Why I Don't Do Science Fairs (Anymore)

After reading the Hana Schank's fantastic piece for The Atlantic, Science Fairs Aren't So Fair and the associated comments on Hacker News, I thought that I might chime in with a student's perspective.

When I was in 8th grade (only a few years ago), I decided to actually do a legit project just that once instead of the usual sort of bullshit I invented every prior year. My school and regional fair (NWSE) also allowed engineering projects, so I figured I would do that.

I wanted to do something with electricity, since I had recently become interested in electricity with the help of Falstad's Circuit Simulator (Java). I brainstormed a bunch of stuff and finally settled on trying to make a centralized power timer (like the ones you find lights plugged into, with a couple of differences).

Obviously, I couldn't use mains power and devices, so I used LEDs, DC motors, and buzzers to represent lights, fans, and miscellanea such as radios and coffee machines, respectively. The idea was that the device I'd build would control all of these things on a schedule from one location. I bought an Arduino and some parts and ended up building this as my science/engineering fair project. I also added the ability for a manual override and some other nifty features in the process.

While I worked on the project, I learned so much. In terms of hardware, I learned about how different kinds of transistors work, optimal ways of using said transistors (low voltage power switches), how to wire things together with a breadboard, what resistors to use with different LEDs, when to use PWM to create cool effects on LEDs, etc. In software (with the Arduino), I learned how to upload a program to an MCU, how to fix drivers for that board on OS X and Linux (I was using an off brand board because Fry's didn't have Arduinos in stock), a lot of C-ish code, debugging skills, etc.

In retrospect, I think that was the purpose of science fairs. To encourage kids to explore science and technology and make something new (at least to them). My dad would explain how a specific part worked if I got stuck for more than an hour and couldn't find an answer I could understand on Google, but he wouldn't actually solve whatever issue I was facing for me (having a master in circuit design, it would have probably been trivial for him to do). Instead, I had to learn how to solve issues with equipment and stuff on my own. Hell, even when an LED started smoking because I used the wrong resistor, he didn't do anything - he let me find the problem and fix it (although he did tell me to dispose of the LED ASAP).

At my school fair, many people, adults and children alike thought what I did was pretty cool (although now I see how trivial of a project I had struggled through for two weeks on end). The judges at my school decided to send me along with some other students to NWSE. However, at NWSE, I found something surprising.

As I looked around in my section (engineering), I saw some other okayish projects, which is what I expected. But when I went to the [sociology/psychology/biology/medicine/etc.] section, I was shocked by how many students had projects that fell into one of two categories:

  1. Appallingly easy, from an actual work put in perspective. People here hadn't put in much work, they had just phrased it as if they had. One project, which was selected to go to the BROADCOM national fair, used the process of downloading and installing Adobe Photoshop as 5/8 steps in their procedure.

  2. Impossible without help from others. These sorts of projects could not have been done alone or with a similarly aged peer with resources available at school or at home. They had been conducted at University labs with help from graduate students and research professors. However, the graduate and professor's collective help was phrased as "oversight" and the project was portrayed as done entirely by the student.

Amazingly, the students in this category were the ones who won many of the awards (I won an Energy Conservation Award for $100 and an IEEE science fair award on which my name was misspelled and they refused to fix, but that's another story). Even worse, these sorts of students were the ones selected to go on to the larger, more prestigious science fairs.

My throat went dry and I felt like crying. It wasn't that my project wasn't selected - I honestly did not expect to win anything huge. It just didn't feel fair to me, that so few people from the electronics and engineering section were being selected. It didn't feel fair to me that a science fair, which ought to be judged on merit, was selecting for students who had spent more time making their writing bombastic and their posters outstanding than actually working on their science project.

Of course, my family was there as were some of my friends, so I couldn't cry or anything over something so trivial. I smiled and went along with it (even, when, you know, the IEEE representative handed me a science fair award certificate with my name misspelled on it).

I hate dwelling though. In hindsight, that project was one the biggest reasons I'm in the whole technology thing right now. The previous year, an accident of sheer luck had gotten me into Linux, but I just used it for small tasks and my old website, nothing fancy. I was just using bash for tasks and that was about the extent of my "programming" abilities.

However, I ended up trying a lot of new stuff. With my newfound confidence for workign with physical eletronics, I built a computer. I also took some time and actually learned to program. With the c-ish I had learned from doing the project with an Arduino, I was able to quickly pick up C.

An old mentor heard about my project in the winter of my freshman year (high school) and encouraged me to go to a conference called OSCON. I admiteddly did not have too pleasant of a time that year, although there were one or two people who really helped me learn quite a bit.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, that science and engineering fairs should be to encourage learning and exploration in the fields of, well, science and engineering. And right now, they don't.

Instead, they try to extract miracolous breakthroughs and pride out of children. So for most kids, one of two things happens:

  1. The kid simply doesn't give a shit. They come up with a lazy excuse of a project that barely satisfies the requirements set out by their school. They learn virtually nothing, get an A or B on the project, and life goes on just dandy.

  2. The kid really wants to win awards at any cost. They see how easily they can bullshit the system, and they devise projects that sound fancy and are either really simple to do or really simple to convince a college professor to "help them do".

So essentially, we end up with a fine array of companies and organizations sponsoring metric tons of systematically isolated horseshit that is of zero productive use to anyone, except for posturing purposes. The companies and organizations look good for sponsoring "the advancement of science among the modern youth of America" while the winning students get a collection of awards to put on their résumés and college applications.

Another kid at my school did something with water purification. He wanted to make an easy to assemble water filter that was portable and provide good filtration of extra fine particles from the water. It was actually quite brilliant of a project, to be honest.

However, his project didn't look all that fancy. Neither did his poster. If you took the time to read through what he had done, it was rather fascinating. Other than his teacher, though, no one did, and so it went unnoticed.

So what can we do? Well, for starters, stop making science fairs emphasize posters that look essentially professionally prepared and research breakthroughs. Kids will be kids. The chances of a child making a poster that looks prepared near professionally without any help or making a breakthrough in research are slim - not impossible, but slim.

Instead, emphasize learning and judge based on the actual content. For regional science fairs, ensure that you have enough judges and time that every project can be reviewed thoroughly (ie: read through the entirety of their poster / papers and then ask questions) by multiple judges. Make sure that there are sufficient judges from enough fields with enough expertise that they can do the following:

  1. See when it simply wouldn't be possible for a child to accomplish such a project without additional external help.

  2. Ask intelligent, probing questions about the projects that the student will not be able to prepare for in advance and thus will be forced to think and answer on the spot - this further ensures that students do their own work.

  3. Recognize that a project in their field actually requires little to no effort and has just been written up really fancily.

  4. Find out what the student learned in the process of doing the project and their motivation for doing the project.

  5. Ask what problems they ran into during the project and how they resolved it - if they didn't run into anything too hard, then either the project wasn't challenging enough or they didn't do the work.

Of course, what we shouldn't do is assume that anythijg complex can't be done by kids. There will always be those one or two exceptionally bright minds who were in the right place at the right time and are able to do phenomenal work, and they ought to be rewarded for that. But it is critical to question circumstances in which such things arise, because while such projects are possible, they are uncommon enough that they should be given a little extra scrutiny.

Obviously, we will never have complete fairness. But recognizing the problem, and taking steps to solve it means we can get closer. And that's a worthy goal to strive for - especially for companies and organizations sponsoring science fairs (ahem: Intel, Broadcom, Genentech, IEEE, etc. + many Universities and Academic Institutions).