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November/December 2002

Compiled and edited by Sheila Blackman, Grand Valley State University, Biology, 1 Campus Drive, Allendale, MI 49401, email blackmas@gvsu.edu

Education Outreach: Science Fairs Can Inspire and Engage Future Scientists

Dr. Marcia Harrison is a professor of biology at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, where she has been faculty member since 1986. She received her Ph.D. in Dr. Peter Kaufman's laboratory at the University of Michigan and then did postdoctoral work with Dr. Barbara Pickard at Washington University. She has a long history of activity in education, particularly K_12 outreach. She became president of the West Virginia Jr. Academy of Science in 1999, a position that led her to the directorship of the West Virginia State Science and Engineering Fair in 2000. She managed to generate sufficient enthusiasm among her colleagues at Marshall University that Marshall now is the official and permanent host to and home for the State Science and Engineering Fair.

Dr. Harrison credits her involvement in high school science fairs as one of the deciding factors in her pursuit of science as a career. Her personal historical involvement with science fairs came full circle when her own children began to enter fairs and when she began to take a central role in leading the West Virginia state fair.

Since our education theme at this year's ASPB annual meeting in Denver was K_12 outreach, I thought it would be useful if Dr. Harrison could provide some of her insights into science fairs, since they represent an opportunity for our members to pursue outreach activities. I interviewed Dr. Harrison by telephone from her office at Marshall University.

Let's start with the origin of science fairs. How and why were they originally conceived?

Science fairs were developed as a kind of counterpart to sports activities for students interested in science, math, and engineering as a means of acknowledging and rewarding excellence in pursuit of these endeavors. There are two issues now. For students, science fairs provide an opportunity to compete in science with a project done with a teacher sponsor. But I also think there is a larger issue insofar as curricula are becoming more and more research oriented and science fairs can really be in tune with, and support, those developments.

What is the evidence that students benefit from science fair participation in terms of their science achievement or learning?

Well, my own participation in science fairs was one reason I became interested in science, and I doubt I would have stayed in science or had that interest if I hadn't had the project and the relationship I had with my teacher in high school. I'm not so sure if university introductory biology and chemistry courses would have held me there otherwise. And I'm not alone. For a lot of students, the research pursued as part of their science fair project is what keeps them going. These are kids who compete every year, some of them beginning in middle school, and who continue developing ideas or projects from that first science fair project. Their interest is heightened even more if they make it to the regional level because there they start to win substantial prizes—trips, awards, money, scholarships.

Besides the benefits to students in terms of prizes, and their continued interest in science, are there less direct benefits from science fairs—for example, in creating lasting links between the K_12 community and the research community?

One thing that happened when Marshall took the state science fair is that the faculty really loved having the students on campus and were very excited about talking to the students about their research. And the students have responded very positively. It's like us going to poster sessions. The students get to talk about their research and some of the judges volunteer to go back and talk to the students for a while on their own initiative. That's the atmosphere I strive to create. Even though students may not end up a winner, they can come and talk about their research. And I've heard students tell other students that when they come to Marshall they're going to be talking to Ph.D.s about their projects. That's something they feel is a very valuable and worthwhile experience. On the flip side, I've also heard of bad experiences—where judges decide they're going to be really tough on the students. This can become very intimidating, especially at the middle- and grade-school levels. I think if you want to turn off kids, especially girls and minority students, just make them feel bad about their project.

So the competitive aspect of science fairs has both positive and negative sides?

Yes, if science is always presented as a competition, I think you lose something. If kids get the impression that not winning means that they're never going to succeed, it's a definite negative. I think older students can handle losing a bit more philosophically, but in the younger grades, I think, we probably lose students if we emphasize competition too much and give them bad experiences with judges. Getting a cadre of good judges is important. Some people are very good at judging, but others are just plain scary. Often our graduate students judge the middle- and grade-school projects, and we also have students in secondary education on campus who are a little less threatening for the younger kids.

Real science is not always a competition. Scientists have poster sessions where we are not judged (mercifully, sometimes). So, for younger students, I would suggest that open houses where they can present science projects in a noncompetitive atmosphere might be better than constant science fair_type competitions.

A common concern about science fairs is that they can be elitist. Do you see this as a valid criticism?

Well, in West Virginia there are not a lot of schools that serve a high proportion of minority students. But I see from the schools that do participate that visible minorities participate in proportion to their representation at the school. So it's clear that minorities are not being excluded from existing science fair programs in any way. Females are also heavily represented. Last year, 60 percent of our participants were female.

I also think that there are many ways that teacher sponsors, research mentors, and science fair organizers can help create a level playing field. The display itself can frequently take a lot of financial resources from students and their families, but it certainly doesn't have to. Winning project displays can be made quite inexpensively, especially if mentors and teachers are willing to help with things like printing.

How can students become involved with scientists as advisers or mentors for their science fair projects?

The primary way that teachers and students become involved with faculty is by having the faculty host or mentor students in their labs. It is not uncommon, especially for students at the international competition, to be working in a research lab. For areas such as medicine, health, environmental science, or any project involving culture of living organisms, you almost have to be working in a research lab. It doesn't have to be an academic institution—many industries also have summer opportunities for students doing projects.

Some science fairs actually have formal mentor programs where students can identify potential contacts in academia or industry. In most cases, though, it's informal and consists of teachers passing students' names on to scientists they know.

Any final thoughts?

All indications are that American kids lose interest in science very early in their education. That's a shame because we scientists know how exciting science can be. Science fairs can appeal to the competitive spirit in young people and, if they're done well, can instill a passion and fervor for science that can last a lifetime. I would like to encourage ASPB members to participate in science fairs and consider the importance of their impact on a future scientist.

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