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Are Science Fairs Worth All That Trouble? Study Seeks Some Answers

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It's something of a rite of passage for middle school students (and parents) to struggle with musical water glasses, baking soda volcanoes, sprouting yams, and red cabbage indicators in the science fair.

Surprisingly, we don't actually know a ton about how (or whether) the fairs help to improve student achievement or interest in science. But thanks to a National Science Foundation grant, a team of researchers is now analyzing a national survey and case studies of more than a dozen schools for clues about how the fairs might help pay dividends for students.

Though ubiquitous for more than half a century, the science fair remains an understudied part of the science curriculum landscape. Much of the existing research is opinion-based, observational, or based on small case studies, making it harder to generalize to schools at large.

"I think education research has matured a great deal in general, but research on science fairs has fallen under the radar," said Abigail Levy, a co-director at the research-and-development group, Education Development Center, which is heading up the study. She's also the principal investigator on the grant. "I can only speculate, but I think they are dearly beloved by some and despised by others, and they have had in some ways kind of a sacred cow place in science education."

Now is also a good time to look at this piece of science because many states' science expectations are changing. The Next Generation Science Standards, which have been formally adopted by 18 states and informed the standards process in several other states, emphasize having students work like scientists in making hypotheses and collecting data on science phenomena.

The grant is part of the NSF's drive to examine informal science learning.

Science Fairs: A Diverse Picture

From among the nation's nearly 10,000 grade 6-8 schools, Levy and her team devised a stratified sample of about 1,200 schools, representing a range of geographies and demographics. They selected 600 at random to survey. About 40 percent of those reported having a science fair, and within that figure, the researchers received 168 school responses. 

Their first insight: Middle school science fairs don't come in one flavor. They look really different from place to place, in terms of whether they're mandatory or not, and whether they have a central or a peripheral place in what students are studying in science. They did find a few interesting patterns, though.

Mandatory-high: About a quarter of respondents described science fairs that were mandatory, and where teachers provided a high level of support for things like choosing a topic, monitoring progress, and helping students interpret data. In these schools, the science fair appears to have been well integrated with the curriculum, and students had time to work on their projects in class. 

Mandatory-low: Another group, over half or about 55 percent, had a mandatory science fair, but teachers provided a much lower level of support. Notably, these schools tended to have a higher proportion of students receiving federally subsidized meals and black students. But they were also more likely to reporting listing science content learning as part of their goals for the fair.

Voluntary-low: Finally, just over a fifth of the sample reported having a voluntary science fair. Here again, overall levels of integration with the science curriculum were low and took up little if any class time. (Most of these schools probably hosted the fairs as part of an after-school club.)

If some of the findings seem a little contradictory (what's going on in that second group?), it's probably highly context-specific. For example, perhaps some of low support in the second group is because the science fair serves as the final "capstone" for students, and they're expected to work on their projects independently. Or perhaps those schools are truly under-resourced.

More Data Coming

The next phase of the study should help clarify some of that ambiguity. It will include case studies of 21 schools in the sample. Those case studies include interviews, surveys, and focus groups with the science fair coordinators, principals, teachers, and 6th grade students in each of the schools. As part of it, the study will look at pre- and post-event questionnaires with students to get a sense of whether the fair helped them to use science and engineering practices, and for their overall enthusiasm for science in general.

They will also try to explore cost-effectiveness.

"It's sort of common knowledge that science fairs can take a lot of resources or time, so we're looking carefully at whether there is a way to identify the most impactful aspects of science fair," Levy said. "What lessons can we learn that can help teachers to make the most out of the most impactful pieces?"

This is the final year of the four-year grant; the researchers expect to push out their conclusions in six months or so. Stay tuned.

Photo Credit: Rich Bowen. Licensed under Flickr/Creative Commons.

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