Science Fairs 2.0

The science fair is a nearly century-old right of passage for students. What role does the traditional science fair play in the digital age? How can these competitions be reworked to include broader participation and encourage students, and teachers, to explore hands-on learning?

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JOHN DANKOSKY, HOST:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm John Dankosky. Ira Flatow is away. For many people, their own science fair project was a rite of passage made late at night over the kitchen table. The first Westinghouse science fair was put on back in 1942, more than 70 years ago, and they've come a long way from the exploding baking soda volcano we might remember.

Now, today the top contenders in the biggest competitions are researching things like biofuels and better cancer treatments and they're winning prizes in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. But overall, participation in high school science fairs is decreasing. So is it time to experiment with the science fair formula? How do we get students interested in participating and what might the fairs look like in the next 70 years?

You can give us a call, 1-800-989-8255, that's 1-800-989-TALK. If you're on Twitter you can Tweet us your questions by writing the @ sign followed by scifri. If you want more information what we'll be talking about this hour you can go to our website, www.sciencefriday.com, where you will find links to your topic.

Now let me bring in our guests. Michele Glidden is director of science education programs at the Society for Science in the Public. Hello, Michele.

MICHELE GLIDDEN: Hello.

DANKOSKY: Peter Rillero is associate professor of science education at Arizona State University in Phoenix. Welcome.

PETER RILLERO: Hello.

DANKOSKY: And Mary Lou Jepsen is head of Display Division, Google X and a judge for this year's Google Science Fair. Hi Mary Lou.

MARY LOU JEPSEN: Hi, thanks for having me.

DANKOSKY: So first of all, Michele Glidden, in some states there are really strong local science fairs but in some areas they're actually losing their fairs. What can you tell us about this? Who's responsible for putting on science fairs in most communities?

GLIDDEN: There are about 350 fairs that are affiliated with the Society for Science in the Public around the country. Forty-seven of the states of the United States are represented, and as you say, states such as Texas, California, Florida, have a lot of science fair in them. Other states struggle a little bit. I think it does have to do with the funding, the corporate sponsorship and the school support for science generally.

And as any independent system, there are stronger systems than some of the others, but all of them have a chance to bring their best and brightest to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

DANKOSKY: When you talk about corporate sponsorship, you're talking about ones like the State Fair of Texas sponsored by Exxon, so there's some pretty big corporations. I would assume that when these corporations are doing well, there is more sponsorship for science fairs and during an economic downturn maybe they lose some funding.

GLIDDEN: Absolutely. I think the funding cycle is such of that nature. The Broadcoms and the Intels of the world have, through their sponsorship of our programs, obviously provide a sustained funding, but some aren't quite as able to be so stable.

DANKOSKY: So then outside of these local science fairs are the statewide science fairs. There's the Google Science Fair, so Mary Lou, why did Google want to start a science fair of its own?

JEPSEN: Google wanted to scale science fairs and so it put the science fair, a simple template online that could allow people all over the world to enter, so we get thousands of entries from 120 different countries by basically putting a simple online template up, which includes sort of, you know, a template question, proposal area, the methodology, your results, conclusion and so forth.

And then access to really easy to use tools to create a video and sci-presentation using a lot of the Google tools. And that's allowed - we think it's a scale from just, you know, I guess if we look at it the Google Science Fair, we hope, makes the Web the new Styrofoam board and Petri dishes of the old science fairs.

DANKOSKY: So you think it is changing, the type of science fair that's out there, and the sorts of scientific exploration that kids are doing?

JEPSEN: Yeah, and it's scaling. It's three years into it, even in the first year it became the largest science fair in the world because we're using the Web to allow, you know, look. Talent is universal. There's one mind per kid per person. The opportunity is not. So how do you scale it to get the scientific - the news about the scientific method and approach out as globally as we can?

And so Google is using that platform because Google, you know, all Silicon Valley where I'm sitting today, most of the companies were founded through experimentation. It's deeply valued by, you know, most companies in technology and we want to instill that in the next generation.

DANKOSKY: And Peter Rillero, you think that there's room for both these new types of science fairs that Google's putting on and the ones that we still see in our local communities today?

RILLERO: Yeah, I'm excited by the possibilities and, you know, science fairs have certain problems but I think they're a great thing. They're part of our culture. You could say that if you want a good dose of Americana, you can go to a Friday night football game, or you can go to a local science fair and I think you'd probably find out more about American lives by looking at the science projects that kids do.

The first science fair were started in United States, but there's become a culture of other nations, so it's nice to see that Google's expanding out that way as Intel ISEF has for a long time. You look at a country like Ireland, which has a wonderful national tradition for science fairs and the way that it all started was they happened to have two professors come to New Mexico and they just by chance happened to come to a local science fair. They looked at it and they said wow that's really good. And they brought it back to Ireland.

So I do see the science fairs have a big role. I think one of the big issues of science fairs is the whole idea of full inquiry, and by full inquiry we mean that students will choose their own projects, they design the investigation, they conduct the investigation, they analyze the data, and they communicate the results.

And I think when you ask people in their K-12 experience, and I go in front of groups and I say how many people as part of their K-12 education have done a full inquiry investigation. Usually it's only about one out of every 30 people have done it. And then I ask in what context have you done it, and it's usually the case that they did their science research to enter it into a science fair.

DANKOSKY: I want to get to a phone call here. Dixon(ph) is calling from Louisville, Kentucky. Hi Dixon. Dixon, you're on the air. Maybe we'll put Dixon on hold and see if we can get him back. I think one of the things that Dixon wanted to talk about though is something I know that you've been thinking about, Peter, is how standardized testing, how the way we educate today has maybe affected science fairs. What do you think?

RILLERO: I think oftentimes teachers will say oh we don't have time for such things because of a standardized testing, but I think one of the important aspects of standardized testing, good tests, are testing students' ability in inquiry as very difficult to acquire these skills in any way except by doing inquiry. And one of the things that some people might raise the question is in terms of competition and I'm all for competition in the higher grades, but at the lower grades I started a standard based science fair for K-8 grades. And the idea is that students don't compete against other students to see if they're successful, but they compete against a set of standards of inquiry.

So the question changes to how good are you at doing inquiry rather than which project is the best. And I think students are given a rubric and each year they can see how well they did in certain areas, and where they need to improve in others, and it really does, at the elementary level, relax the parents who are very competitive because they realize that many students can and get top honors for their science fair.

And it also prevents the problem of sometimes you have some parents who get overly involved and do way too much. And in some traditional science fairs, that means the other students don't win because (technical difficulty) but in this case in a standards-based science fair, all students can achieve the top honors if they have a high enough level of inquiry and the positive result is that students see science as something for everybody, not just an elite few.

DANKOSKY: Michele, what do you think about this idea? If we took a little bit of the competition out of it and made it more about the exploration, more about this inquiry, does it make for a better science fair?

GLIDDEN: I think there is room for both approaches. You know, I think that competition, even at the middle school level, we have a national competition, the Broadcom Masters, that takes the best of their local science fair, provides a written application process, and then they have a national forum to compete in and they can declare themselves to be among a national elite group.

And the confidence that those middle school students gain is not to be unweighted. I certainly don't disagree that some students aren't set up or aren't as interested in competition, but I think for those who are and are inspired by it, we should afford them the opportunity as well.

DANKOSKY: If you have questions or thoughts about the science fair, 1-800-989-8255, that's 1-800-989-TALK. Megan is calling from Pittsburgh, PA. Hi, Megan.

MEGAN: Hi there, how are you?

DANKOSKY: Doing well. What's on your mind?

MEGAN: Yeah, I just wanted to comment that the school district that my children attend, in order for them to participate in the science fair, they actually have to be a member of the gifted program, so any child that's just curious or has a natural inclination towards science and solving problems, they're excluded.

DANKOSKY: Hmm. So okay, so Peter, what do you think about this?

RILLERO: I don't like that idea.

MEGAN: Me neither.

RILLERO: It also raises the question, should teachers require all students to do science research projects, and I think the benefits of doing science research projects in terms of full inquiry and in terms of understanding science, really all students should do science research projects. One of the things that I was able to do, I traveled around to exemplary science programs in a grant by Intel and one of the places I went to was Marlboro, Massachusetts, and there every student in every grade in the high school does a science research project.

And as you can imagine, some students don't really like to be told what to do, so one of the moms came and talked to the science department chair and she said, Hey, my son did a project last year, I don't think he should do a science research project this year. And I liked the chair's response. He said, well, your son wrote an essay in language arts last year. Does that mean that they shouldn't write an essay in language arts this year?

And I think the more that we can make research a normal part of science education, the more powerful our science education will be.

DANKOSKY: Megan, thank you very much for your phone call.

MEGAN: Thank you.

DANKOSKY: In just a minute we're going to be talking more about these online science fairs, like the one that Google runs, but Michele Glidden, tell us more about the Intel science fair. It's, in some ways, the old fashioned science fair, the one that we kind of grew up with. What's good about this format, maintaining this?

GLIDDEN: Well, I think that there's a tradition and a tried and true to that tradition in that students have an opportunity to compete locally, to advance through tiers of competition. Intel - when they're at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair you bring together 1,600 of the brightest high school students from around the world. The Intel ISEF currently represents 70 plus countries and then they compete to win, you know, up to $3 million annually with - of awards and prizes, often to support their higher education.

It's a high school competition. Our competitions also branch out into the middle school again with the Broadcom Masters, but generally doing science fair in the classic model allows for peer to peer interaction, as you see and meet like-minded students. We've heard lots from the finalists of how impactful that was on their future and on recognizing that maybe they're unique in their own neighborhood but Intel ISEF, they've got a lot of like-minded students.

DANKOSKY: Well, one thing we want to find out about more like-minded students the world round, we'll be talking about a Google science fair. Right back after this short break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DANKOSKY: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, I'm John Dankosky. we're talking this hour about science fairs and how they're changing. Michele Glidden is here. She's director of science education programs at the Society for Science in the Public. Peter Rillero is associate professor of science education at Arizona State University in Phoenix; and Mary Lou Jepsen is head of Display Division, Google X, and a judge for this year's Google Science Fair.

So tell us more about the benefits of having one of these online science fairs, Mary Lou. Why is it such a good idea?

JEPSEN: Because it scales. We can hit more kids this way. It's somewhat fundamental. And to sort of underline what Michele and Peter have been saying, everything they're saying but more. We can create community of kids no matter what you - you're interesting in ants, you're interested in lasers. You can connect more with them.

And by putting your dossiers online, connect more with internship programs and so forth because people can, you know, Google you or use another search engine. That's fine too. But you're more discoverable as well. And so we can use the technology of our day to become more interconnected in the areas of our interest, so we can access more kids, we can get more kids into the scientific method and learning by experimentation.

Learning by doing is very valuable. Doing science is light years better than just reading about science or taking tests about science. If you look at the great, you know, experimentalists, the great, you know, technology companies, you can start a company when you're 13 this way. You know, you can really do incredible things.

DANKOSKY: Well, I want to bring on...

JEPSEN: So what we're trying to do...

DANKOSKY: I actually want to bring on one of the Google finalists. Ann Makosinski is one of the finalist in this year's Google Science Fair. Ann, welcome to our show.

ANN MAKOSINSKI: Hello, thank you for having me.

DANKOSKY: So describe your project for us.

MAKOSINSKI: For my project I created a flashlight that runs solely on the heat of the human hand.

DANKOSKY: Okay. So how does it work?

MAKOSINSKI: To harvest the heat, I used Peltier tiles on the Seebeck Effect, and if you heat one side of these tiles and cool the other, electricity will be produced. So in my case I heated one side with the palm of my hand and I cooled the other side with just the ambient air and they sort of heat sync.

DANKOSKY: So how'd you come up with this project? Why this idea?

MAKOSINSKI: Well, I think just the Internet has so much resources available for us and not enough of our youth is taking advantage of all the information around us, so I know - I've always done the regional local science fairs since Grade 6 so this year I wanted to find a way of harvesting human heat because I'm interested in, you know, getting alternative energy sources, so it was just kind of just me kind of looking up different ways of harvesting energy on the Internet and a compilation of my ideas on past projects.

DANKOSKY: A lot of the students who I looked at, their projects around the world in this Google contest, it seems, though, like you, you have - you have a fairly complex idea, but you have a pretty simple idea behind it, which is I want to solve a problem. I think we're using too many batteries. One of the things I like about your project, Ann, is you're just trying to solve a very simple problem here.

MAKOSINSKI: Um-hum. Yes, I think batteries are so bad and we just rely on them so much. And I just think we need to find a way, because we don't dispose of them very well, they have very bad chemicals in them. If we could just find a way, maybe start at a small step with eliminating batteries perhaps in small electronic devices, and then possibly in the future go bigger, that would be great.

DANKOSKY: Well, Ann Makosinski, thank you so much. Good luck to you in the Google Science Fair.

MAKOSINSKI: Thank you so much.

DANKOSKY: The winners of this year's fair will be announced this Monday. Now, Mary Lou, one of the Google finalists is a girl from Turkey. She's making bio plastics out of banana peels. I thought it was a really interesting idea and she says that she wants to reduce the usage of petroleum products and recycled waste materials.

The thing about her video that struck me was her perseverance. She said that a lot of times she tried to get a result and she failed, and she failed and she failed. And she even quit her project for a while, but she stayed with it. I'm wondering how we can foster a sense that failure is a part of the scientific process here and actually make sure that kids understand that.

JEPSEN: I think we're doing that. I think it's a natural - yeah. How do we do that? I think that what we're judging in the Google science fair is a passion for science and she's certainly exhibiting it by sticking through it. She just wants it to work so hard and so she gets stuck and keeps going, and that's so true for any part of doing anything great. And so I think we're celebrating it in this. I think most science fairs celebrate it.

MAKOSINSKI: It's not like you magically put some awesome(ph) question and solve it off the bat. The reality is it takes months, it takes years sometimes to do it. So completely agree and I think that's what we're trying to celebrate. And that, and also beyond, you know, just the, you know, the judging criteria that we follow for the Google Science Fair, we're doing the judging this weekend, sort of Sunday and Monday, so that's why we announce Monday night, is you know, the components of the scientific method, but we all weigh these factors like the passion, the perseverance and if they have strong reasons for doing the project to begin with.

DANKOSKY: Peter, what do you think? Do you think we're teaching enough about failure in science fairs today?

RILLERO: I do. I think the whole process of student research, one of the things we want them to appreciate is how do we know what we know in science and see all the work and all the failures that lead to eventually having knowledge. One of the things that I'd like to point out about Ann is we did some - I worked on program evaluation of the Intel ISEF and we talked to some of the 1,200 finalists and we had them answer surveys and we asked what are the benefits of your science fair participation.

And I think Ann exemplifies that. The first one was to understand and be able to do inquiry; the second one was a knowledge of science; the third one was communication skills; and the fourth benefit might be a little surprising, but it's just overall confidence. And one of the things is I don't see science fairs or science research leading to science fairs as just for people who want to become professional scientists.

I see it as a benefit for everybody.

DANKOSKY: Let's go to Matthew, who's calling from Portage, Michigan. Hi there, Matthew. Go ahead.

MATTHEW: Yeah, I just graduated from a local magnet program that emphasized research in all four years of high school, but what I noticed about the public schools in my district is that there's very little opportunity for them to get into high quality labs. So I think that if local colleges and companies, for example, we had students working in labs at Pfizer, were to partner more with high schools, I think students would be able to get access to higher quality lab equipment and thus more of them could do science.

DANKOSKY: Thanks very much for that, Matthew. And Peter, I know this is something big. There's some students out there who have access to equipment and others who just don't and that's a big divide amongst kids who are entering science fairs right now.

RILLERO: Right. And, you know, I think it's a fabulous thing if students can go and work in a lab and be mentored by a professional scientist and the work that you see at Intel ISEF is just wonderful. But yet, sometimes I feel it's maybe a little unfair to people who don't have access to those research labs, and so - and part of me feels that it would be nice to judge them as separate categories, those students who were able to work in an outside lab and those students who were doing their work in their homes, garages or at schools.

DANKOSKY: Elizabeth is in New Haven, Connecticut. Hello there, Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH: Hi. I wanted to just make a quick comment as a women who did not go into science but went through the elementary school science fair project and into middle school as well. I was really struck as a child by how much the parents of my peers, especially my female peers, got involved in making a perfect project and they almost always won with their very perfect projects, and this is sad.

But when I went into high school and in college and I met women who had become scientists, many of them, through failures, as was mentioned earlier, really were inspired during their science projects. And I've wondered a lot about that comment now and in my life in general. How could you take someone, maybe parents are not scientists - maybe they are, but how do help people become, and especially women, become excited about what they're doing with their science fair projects, become passionate and also fail?

In other words, if it's part of their class or if it's extracurricular, how do they get introduced to the methodology and exhibit that passion when they don't have the background to know how to do it right, quote-unquote?

DANKOSKY: Thank you for the question. Michele Glidden, what do you think?

GLIDDEN: Well, I think part of inquiry and what all three of us have been talking about and agreeing, I believe, is the ownership of the project and a student's ability to address a problem in their neighborhood or try to find a solution to something that they're seeing or experiencing is often where the passion comes.

And I think that assigning students a science fair project is probably the worst thing that could happen because it is that ownership of the problem, of trying to find the solution, of perhaps, you know, facing failure in - either in what you hypothesized as what the answer was to be or in failure of process or procedure, but all of them being learning and hopefully driving a passion in your knowledge of an area that you expressed an interest in originally.

So I think that is really key, particularly, I think, maybe for the younger students, because high school students probably have a little bit more self-drive and understanding to help find a project.

DANKOSKY: Let's go to Watson(ph) in Knoxville. Hi there, Watson.

WATSON: Hey there. I was curious - I was sort of observing a science fair this spring, and I was just amazed at the diversity of sort of perspectives on what constitutes good science that were entering into this sort of sphere. Just between the kids, the parents, the teachers, there were Master's students who are studying physics who were there. And for such an objective thing, it was amazing how many - how much subjectivity was in there and to people's perceptions of what was good science. So I guess I was curious as to how you all saw all of these different ideas of what is science entering into this space and sort of mixing together.

DANKOSKY: Yeah. What is science, what is good science? I'll let you go first, Peter.

RILLERO: Thank you. So the first science fair was actually held in 1928 by the American Institute in - right there in New York City at the American Museum of Natural History. And it really started off as a display type of thing where students would put on these displays and - very relatively simple concepts, but very nice-looking displays. And teachers tried to move away from that and move it towards inquiry. And I think, by and large, they have succeeded. But you still see some remnants of that in terms of students making the volcanoes that we mentioned earlier...

(LAUGHTER)

RILLERO: ...or doing models of the solar system. But I think today the shift is towards students presenting their research rather than students building models. And I think that would be - my gold standard is students doing inquiry, presenting their research findings at science fairs.

DANKOSKY: Mary Lou, how about you?

JEPSEN: I think it's about creativity. I think there's more art in this, to address the women question as well. I think, you know, that's a way to pull the girls in. But I think that it's not about them - I agree with Peter that it's not about the model building, but it's about celebrating the creativity of the approach and the results. And basically why science fairs are important is we all stop learning when we stop asking the question why or why not. And this is another avenue for that to happen, to encourage the continued questioning through failure or success.

DANKOSKY: I want to get one more phone call because V.J.(ph) in Cleveland wants to talk about something that I was really interested in. Go ahead, V.J., quickly.

V.J.: Yeah. So I want to mention, you know, my daughter has been an ISEF finalist, but my two sons now are participating in Maker Faire New York right now. I am actually taking them right now. And Maker Faire and hackerspaces have mushroomed now in several cities, and I think they help fill the void, especially access to labs in universities, especially these - that not many of the bigger science fairs. And I think they provide an alternative there where even in urban areas with (unintelligible) like Detroit have big hackerspaces there that (unintelligible) any comments on that?

DANKOSKY: Well, it's a great question. Just quickly I'll say I'm John Dankosky, and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. Michele Glidden, how about Maker Faires, even robotics competitions? There are lots of alternatives right now to the traditional science fair. And V.J. is talking about some of them.

GLIDDEN: Absolutely, and I think that anything that engages students in doing inquiry and doing hands-on is to be applauded. And so I would say that while I think it's great that they compete in the Google and that they think about the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, they think about the Maker Faire, some - to the former caller's question, I think sometimes what is science and what are your - what is your emphasis, each competition might have - or activity might have a little bit different emphasis. And Maker Faire is obviously on invention and on much more of a display and a sharing of those ideas as opposed to competition. I think there's room for all of it as long as it's engaging students and citizens in science.

DANKOSKY: So Peter, I'll just give you the last word. What does a science fair look like in 50 years to you?

RILLERO: Well, that's a good question. What - one thing I would like to see is a online science research journal. So students, when they do their science research, they can present it at various modes of science fairs, but they can also publish it. And one of the weaknesses that we don't have now is we don't have student projects building upon student projects, because they're not aware of what somebody in California did if they live in Iowa. So I'd like to see somebody come up with that idea, so students can pursue their areas of interest. And then other students can look at what they've done and expand the knowledge and show that really science is about expanding what we know.

DANKOSKY: Peter Rillero is associate professor of science education at Arizona State University in Phoenix. Thanks so much, Peter.

RILLERO: Thank you.

DANKOSKY: Thanks also to Mary Lou Jepsen, head of display division at Google X and a judge for this year's Google Science Fair. They'll be announcing the winners coming up on Monday. Thanks, Mary Lou.

JEPSEN: Thanks. Thanks very much.

DANKOSKY: And thanks to Michele Glidden, who's director of science education programs at the Society for Science and the Public.

GLIDDEN: Thank you very much.

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