Sunday, February 06, 2011

despite obama's urging, science fairs are lagging

NYTimes | Rarely have school science fairs, a source of pride and panic for generations of American students, achieved such prominence on the national stage. President Obama held one at the White House last fall. And last week he said that America should celebrate its science fair winners like Sunday’s Super Bowl champions, or risk losing the nation’s competitive edge.

Yet as science fair season kicks into high gear, participation among high school students appears to be declining. And 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.

“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 Los Angeles fair, though still one of the nation’s largest, now has 185 schools participating, down from 244 a decade ago.

In many schools, science fairs depend on teachers who shoulder the extra work. They supervise participants and research, raise the money for medals and poster boards, and find judges — all on their own time.

To organize the Northeastern Minnesota Regional Science Fair this weekend, Cynthia Welsh, a science teacher at Cloquet High School near Duluth, has logged more than 500 unpaid hours since September.

“My husband helps,” Ms. Welsh said.

In middle school, science fair projects are typically still required — and, teachers lament, all too often completed by parents. And 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 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 local fairs, which rose to popularity after World War II, have historically provided entree to science for those who might not consider themselves science fanatics.

“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, a nonprofit group that administers 350 regional fairs whose winners attend Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair, the world’s largest high school competition. “The point is to breed science-minded citizens.”