Science Fair Educational Impacts – new findings for a new decade.
Posted January 8, 2020 by Joshua neubert
For over 60 years, science fairs have been an integral component of many student’s education. According to Science Buddies – a science fair support website – more than 10 million students now participate in science fairs annually. Science fair champions have gone on to become leaders in all types of industries. Educational proponents of science fairs tout their inspirational capabilities far and wide (we at ICS are among them). Yet many questions remain as to how much of an impact we can actually attribute to science fairs themselves? And what are the root causes of these impacts?
We are not alone in thinking about this question; however, there have been few rigorous, systematic studies of how science fairs boost kids’ interest in science and their ability to investigate interesting questions. In a recent literature review we came across one recently completed National Science Foundation funded study from the Educational Development Center, based in Waltham Massachusetts that focused specifically on these questions.
“Science Fairs Under the Scope” provided a systemic review of science fair structures and impacts on learning. The study concluded in 2018 after surveying middle school science teachers to better understand the variety of science fair models taking place and then gathering data from 21 science fairs across the country. The research team focused on three metrics: (1) if and how science fairs increase students’ interest in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) and/or STEM careers; (2) if and how participation in select models of middle school science fairs enhance students’ mastery of the science and engineering practices; and (3) what costs and resources are required to implement an effective middle school science fair.
So what did they find? Should science fairs be a required part of every student’s education? What kinds of resources, support, and structures are most important to help science fairs maximize their impact? The study broke out their findings into many areas; however of most importance to us are those related to the actual educational impact of the fairs. We summarize these for our readers below. Please note these summaries are our own but pull information directly from the study summaries.
- Understanding of science and engineering practices (SEPs)
The research team identified that when students are called upon to synthesize their work in order to prepare themselves for presentations, they are more likely to demonstrate gains in their understandings of science and engineering practices.
In other words, when teachers provided students with the opportunity to practice their presentations, or to “communicate about and evaluate their work” prior to meeting the judges, the students showed gains in their understanding of the science and engineering practices. This is an important piece of data to us because it demonstrates that having a more formal, dedicated process for reviewing the student’s work helps solidify their learning. This is not a new concept, but is great to see it come out in the data for the science fairs.
The second finding in this area was that students who “were able to present and defend their work and/or critique other students’ work made greater gains in SEP scores.” This was broken down into three critical separations: (1) students who had the primary responsibility for developing the topics, questions, and plans for their investigations; (2) students who had the opportunity to present their projects and respond to questions about them; and (3) students who were encouraged to evaluate their peers’ science fair projects and ask questions about their work. Most importantly, this study found that there was little effect on understanding of the SEPs for students simply enacting the investigations; however, there was a large effect from students who had the opportunity to present their project, and a moderate effect for students who were encourage to evaluate their peers. This demonstrate that a key and valuable component to the science fair is the ability for students to communicate and evaluate their work rather than just performing the research itself.
- Science Interest and Identity
The research also showed that both opportunities for student agency within the science fair and an emphasis on competition were related to gains in students’ science interest and identity, but importantly, these relationships varied for girls and boys.
When science fairs had a high emphasis on “competition,” boys demonstrated an increased interest in science careers compared to boys who participated in a science fair with a low emphasis on competition. On a cautionary note, in schools with a low emphasis on competition, boys’ interest in science careers decreased. Understanding why the interest in science careers decreases for boys in this situation should be an interesting opportunity for further study.
For girls, the research indicated that agency in showcasing their work had a significant positive association with the desire to do science. For boys, the competition had a marginally positive association with their desire to do science. So perhaps girls may benefit the most from showcasing their work, while boys are benefiting more from the challenge of competing against their peers.
The final finding of importance that was noted for the educational impact of science fairs involves self-concept. Girls who had greater agency in choosing their science fair topic and designing their investigation had a higher self-concept in science compared to girls who had less agency in these matters. Importantly, girls with low agency in choosing and guiding their projects saw their self-concept in science actually decrease. So an important aspect in designing science fairs and engaging girls in these programs is to make sure that they are able to lead the development of their own projects!
While these findings are in no means a comprehensive look at the impact of science fairs on the participating students, they do demonstrate some interesting areas for students, teachers, parents, and fair organizers to consider when setting up their programs. We will keep exploring the research for additional findings to help enhance everyone’s participation in these programs. Stay tuned tour newsletter for new information, and make sure to find and follow competitions of interest to you on your free ICS account!