Science Fairs Under the 'Scope

Publications

Practical Research: How Can Middle School Science Fairs Help Students Meet Science Standards? | NSTA Science Scope | March 2019
Engaging students in science and engineering practices (e.g., National Research Council, 2012; NGSS Lead States, 2013) has become increasingly important, and given the long history of school-based science fairs, it is worth understanding whether they help students’ understand science and engineering practices, and how teachers support students in this work. A survey was administered to middle school science fair coordinators from 48 states, and a variety of data was collected from 21 middle schools in 19 states where 6th grade students participated in their school’s science fair. We found a great deal of variation, even within the same school, regarding two aspects of the science fair experience that together, had implications for students’ learning. First, teachers had different goals for having a fair such as completing a project independently or becoming more adept at using the practices of science. Second, the goals influenced the type of support teachers provided. For example, where independence was valued, teachers often provided procedural support and had their students work on their projects at home. Where the practices were valued, teachers often provided work time during class, and spent time with their students to help them develop their thinking at every step in the investigation process.

Approaches for conducting middle school science fairs: A landscape study | Science Educator | In press
Although science fairs have been an institution of science education for decades in schools across the United States, little is understood about how students’ science fair experiences vary and how these variations relate to student learning. Research on this topic is particularly imperative as new science standards increase emphasis on the teaching of science and engineering practices. Science fairs represent a potential opportunity to engage students in these practices, but may not be effective in supporting the learning of all students. As a first step in a programmatic research agenda, this study employs a nationally representative survey of middle schools to describe the most commonly conducted, broad approaches to middle school science fairs. Using a framework based on teacher support for inquiry, three types of science fairs emerged: mandatory fairs with high levels of teacher support for students’ project work, mandatory fairs with low levels of teacher support, and voluntary fairs. Mandatory fairs with limited teacher support were more common in schools with a high proportion of African American students and high poverty, but were also more likely to emphasize goals related to learning. Implications for the effectiveness and equity of science fairs are discussed.

An Examination of the Features of Science Fairs That Support Students’ Understandings of Science and Engineering Practices | In review
Science fairs have a long history in the United States and internationally. Their implementation varies greatly (Authors, 2018), yet few empirical studies have examined the outcomes of these experiences for student learning. Research indicates that authentic scientific inquiry that focus on students’ agency in investigations can contribute to students learning (e.g., Houseal, Abd-El-Khalick & Destefano). However, teachers have been challenged with implementing inquiry-based investigations (e.g., Anderson, 2007; Harris & Rooks, 2010). As new science standards increase the demand for science investigations in classrooms that afford students opportunities to engage with science and engineering practices (SEPs; NGSS Lead States, 2013), research is needed to understand the role of teachers and the ways in which these experiences can contribute to student learning. In this paper, we describe the results of a national study that included data from 21 middle school science fairs. Data collected from students, teachers, administrators, and science fair judges enabled the exploration of features of science fairs, including opportunities for students to engage in SEPs and the teachers support for SEPs through the science fair investigations. Findings reveal that teachers’ support for critiquing practices—engaging in argument from evidence, and evaluating and communicating about investigations—and students engagement in evaluating the work of their peers are positively associated students understandings of science and engineering practices.

Two Middle School Science Fairs: Equity, Design, and Cost | In review
Science fairs are often the only chance many children have, particularly marginalized children, to do the investigative work that builds their science capabilities and key workplace skills. Students have practiced their scientific skills in science fairs for decades, showcasing their investigations in events like the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. The Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, first held in 1950 in Philadelphia, represents a global approach to science education, attracting over 1,500 students from 70 countries and territories (Society for Science and the Public, n.d.).

Our study of science fairs sought to understand the cost in US dollars of implementing a science fair, and the relationship between equity and cost. We examined two different fairs and found that teachers’ time was the primary resource that drove cost. Teachers were intentional about the time they devoted to supporting their students’ science fair experiences because they wanted all students to have an equal opportunity for a productive learning experience regardless of their families’ access to resources. Teachers’ time represented approximately half to three quarters of the total per-pupil costs, and between one quarter to one half of the time that teachers devoted to science fair-related activities was their personal, non-work time. If schools want all students to have equal access to an authentic science fair experience and the support needed for a positive experience, the time needed to adequately support their learning must be anticipated and built into the implementation plans.

Parent Involvement in the Science Fair: Helping Students or Hindering Equity? In review
Science fairs have been around for decades, yet their critics question the extent to which parent involvement shapes students’ investigations. Parent involvement in the science fair has been viewed as objectionable by parents themselves. However, research has shown that parent support can play a vital role in student learning. This paper describes the results of research that explored the role of parents in middle school science fairs. Data from parent surveys and interviews, teacher interviews, and student focus groups were gathered from 21 schools across the country to identify the various roles parents play in both voluntary and mandatory science fairs. Demographic data were also collected. Findings show that parents’ income and education affect their level and type of involvement, as do certain features of the science fair itself. Our findings have important implications for the structures and equity in school based science fairs.

How can science competitions support middle school students’ science self-concept and interest in science? | In preparation
Research has shown that providing students with opportunities to take ownership over authentic science work offers them an avenue to a science identity (Vedder-Weiss & Fortus, 2018; Miller et al 2018). Building students’ interest in science and attachment to STEM fields is increasingly important, given the evidence of unfilled STEM jobs, and underrepresentation of women and people of color in STEM fields (PCAST, 2012). Science fairs have persisted for over 80 years and offer a venue for students to engage in investigations that reflect typical science practice, often in a competitive context. Although some research indicates that competition may be conducive to learning under certain conditions (Kohn, 1992; Johnson & Johnson, 2005), little is known about the degree to which science fairs influence students’ science identity and the components of the experiences that make a difference.

This paper presents the results of a four-year study that examined the influence of students’ participation in competitive science fairs, including their agency in the investigation process on their science self-concept, and interest in science and science careers. Data collection included student surveys, focus groups, teacher interviews, and observations from 21 schools across the United States. Qualitative data were iteratively coded, and ratings of students’ agency were developed for each case study school. Data were analyzed using HLM and disaggregated by gender. Results showed that opportunities for student agency within the science fair and the degree of emphasis on competition were related to students’ gains in science interest and identity, but importantly, these relationships varied for girls and boys, with boys showing greater gains in science interest in science fairs that placed a heightened emphasis on competition.