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Reimagining the Science Fair

Science fairs have always encouraged project-based learning. But in the technology-rich environment of today's schools, it's time to re-think the possibilities and the boundaries of these projects. Rebecca Bell, Associate Vice President, Education Practice at IREX, explains.

Join IREX this Thursday, March 9, at 8pm ET on Twitter for #Globaledchat to talk about the reimagined science fair and effective approaches for global, project-based STEM learning. (Type #GlobalEdChat into the Twitter search box to join the conversation!)

By guest blogger Rebecca Bell

As low-cost technology enables a generation of teens to innovate and invent independently, traditional science-fair supporters are thinking carefully about how to grow the talent pipeline in STEM. News that Intel is dropping sponsorship of the International Science and Engineering Fair provides more evidence that the science fair of Homer Hickam's day may be ready for permanent mothballing. Instead of relying on earlier models, let's reimagine the science fair to globalize learning, facilitate cross-cultural collaboration, and get students excited about using science to help society.

High-Quality Project-Based Learning
Why use limited time and financial resources to promote STEM learning through international science competitions? Research shows that the high-quality project-based learning (PBL) leads to positive student achievement outcomes. PBL is particularly effective at building problem-solving skills, a key 21st century cognitive competency. Importantly, project-based learning is effective for learners of different backgrounds, including disadvantaged urban school populations. It also plays a role in motivating students to pursue STEM careers and may have an especially significant impact on female professionals in STEM.

Yet all PBL is not created equal. The tendency to frame superficial add-on projects as project-based learning threatens to dilute educators' and policymakers' understanding of what effective PBL entails. Science fairs provide an opportunity for high-quality project-based learning that involves sustained inquiry, student choice, and a public product, features identified by the Buck Institute for Education as design elements of "gold standard" project-based learning

New Models
Technology now exists to exponentially expand the reach of international science competitions and to globalize the experience for students. New models include all-virtual fairs, competitions with virtual and in-person components, and challenges that require cross-cultural collaboration.  

Google has led the way in leveraging technology to globalize and expand science competitions, with thousands of students worldwide participating in the all-virtual Google Science Fair. Among the winners of the 2016 Google Science Fair are students who designed solutions to combat drought, address foam waste, and reduce the cost of fertilizer for low-income farmers. These projects demonstrate an encouraging trend in international science competitions—students are pursuing projects that use science to help society by addressing problems of poverty and environmental degradation.

Others, like the BioGENEius Challenge, use technology to expand the reach of a science competition while still maintaining components of a traditional in-person science fair. Students entering BioGENEius submit research projects in response to one of three challenges in healthcare, sustainability, or the environment. In some states, students present at in-person local competitions while others enter through the at-large all-virtual competition. Winners of both tracks compete in-person at the International BioGENEius Challenge along with students from Canada and Germany.

Future City incorporates technology by including a virtual city requirement alongside more traditional project components. Student teams entering the Future City competition develop a tech-enabled virtual city plan designed in the game SimCity as one component of an entry that also includes an essay, scale city model, and in-person presentation. Like Google Science Fair and BioGENEius, Future City also motivates students to put their problem-solving skills to address a global challenge. In the 2016-2017 competition, students were challenged to design sustainable, multi-use public spaces for future cities.  

Oxon Hill HS Water Test (6).jpgAt IREX, we're equipping teachers to use effective project-based learning and virtual communication tools to engage students in an international science competition. Through sponsorship from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, IREX is piloting the World Smarts STEM Challenge, a virtual STEM competition between students in the U.S. and Ghana. Each student team includes a mix of Ghanaian and American students who communicate virtually to develop their project entry. Designed to improve science content skills and pedagogy while also engaging students in global learning, the World Smarts STEM Challenge requires students to develop cross-cultural understanding and take action on local and global issues like defending their community against hazardous waste or repowering their community's energy use. Both challenges are inspired by the UN Sustainable Development Goals.  

As science fairs becoming increasingly global, they have the potential to encourage cross-cultural collaboration and direct the curiosity of young scientists toward finding solutions for society's most pressing challenges. By requiring entries from cross-cultural teams or creating challenge prompts that motivate students to take action on a global issue, a global citizenship component can be adopted by other international science competitions. Now is the time to get creative about reimagining the science fair to reach more students and develop global citizens.

Connect with IREX and Center for Global Education on Twitter. 

Photo courtesy of IREX World Smarts STEM Challenge Team Oxon Hill High School. 

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