build. Often the coding is learned in the context of solving how to meet performance expectations on robotics boards. Collaboration is highly encouraged and students work together to solve a mission or task. Alternatively, a more competitive fair-like competition would be a tournament format similar to First LEGO League. Student teams work together to compete in various local, regional, national, and international tournaments in which advancement is based upon combined scores in programming and design, research, core values (team work), and robot performance. Its four areas of emphasis represent the components of any real-world engineering team.

Science and engineering fairs are another science fair format. Unlike the traditional science fair, the science and engineering format does not assign awards and is generally non-competitive; although, grades are generally assigned to booths. This format is more similar to the traditional science fair than the previous fairs discussed. Students extend their understanding of the science and engineering processes to independent investigations. Teams choose a topic they are interested in, research it, then ask a question (if a science investigation) or define a problem (if an engineering investigation). Students then use scientific and engineering design processes to guide them through their experiment or design.

The Expo Day is an occasion to celebrate their investigations; students throughout the school and parents are invited to see the exhibits that usually have a traditional display board as their centerpiece.

These are just a few examples of science fair-like formats that can be incorporated into any school. Science needs to be hands-on, authentic, skill based, and challenging. A recent article from US News, titled “Stem Education — It’s Elementary,” discusses the importance of exposing students to STEM learning.

In the US, one-third of fourth grade students have lost interest in STEM subjects and by the time they reach eighth grade it has risen to 50 percent. Science fairs — no matter the format — have the potential to change these sobering statistics.

As a science teacher, I have personally witnessed increased student passion and engagement for not only learning science, but all things STEM. While the science fair is the end result, the learning along the way is what prepares our students for next-generation jobs. So next time you hear about a science fair near you, consider attending; or, if you are a student, participating! It may be completely different from any you have experienced before.


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