The science fair conundrum


Back when I lived in Philadelphia, I used to judge a couple of science fairs every year. It was a discouraging experience.

You’d go through the exhibits with a partner and a checklist, and, for instance, you’d see some kid who’d put together something with duct tape and string and a couple of sad looking plants next to a kid who’d had connections at UPenn and had used a sequencer, a confocal microscope, and a battery of fluorescent probes to put together a gigantic shiny display of images so bright they glistened. Guess who’d win? And it was sad because sometimes the kid with the simple experiment done with homemade gadgets had been more creative and curious and true to the spirit of the science than the kid who’d been fed some high-tech gadgetry and pooped out an answer.

Carl Zimmer is similarly concerned. Too often science fairs get sidetracked into celebrating the mindless use of expensive instruments over the business of thinking like a scientist.

If I were a public school teacher trying to get students involved in a science fair, I know what I would do.

My idea is inspired by those pinewood derby contests we’d do every year in the Boy Scouts. Have an official kit with rules on what you can and cannot do, to limit excess and make the competition fair.

I would put together a collection of general construction materials and tools: cardboard and duct tape, of course, but also balsa wood, string, colored paper, cellophane (different colors), dowels, scissors, a hobby saw, that sort of thing.

I would also assemble some measurement devices: rulers, thermometers, light meters, pH paper, protractors, hand lenses.

I’d have a list of basic supplies: simple chemicals, magnets, 9v batteries, small invertebrates (fruit flies, for instance), seeds, etc.

I would give the students a list of all of these things, and tell them to design an experiment within the limitations of their supplies. Note that electron microscopes and NMR spectrometers are not available. They’d be allowed to purchase some additional special purpose supplies, but with a limit of $10 (too much? OK, $5) — so, for instance, if they wanted to measure the diameter of soap bubbles produced by commercial dishwashing detergents, they’d be allowed to buy a couple of bottles. The whole point would be to keep everything simple and on a level playing field.

Then they’d have to write a proposal with, first and foremost, the question they’re trying to answer, and a description of how they’d answer it, with diagrams of their apparatus or protocol. The emphasis would be on creatively answering a question about the natural world, rather than on getting an assistantship at a well-equipped professional lab.

Unfortunately, I don’t think they’d be able to win a prestigious prize from Google with those limitations, but they’d learn a heck of a lot more about the real core of science.


  1. carlie says

    I applaud the concept, but that would be tackling it from the wrong end. There’s so much variety in science fair experiments, especially in the ones I judge where psychology and engineering and bio and chem and physics and everything are all thrown in one big heap. And where do you draw the line as to what is too much outside help? I saw one memorable test wherein a student tested 1st graders on how food tastes depending on what color it is – she was able to do it because she had a sibling in 1st grade and the teacher said ok. Access to a 1st grade class isn’t available to everyone either, but that’s a whole different league than the kid whose parent works at a university and they have all the labs to pick from.

    It might make more sense to tighten the rubrics for judging, and make those focused only on things like where the student got the idea, how they developed the question, where they looked for sources of error, etc. That’s how I personally judge, but if those were emphasized from the beginning it would teach students more about the totality of the scientific process and help put everyone on the same footing

  2. Onamission5 says

    My kids’ elementary had a friendly competition of sorts between third grade classes, where they’d pick from a handful of different experiments proposed by the kids, each class would divide into small groups, those groups would form a hypothesis, decide on an approach, and then test it. The one I remember most clearly was when they tested assorted durability claims from toilet tissue brands, along the lines of what you see in commercials with the water and a weight. The kids wrote out their experiments story board style and posted the results in the hallways, for peer review, if you will.

    I thought it a cute and reasonably effective manner for introducing kids to the scientific method in action. They all worked on basically the same thing with the same materials, but there were different approaches amongst the groups.

  3. bozee says

    Makes me think of a small school’s 7th grade through 12th grade science fair I judged many years ago in Baton Rouge, Louisiana when I was a planetarium director. I was the sole judge, and I waded through all the demonstrations–not actual experiments–with “I don’t know” the predominant answer to any of my questions to the entrants about how they had come up with their project. Most of the kids were just putting up elaborate (or not) explanations of science or engineering facts, obviously heavily assisted by their parent(s). All the kids were absolutely oblivious to the scientific method. I finally came to a very simple setup by a 7th grader based only on observation of her two-year-old sister’s behavior.

    I forget the details after 30 years, but this student had come up with an interesting hypothesis about her sister’s behavior, had tested it thoroughly, and came up with a definitive result that well explained how the hypothesis had been supported with her conclusion. I felt a little strange awarding first place to the very youngest entrant, above the many juniors and seniors who had entered, but she had done everything I was looking for in a science fair project.

    Although I don’t remember the details of the project, I’ll always remember the beaming face of the student as I handed her the award and explained to all the other entrants just why she had won with a project I know she spent less than $10 completing. I wish I had checked back to see if the student had gone on to a STEM career, but I’m hoping I may have given her a boost into that world.

  4. whheydt says

    My some (now in his 40s) used to complain that the science fair winner was easy to predict . It was whoever dissected a cows heart. On the other hand, he seriously disturbed a couple of physicists by how close he came to designing what would have been a working nuclear bomb if he could have obtained the fissionable. (His figure for the critical mass was off by about a factor of two…he was in grade school at the time.)

  5. carlie says

    Another possibility is to say fuck the whole “best of” thing entirely. One of the science fairs I judge is simply a total score for each student independently. So, they get a 1st place ribbon if they score above 90%, 2nd place if they score between 80-90, etc. There are sometimes also special categories for “most creative” or “best use of the scientific method” and such, but mainly it’s about being judged by a standard rather than a curve.

  6. Kaintukee Bob says

    @5: a factor of two high or low?

    One of those is a problem. The other is a BIG problem.

  7. alanuk says

    “We’ve got no money, so we’ve got to think.”

    Good advice for any aspiring Ernest Rutherford who would presumably win any science fair.

  8. Rich Woods says

    @Kaintukee Bob #7:

    The other is a BIG problem.

    It’s only a BIG problem if there’s an initiator, but it would still be a bigger problem than the big problem.

  9. tdozer says

    Ironically, my own pinewood derby experience in the ’90s was basically the kid-with-UPenn-connections problem. I grew up not too far from the proving grounds of one of the Big Three automakers in Michigan, and some of the Cub Scout parents who worked there would take the pinewood derby cars in to the wind tunnel or whatever and run production-level tests on them to refine the design.

    I don’t know if that was strictly allowed by the rules… but I’m certain any rules forbidding that kind of thing weren’t enforced, either because the rules weren’t well understood by the organizers or because the organizers were some of the worst offenders.

    That’s not to say the idea is wrong. But getting buy-in, especially from parents, for the idea that something should be an even playing field is surprisingly hard.

  10. mareap says

    This as been on my mind since last week. I judged both projects and papers in the middle and high school behavioral & social sciences category at the MN state science fair. It was obvious from the get go who had had access to 3M, Mayo, UM, labs and who had done their work from, in some cases literal, barns. The hardest part as a judge was to see past the glitz to the real science beneath. Utterly exhausting.

  11. says

    I’d get students to explore the placebo effect or measure whether there are inherent differences in how non college undergrads respond to psych batteries. There are opportunities for publishable non-results. Get the kids to do actual valuable work.

  12. Doc Bill says

    Years ago when I helped judge science fairs I noticed this little girl, 5th grader, I think, who appeared to have been overlooked. She didn’t have much of a display – what looked like bits of cardboard and onions. But, I stopped and asked her about her project.

    She had experimented with making composite materials with onion skins. She dried onions, shredded them, chopped them, mixed them with all sorts of stuff and tested the strength by dropping fishing weights. She had a 3-5x magnifying glass and that was about it.

    I reported back to the Finals judging team that they needed to check out the onion project and, all’s well that ends well, she earned top honors in her age group and top honors in her category: engineering.

    What’s shocking to me is that she’s around 40 now! I wonder if she became an engineer.

  13. says

    I’d get students to explore the placebo effect or measure whether there are inherent differences in how non college undergrads respond to psych batteries. There are opportunities for publishable non-results. Get the kids to do actual valuable work. Start a “destroy the social sciences by trying to replicate their bullshit” program. (Strokes his Blofeld-cat)

  14. Dutchgirl says

    As an A++ science student I loathes science fair. My physicist dad gave me almost no help, since he thought this project was supposed to be uncoached (it said so in the rules) school gave no help (or time) and yes the winners were the ones with the connections and fancy equipment. *shudder* I always wanted to be a scientist but it was crap this that and no mentorship in uni that turned into a… theater major.

  15. bcwebb says

    I agree, my company has been involved in judging and I’ve seen the same problem with professional access producing glossy but less real projects. Which is better: the project with the fancy hardware or the kid who filled buckets with different sand/mud/silt/gravel/diatomaceous-earth/charcoal stackings; ran sewage with different levels of “compositional accuracy;” and measured visibility distances to identify the best filtering materials. Not real complex but he had data on a zero budget and a reasonable understanding.

    What was still more exciting was the year the research dept judged one day and headquarters the other – headquarters sent their no-science administrative assistants, who may(?) have been related to some of the contestants. They actually all voted for the kid who stuck some wires, a switch and magnets into a pair of running shoes; showed a video, of his feet-only, with his feet lifting off the ground and claimed he had a pair of antigravity boots. One scientist happened to chat with him separately of the judging, wherein he refused to demonstrate the boots, first because he said he had hurt himself in an earlier demo and then that he couldn’t turn it on because the magnetic fields would put out the building power. The one scientist had to overrule all of the admins. Had that not happened the result would have made for some great company press – “my company gives first prize to antigravity boots.”

    Phases of the moon is a popular descriptive mid-school science project – so if you see a partial the moon setting in the early evening will it be bigger or smaller on the next day? What time does a full moon rise? These questions are actually useful in real life but never covered in school. You can figure them out from first principles.

  16. says

    It’s been like this for ages. Back around the turn of the century, I spent a summer in my dad’s college room-mate’s lab – mostly following around a post-doc and causing trouble. But I wound up at the county science fair, where I was put next to someone with an interesting project (something about restoring old manuscripts IIRC) that was clearly his work, and also clearly done in his kitchen with household items. I should have told the judges to give it to that guy, and I’m still ashamed that I didn’t, because he deserved it much more than I did.

    I was also close enough to listen to another student attempt to explain “their” project – and it was painfully clear how little they understood. But their dad was a professor, so the project was quite impressive anyway. This person won their category, and ended up with honors in ISEF / Intel.

    So yeah, never had much respect for science fairs. Which is a shame, because they could be useful experiences.

  17. robro says

    I can just imagine the helicopter parents swooping in to squash your brazen ideas, PZ. My son’s 3rd grade teacher was new and full of ideas. She wanted to focus the kids on self-expression and not worry about technical details like spelling. It was a fitting model for a school using creative arts to stimulate learning. Whoa! No way. The parents wanted spelling tests, well, one of them insistent her daughter wanted spelling tests…really? an 8/9 year old wants spelling tests? The teacher and I lost that debate.

  18. Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says

    She wanted to focus the kids on self-expression and not worry about technical details like spelling.


  19. ck, the Irate Lump says

    robro wrote:

    The parents wanted spelling tests, well, one of them insistent her daughter wanted spelling tests…really? an 8/9 year old wants spelling tests?

    That doesn’t seem all that far fetched to me. Children can be just as resistant to change as adults. Spelling tests could be familiar, even comfortable, to this child, and she may want to return to those meaningless drills. I’m certainly not saying that such resistance is right or good in this case, only that it’s understandable.

    Sadly, given the explosion in reliance on standardized testing, spelling drills might actually be the right choice, but that’s a slightly different topic.

  20. leerudolph says

    My idea is inspired by those pinewood derby contests we’d do every year in the Boy Scouts. Have an official kit with rules on what you can and cannot do, to limit excess and make the competition fair.

    One of the engineering classes at MIT—I want to say that the variety of engineering is mechanical engineering, and the class is something like “strength of materials”—has an exam-like event (or an event-like exam?) every year, in which small teams of students are given just such a kit and (minimal) set of rules, with which to solve some given task; prototypically, packaging a fresh hen’s egg (or maybe a dozen eggs?) in such a way that the package can be thrown off the top of a tall campus building (I want to say, the Green Building) and the egg(s) can be recovered intact on the ground. I’ve always wished I had taken a class like that.

  21. says

    Our local skeptics club gives some critical thinking awards at science fairs, and our main criterion is the kid’s thinking and understanding. We often seem to give an award to at least one kid whose results didn’t support their hypothesis, and who owns up to it.

  22. centriole says

    My children are now both in college, but they went all the way though from 6th (or 3rd, as a tag-a-long) to 12th grade in Science Olympiad, which I’ve coached for a decade. You typically end up spending a couple of hours a week (at least) working on one of 23 science or engineering topics. This year I taught epidemiology (happens every year), cell biology (rotates, next year will probably be microbiology), protein modeling, wind power, and wave physics to middle school and high school students.

    I do have some gripes; in particular, there is no event that directly confronts the ‘E’ word (although of course one can’t really teach anything in biology without going there *all* the time), and the computer science events need some depth – (“Scratch”?) – as in any organization there are conflicts and differences of opinion – but all in all I’ve seen a lot of students get to learn far more science and engineering than the local school system was able to offer.

    It takes a lot of time and effort from both the students and their parents and coaches to be “competitive” (that is, go to the State or National tournament) – but really it’s more about having a reason to spend every Saturday afternoon or Tuesday evening talking to a bunch of motivated kids about the cytoskeleton or CRISPR/Cas or serotonin channels. (Or building planes or cars or robots)

    The national site is here:
    and the Protein Modeling home page is here:

    The National competition is in Madison this year:

  23. auntbenjy says

    robro @ 19

    …one of them insistent her daughter wanted spelling tests…really?

    Actually I can imagine this. My son is autistic, and he loves spelling tests. It’s one thing he gets to be better at than the other kids in his class.

    With regard to access to labs and equipment, my son would have to be 16 before he could have access to either my or my husband’s labs at work due to safety regs. If the rules are similar in the USA, it would imply that the parent/s did most of the work on the project.

  24. Mrdead Inmypocket says

    Oh boy science fair anecdotes! Awe maaaan. I don’t see any “I blew something up and was never allowed to participate in a science fair again” stories.

  25. says

    I read Carl Zimmers blog piece and am astounded at the effect of the safety police on the natural curiosity of children. Most of the great experiments I did as a high school student are now banned. It carries across into the workplace. I was once asked to do a risk assessment and write out a detailed set of instructions so I could repair a pump which contained 5% acetic acid, (basically vinegar). That took longer than the five minutes to flush the pump out with water and disconnect the hoses.

    The privilege complaint is valid too. My former boss asked me to do some work in my lab to assist his son with a school science project. Probably fair enough since some of the sample processing required some skill and the equipment could be dangerous if mishandled. I am now retired and living in Malaysia and a group of engineers and scientists run a school engineering and science fair every year. To give students maximum encouragement and chance of success they have a team of mentors to provide advice and assistance to the participants. These can help source hard to get materials and equipment but mostly it is the mentoring that gives the most benefit.

  26. says

    As I was reading this post I was absentmindedly mounting up a Raspberry Pi Zero in a tiny case, a full bore 1 GHz Linux workstation with 40 pins of general purpose IO, HDMI and USB that runs $5, and had a $35 Pi 3 in arm’s reach. We would have given our eye teeth with equipment with a fraction of that capability when I was in grad school for Physics! The same goes for the RTL-SDR dongles, accessible 3d printers or even smartphones and cheap ~$40 tablets. We have a new golden age of citizen science going on in the maker community which should translate to astounding science fair projects, that could be doing real science. More importantly it should be translating to STEM hobbies for which the science fair is just an afterthought, not an end in itself.
    My take on science fairs is to introduce a two pronged set of parallel events, the first consisting of mini-maker faires with an emphasis on diy and cross pollination rather than competition, with some best picks or highlights “awards”. A kid who mindlessly relied on university or corporate research assets would be marginalized. Although parents, universities, and corporations with assets could be entices to spread around and donate their resources. The second would consist of developing world and/or green tech fairs, where science fair level tech can have a distinct impact. For example, simple “toy” lenses combined with 3d printed assemblies have been used vision testing and retinal exams as well as useful microscopes. Once again an emphasis on the use of ubiquitous and commercial off the shelf materials would be valued over university connections.

  27. davidw says

    I actually *stopped* judging science fairs because of this very issue, even going so far as to stop participating in the organizing committee for our regional fair that fed directly into the ISEF (which I judged at twice). It’s very disheartening to see the unlevel playing field between those students who have connections with fancy labs and those students who don’t. One of the arguments in support of this status quo is “Well, when you interview the students you get a chance to see what they REALLY know”. That’s bull. Virtually anyone with access to a superior environment will pick up more than the person will access to just Scotch tape. It reminds me of a similar situation with state universities, a sort of “them that has, gets” attitude – the big, rich schools get bigger and richer, and the lesser institutions get less. OK, I’m done ranting.

  28. kaleberg says

    This is not a new problem. If you read Rocket Boys or saw the movie, you’d remember that one of the points was that there was a great disparity in materials and levels of professionalism in science fair presentations even back in the 1960s. Inspired by the Scientific American paper airplane contest I won honorable mention for my paper airplane wind tunnel made out of a fan, a lot of cardboard and some hangers. All I can say here is that I wish I had had duct tape. I had to use Scotch tape and staples.

    The MIT contest is an annual event started by Professor Cook in the mechanical engineering department back in the early 1970s. The first contest was to see how far you could get a contraption to go using just one mouse trap spring as the prime mover. Everyone had a materials budget, and there were some clever approaches. Professor Cook’s daughter, an undergraduate at the time, was the first winner. I think the course is still given and the contest is still being held.

    I think it’s a great idea having a few contests with limited resources and a common goal. I also like the general idea of a science fair, but I understand that judging them is hard work. A friend of mine was on the judging team for one of them and noted that an awful lot of the projects were demonstrations, not research. As a scientist, my bias is towards the latter, but scientific demonstrations are important in their own way. If nothing else, they help people figure out how scientists manage to do what they do.

  29. says

    Man, growing up in Los Alamos has definitely skewed my thoughts on this one. You could find stuff in the junk shop that other places’ “dad with connections” would kill for. Neat for kids interested in going out and tinkering with that stuff, but from the perspective of making a competition I can see the argument for limiting it.