Monday, February 7, 2011

Science fairs and Sputnik moments

A front-page report in Saturday's New York Times laments the decline of the science fair and the resultant threat to our nation's "competitive edge":
As science fair season kicks into high gear, participation among high school students appears to be declining...

“To say that we need engineers and ‘this is our Sputnik moment’ is meaningless if we have no time to teach students how to do science,” said Dean Gilbert, the president of the Los Angeles County Science Fair, referring to a line in President Obama’s State of the Union address last week. 
The article makes clear, however, that science fairs are still alive and well in middle schools--along with at least one of their many potential downsides:
In middle school, science fair projects are typically still required — and, teachers lament, all too often completed by parents.
And many high schools are still encouraging their scientifically minded students to participate:
Some high schools funnel their best students into elite science competitions that require years of work and lengthy research papers: a few thousand students enter such contests each year.
But the Times claims that other students, by not participating in science fairs, aren't getting exposed to the scientific process (as if science fairs are the only--or best--way to learn scientific thinking):
What has been lost, proponents of local science fairs say, is the potential to expose a much broader swath of American teenagers to the scientific process: to test an idea, evaluate evidence, ask a question about how the world works — and perhaps discover how difficult it can be to find an answer.
The article also cites science fair projects as especially demanding of "creative, independent exploration."

But does requiring broad-scale participation in science fairs really increase the overall scientific skills and scientific creativity of American students? Much of what passes for science skills in the science fair world, after all, amounts to skills in public speaking, verbal expression, and graphic design (or having parents with such skills). Much of what passes for scientific creativity is the showy visual creativity of the props and poster.  

Furthermore, as even some of the science fair advocates suggest, science fairs don't necessarily have nurturing scientists as their primary agenda:
“Science fairs develop skills that reach down to everybody’s lives, whether you want to be a scientist or not,” said Michele Glidden, a director at Society for Science & the Public... “The point is to breed science-minded citizens.”
The Times cites just two reasons for the decline of the science fair: competition from other extracurricular activities, and the pressure of state-mandated testing in math and reading:
One obvious reason for flagging interest in science fairs is competing demands for high school students’ extracurricular attention. But many educators said they wished the projects were deemed important enough to devote class time to them, which is difficult for schools whose federal funding hinges on improving math and reading test scores. Under the main federal education law, schools must achieve proficiency in math and reading by 2014, or risk sanctions.


Many science teachers say the problem is not a lack of celebration, but the Obama administration’s own education policy, which holds schools accountable for math and reading scores at the expense of the kind of creative, independent exploration that science fair projects require.
The science behind scientific creativity, as cognitive scientists like Dan Willingham have pointed out, paints somewhat a different picture. Creativity in any field depends on deep, rich, domain-specific knowledge. The ability to acquire deep, rich, domain-specific knowledge in science depends on a solid foundation in mathematics. For most kids, rigorous training in k12 math is a far better preparation for the acquisition and development of scientific skills and creativity than the typical k12 science fair is.

Given this, the Times, ironically, is actually correct in implying that holding schools accountable for math scores is part of the problem. But the reason why math score accountability is problematic isn't that it takes time away from science fairs. Rather, such accountability has resulted, not only in teachers spending lots of time teaching to the test, but in math tests that are substantially watered down relative to what most other developed countries expect of their students (after all, watering down a test is the best way to make sure no child is left behind). The ultimate consequence is a dumbed down math curriculum that doesn't prepare anyone for true scientific reasoning and creativity.

1 comment:

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