Designing Science Fair

by Stacy Palen

The other day, I was sitting in a meeting, listening to a science fair alumnus explain about the design of a science fair project. In the realm of science fair, there are science projects, engineering projects, and computer science projects. Telling them apart is not always easy, but it almost always involves evaluating the design of the project itself. Listening to this discussion was enlightening for me, for two reasons. First, I never really thought about how different types of science fair projects require a different type of design. To be truthful, I’ve not thought much about science fair at all since my own grade school days, when it was a demoralizing experience for everyone I knew, except Tom Schell. Second, I found that the things I’m doing in my non-physicist life at the moment are deeply reminiscent of engineering projects. But I never thought of them as ‘design’. I just thought of them as ‘doing it wrong, and then doing it again’.

The design of a science project almost always involves repetition. The student is expected to repeat the experiment 3 (for 6th graders) or 10 (for 8th graders) or 100 (for 12th graders) times, performing the same experiment with different individuals, if it’s a biology-type experiment, or with conditions as closely the same as possible, if it’s a physics or chemistry-type experiment. One of the primary criteria for judging a science project is to look at the number of trials. We expect to see some understanding of statistics, errors and the law of averages.

The design of an engineering or computer science project, on the other hand, involves assessing a need, building a prototype, studying how it meets expectations, modifying, building and testing a next-generation machine, instrument or program. The test of the prototype is designed, and the results of the test inform the design of the next generation. But it’s not the same type of repetitive process. Each iteration is different. This is what I do now, in my non-physics life. Actually, even in my physics life.

Consider, as a physics-life example, teaching my classes. I almost never give the same assignment twice. Instead, I modify it each time, based on prior results, (which I sometimes even take notes about), and then I give a next-generation assignment to a new group of students. This is engineering my teaching. Each assignment is an improvement on the last, and I slowly, slowly iterate to perfection. In 15 years of teaching astronomy, I have developed maybe four assignments that I never tweak anymore. They do precisely what I want them to do, every time, without fail, no matter which students are using them. The others are all still works in progress, still being optimized, by design.

In non-physics life, I’m currently working on solar-heated water troughs for the horse pastures. I have a prototype mostly built. I have a set of design criteria. I have testing equipment, and a list of tests to run. I have a list of potential modifications that may or may not improve the design, but need to be tested in the actual deployment situation, not just by calculating what the thermal properties of black paint should be. It’s ridiculously fun to have my notebook, my research notes, my designs, my modified designs, my further research notes, notes in the margins about what might work better, ‘back of the envelope’ calculations about what I might expect. And then I get to use my miter saw, and actually build the thing! I find that the thing that makes it fun is that it will NOT be judged in the end, by anyone but me, the horses, and the weather.

And that makes me question the whole design of science fair. I’m not sure that, when it began, anyone had a list of goals or design criteria. I’m not sure they had a list of tests to run. I’m not sure they ran those tests, and then modified the event and ran it again to see if it was better or worse. I’m not sure it has been ‘designed’ in this sense. And I don’t just mean our local regional fair. I mean the entire concept. What are we trying to do? How do we know if it’s working? I conducted an unscientific bit of research, googling ‘What is the purpose of science fair?’. This query returns primarily sites that explain how to write a purpose statement (‘it should explain what it is you are trying to discover or prove’ Oof. I won’t say where that’s from, to protect the probably pure of heart.) It also turns up this 9 bullet point list of goals:

‘To encourage student, parents and teachers to take a more active interest in the study of science by providing a curricular opportunity for students to conduct and publicly present an independent scientific inquiry.
To provide an opportunity for students who are interested in science to do science.
To encourage and highlight the use of “scientific” process and the fundamental principles of science as students are guided in their development of a topic, complete the required research, and conduct an experiment or inquiry that shows an understanding for many of the processes of science.
To encourage parents, teachers and the greater scientific community in the guidance of science students.
To make available an opportunity to recognize “student” scientists.
To awaken the interest of the public in the scientific ability of its youngest members.
To encourage excellence in science and engineering.
To present an educational experience for top student participants through exposure to expert judges.
To engage the corporate community in recognizing outstanding students in technological and scientific fields.’ (

(I love the quotes around “scientific” in “”scientific” process”.) Nine bullet points seems like a lot for one project to do.

ISEF (International Science and Engineering Fair) states it more simply: ‘Inform. Educate. Inspire.’

I went looking for studies that show that science fair actually does these things. Even the ISEF folks don’t have anything of the sort, and you would think they’d plaster it all over their materials. It’s possible I’m just missing it, because it’s hard to find, even though I ‘asked ERIC’. Or because the research was done in 1956 (The National Science Fair: Purposes and Program, Joseph H. Kraus, The High School Journal, Vol. 39, No. 5 (Feb., 1956), pp. 265-269), and so now we all know science fair is good, right? Right?

I suppose I should design a project. Spend some time doing research at the library. Establish some criteria. Create some tests. Study 3 or 10 or 100 participants.

Where’s my notebook?


One response to “Designing Science Fair

  1. One of my proposed and pondered studies that has yet to get off the ground was a look at science fair projects and how they portray science, similar to work on undergraduate researchers in sciences. My pilot, which basically amounted to just taking notes during the state fair, basically confirm what I think our fears might be. The problem, to me, is that we setup science fair projects so that they are able to be “judged” rather than reviewed by peers and part of a larger conversation and process. And, I guess we’re trying to figure out a way to engineer the instructions for science fair so that we can all agree on what we’re looking for.

    I’m also struck by the fact that none of the goals you found, nor any I’ve seen elsewhere, explicitly say anything about reaching out to underrepresented groups, new ways of creatively approaching scientific problems, etc. And that’s sad, bordering on immoral. I’ll stop the paragraph before I rant, though I know you’d cheer me on.

    In your writing, you do a really really useful thing for the rest of the world: the clear and vivid distinction between what we’re doing in science and what we’re doing in engineering. It’s subtle, and clearly they overlap, but I think it’s important to recognize the differences so that we better know what we’re doing, in the classroom and beyond, including science fair.

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