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!
By now, most of us know that when it comes to getting into a good college it takes more than just making the grades and a high SAT score. Colleges like to know that there is more to you than just how well you can take tests. They want to see what kind of person you are and know well you can work under pressure. Can you think on your feet? How good are your problem-solving skills? What it really boils down to is this— are you a well-rounded person who can think? Can you problem-solve the challenges that are likely to come your way?
Luckily, this is where academic competitions really stand out. Science fairs are the standard STEM based competition that just about every middle and high school is involved in one way or another. At one point, nearly every student completes a science fair project these days. However, just like quarterbacks, pitchers, and sprinters, academic athletes shouldn’t just go out and jump into these competitions without preparation. To perform well takes meticulous training, careful preparation, and a lot of planning. So we put together four helpful tips to keep in mind as you prepare for your next round of science fairs! Following these tips can help you get jump-started and lead to a dramatic rise in your academic performance so that you will be the one getting noticed for future college and career opportunities.
First of All, Be Proactive.
If there is one thing that most of us mere mortals are prone to doing, it’s failing to realize when we need help. Youth are notoriously bad at this. When we’re young we want to prove that we can do it all on our own. We don’t realize that even the smartest among us need a helping hand. And when we’re young, having the right mentor can be the difference between just completing a competition, and getting to nationals. Mentors help us get over hurdles that we didn’t even know where there.
So the question is, how do you find the right mentor? Can’t our teachers be our mentors? Often-times yes. High School educators or local college or university professors can be great mentors. But students have to be proactive in seeking them out. Our educators are swamped with things to do. And if it looks like they just won’t have the time or ability to be a good mentor to you or your team, go beyond the school. There are many non-profit organizations in the STEM fields that are focused on providing quality mentors from STEM industries. According to the science education organization Science Buddies, 85% of all Science Talent Search participants had to find their own mentors.
So don’t wait for your teachers to dive in, be proactive and search out your own mentors. Check out the Science Buddies article for some more details on where you can go, but to start out with, your local college or university is a great place to begin. The professors there are usually very excited to help their local high school students, or if they don’t have the time themselves, they will know who can.
There are a lot of great science projects out there that have been done again and again. Simply putting a new twist on the old volcano top project won’t get you into the winners circle at any meaningful level. If you really want to have a great shot at winning, come up with something new and different, or make sure you really have a unique addition to a standard project. If you go with the table top volcano project, make sure you have new research on a specific structure of the volcano that could add to our understanding of their explosions. Or that you have examined specific ways to stop or modify lava flows. Even the old-school projects can lead to great success, but you have to be different, unique, and detailed! If you can, come up with a project that is something the judges haven’t seen before or haven’t seen much of. They will be more likely to remember your project than someone else’s they’ve seen done a hundred times. When they are trying to decide who the winners are, it helps to be memorable.
Passion is the buzzword on everyone's lips when it comes to career success and happiness. You have to be passionate about your job. One of the most famous quotes about this is from the #1 all-star of science, Albert Einstein. He said, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” So take it from uncle Al and be passionately curious. This goes the same for your science fair project. Someone could suggest or you could find a project that is fresh, complex, and challenging but if it doesn’t interest you, you need to move on. It may be the kind of subject material that winning projects are made of. But if you are not interested in it yourself, your project will suffer. Don’t let someone else choose your science fair project! It has to come from you.
When it is something that you are interested in, you attack the project with more intensity. You put forth more effort into testing your theory than you realize simply because you like what you are doing. When it comes time to present your project, you will do so with more vigor because you are invested in it. That passion will be apparent to the judges, and it will make you and your project appear more interesting and more likely to win. Check out this article from the Huffington Post if you want more quotes from some of the most successful people in the world on how they view passion as the most important part of their careers.
Make sure you don’t choose a topic that is too open-ended or broad. An open-ended project may seem interesting enough, but the judges will want more than just your surface level data. They are going to want a definitive conclusion; not just a statement that “more research will be necessary.” Science fair projects should be able to have discovered something, even if you think it is very small and trivial, make sure you have some specific key findings at the end.
Stay organized, stay with it, and see it through to the end: If you are unorganized, you will have a hard time realizing everything that you know and keeping track of it. It will be just as hard to know what you need to find out and should be looking for. Nothing will be more frustrating than realizing you just repeated something because you couldn’t find your original results.
The best projects will not be easy. They will challenge you and you will have moments where it will look like you have failed. But the judges will appreciate your persistence. Just because the first 25 trials were failures doesn’t mean No. 26 will not be right. Judges look for specifics. They want to see that you have been able to understand your project and the topic better than anyone else.
So take these tips home and remember: Be Proactive, Be Different, Be Interested, and Be Specific to tackle your science fair project and have the best shot at getting to the top.
Applying to college is an exhilarating yet nerve-wracking experience. And rightly so, its a decision that will affect the rest of your life. What career path do you want to follow? Where will you study? Will you succeed there? And of course, the question on many sets of student and parent lips - how will you pay for it?
For those who are scientifically inclined (or perhaps just sci-curious), there are many distinguished STEM competitions that may help lighten the load when making these decisions. Not only do academic competitions help students explore exciting career paths and learn what skills and attributes they will require, but competitions can also help determine what universities may be appropriate for those interests. And more than anything perhaps, these competitions might help you pay for the ever increasing cost of a good education!
Many academic competitions offer outstanding scholarships and prizes and have many high-level sponsors and affiliations. Let’s take a look at some of the best. This list may be considered the four top science fair style competitions for high school students. Collectively these 4 competitions provide high school students with over $6,000,000 in scholarships and awards each year!
- The Regeneron Science Talent Search.
The Regeneron Science Talent Search (Regeneron STS) is perhaps the United States’ most prestigious pre-college science competition with an extremely rich heritage of excellence. Each year, Regeneron STS scholars and finalists compete for $1.6 million in awards. This year, for example, the top three places received $250,000; $175,000 and $150,000 respectively to put towards their studies.
On top of this, Regeneron STS boasts a long list of incredible alumni who have achieved outstanding things in the world of STEM: 12 Nobel Prize winners, 2 Fields Medal recipients, 13 National Medal of Science recipients, 2 Enrico Fermi Award winners, 20 MacArthur Foundation Fellows, 3 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award winners, 3 Breakthrough Prize winners, 11 National Academy of Engineering inductees, 42 National Academy of Sciences inductees, and 56 Sloan Research Fellows.
For example, Paul Modrich’s success at the Regeneron STS of 1964 laid an excellent foundation for his illustrious career. Paul completed his Ph.D. at Stanford University in 1973 and his B.S at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1968. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2015 for his work on the mechanistic processes of DNA repair.
Suffice to say, a Regeneron STS reference is going to look great on your college application. Just participating shows a great effort and can have an impact.
- The Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF).
The Intel ISEF is the world’s largest international pre-college science competition. Each year, approximately 1,800 high school students from more than 75 countries, regions, and territories compete for on average $4 million in prizes. For example, the Gordon E. Moore Award, the top prize, offers $75,000 to the winning student to put towards their studies. In addition to the $75,000 major prize, there are many other cash prizes and scholarships on offer. The ‘Intel Foundation Young Scientist Awards’ offer $50,000 awards to two ‘Best in Category’ projects.
Some prizes may also give you a bit of direction as to which University you may wish to attend. Arizona State University, for example, offers a comprehensive scholarship program as part their prize package. Drexel University, Philadelphia, will award eight full scholarships to outstanding students valued at $194,000. Florida Institute of Technology offers three presidential scholarships to INTEL ISEF participants that equal full tuition each year for four years upon full-time enrollment at the university. University of the Sciences in Philadelphia awards five $15,000 scholarships to students whose research and academic interests align with the University of the Sciences mission. And finally, the University of Toronto, Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering - one of the best in the world according to every major international ranking – is a major sponsor of the event. Scouting perhaps?
If you have a local or regional science fair at your school, its probably an affiliate of the Intel ISEF. So its really easy to get involved in this program, and work to rise up the ranks to where you could earn some real money towards your collegiate future!
- The Google Science Fair.
This exceptional competition is perhaps the newest of the big science fair style programs. It brings the brightest students with some of the most innovative ideas for tackling the world’s most complex problems. Unlike the others, the Google Science Fair is primarily an online science competition, open to students between the ages of 13 and 18 from around the world.
Ever wanted to work for Google? Scientific American? National Geographic? LEGO Education? Virgin Galactic? These are the major sponsors for the Google Science Fair. They offer prizes of $50,000; $15,000; $15,000; and $15,000 respectively; to put towards your education. Not only that, many of these prize packages include all expenses paid tours of the organizations’ headquarters or other places of interest. Awesome!
The Grand Prize winner of 2016, Kiara Nirghin (16) from Johannesburg, South Africa will no doubt be putting her $50,000 to good use. South Africa, like other surrounding nations, is suffering from the worst drought the region has seen in over 20 years. Kiara discovered a material in the humble orange peel with an exceptional water holding capacity. The material is cheap, biodegradable, chemical free and most importantly, will alleviate the symptoms of severe drought. Minds like that need to be snapped up and nurtured by the best Universities.
Because this competition is primarily online, it makes it easy to get involved early.
- The Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology.
The Siemens Competition is another noteworthy competition for high school students and those transitioning into college (grades 9-12), and is perhaps the longest running science research competition. It focuses on research in the fields of Math, Science and Technology. According to Siemens, “it fosters intensive research that improves students' understanding of the value of scientific study and informs their consideration of future careers in these disciplines.” If you want to narrow down your career path or explore a particular field of study, this is the competition for you; not to mention, the desirable prizes offered to winning participants.
The national awards prize structure is as follows: $100,000 for first place, $50,000 for second place and $25,000 for the other four finalists. Scholarship award money is sent directly to the accredited college or university the winning students select and may be used for tuition and fees required for enrollment, books, supplies, equipment and on-campus room and board costs.
The Siemens Competition has a superlative list of University partners such as the Carnegie Mellon University; the Georgia Institute of Technology; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the University of Texas at Austin; the California Institute of Technology; and the University of Notre Dame. Getting yourself into the Siemens Competition national finals would certainly be a segue into any of those magnificent institutions.
Clearly, these four, and many other competitions are excellent spring boards into a happy and productive college life. They will provide clear direction and vision for further study, and most importantly, lighten the load as you make this all-important decision. If you even have an inkling of an interest in science, technology, engineering, or math careers make sure you check out these competitions, and don’t forget to signup on ICS for your free account to stay up on all the action and help track and manage your competition participation.