Why have a Science Fair?

The National Science Education Standards (NSES, 1997) envisioned many changes throughout the system, including “less emphasis on presenting scientific knowledge through lecture, text and demonstration, and more emphasis on guiding students in active and extended scientific inquiry.” “Science Standard B” suggested that science teachers should guide and facilitate learning:

In successful science classrooms, teachers and students collaborate in the pursuit of ideas, and students quite often initiate new activities related to an inquiry. Students formulate questions and devise ways to answer them, they collect data and decide how to represent it, they organize data to generate knowledge, and they test the reliability of knowledge they have generated. As they proceed, students explain and justify their work to themselves and to one another, learn to cope with problems such as limitations of equipment, and react to challenges posed by the teacher and by classmates. Students assess the efficacy of their efforts--they evaluate the data they have collected, re-examining to collecting more if necessary, and making statements about the generalizability of their findings. They plan and make presentations to the rest of the class about their work and accept and react to the constructive criticism of others (National Academy of Sciences, 1997).

It is no accident that the NSES urged science educators to place more emphasis in active and extended scientific inquiry: higher levels of reasoning (cognitive domain) are exercised in such activities. For example, when students learn facts, formulas, discoveries and dates, they have not reasoned beyond memorization and comprehension; however, when students initiate new activities, devise ways to answer questions, organize data to generate knowledge, and justify their work to themselves and one another, they are applying facts, analyzing data to synthesize conclusions, and they are evaluating their own work--all of which are high levels of reasoning which every teacher should expect of their students.

A study in the UK of what makes for effective science teaching surveyed students who went on to become scientists and engineers. Two influential factors were common among the respondents: the student-teacher relationship and student research projects. The scientists surveyed stated that curriculum had little to do with motivating them to become scientists; rather, an instructor who was enthusiastic and inspirational as well as opportunities to do independent research are the factors which contributed most to the students' decision to become scientists (Woolnough, 1994). The UK National Science Curriculum called for students to make scientifically and technologically informed judgments, to express their own ideas, and to work cooperatively as well as independently with their classmates. For these reasons, there was a high degree of support, both through sponsored competitions as well as organizations which link industry to individual schools for the purposes of “mentoring” students in a hope to excite, motivate and encourage students to participate in individual research--the country realized that student participation in individual research is foremost in the development of future scientists (Woolnough, 1994).

Cadigan (1993) described the current system of teaching science in the United States as a “Science Trivial Pursuit” (p. 200). Cadigan made the statement that science knowledge that is a mile wide but only an inch deep is too superficial for true scientific understanding. In order to gain a genuine understanding of science, the student must do it. Project based science forces students to use higher levels of reasoning (critical thinking) rather than just memorization and comprehension. Students must do independent research, and apply and synthesize what they have learned in order to solve problems; finally, they must evaluate their results in order to draw conclusions. Cadigan went on to embrace project based science by stating that it “motivates students to ask questions, motivates students to conduct personal research, promotes `discovery learning,' provides accent on the scientific process, encourages ingenuity and initiative, promotes collaboration, and fosters a thirst for further knowledge” (p. 204).

In 1989, the Technical Education Research Center (TERC) in Cambridge, Massachusetts conducted a project called LabNet, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. LabNet was a network of science and mathematics teachers who corresponded with each other over the Internet. The idea behind the project was that “conversations about teaching project-based science would encourage teachers to reflect on their own pedagogy and learn from one another” (LabNet, 1998). In 1991, LabNet teachers in six states conducted a survey of their students. Ruopp (1993) quoted students' responses to the question, “Do you think the projects in your science class have helped you to understand science better?” Four representative student responses were:

Yes, because projects showed how science can help you in everyday life.

Yes--I learned the basic concepts of how scientists apply theory to make experiments. I learned the scientific process--something books cannot provide.

Projects have definitely calmed some of my fears about technology: certainly science/engineering are complex, but the principles are based on observed fact that with the right insight can make perfect sense.

I feel that my project helped me understand science more than any other approach, because it took science out of the realm of abstract and unconnected concepts and unified them into an understandable system with real purpose (pp. 227-229).

LabNet was originally funded by the National Science Foundation; unfortunately, the National Science Foundation funding is no longer available to LabNet. At the time of this writing, LabNet Web sites were being dismantled because of a lack of funds.