L

ast fall, my daughter Veronica got an idea for the seventh grade science fair at her school. She’d compare different ways to clean a toothbrush. First she’d take a new toothbrush out of a package and brush her teeth, covering it with her mouth bacteria. Then, she’d clean it with one of three liquids: water, lemon juice, or vinegar. Finally, she’d wipe the brushes on Petri dishes and see how many bacteria grew on them.

It seemed to me like a straightforward enough idea. It might fail, but so what? It would still be worth her time.

I recalled my own doomed seventh-grade science fair project: a solar-powered hot dog cooker. I lined a cardboard box with a curved sheet of aluminum foil, convinced that it would act like a parabolic dish or a magnifying glass. I skewered a hot dog on a straightened-out coat hanger, so that I could suspend it at the focal point of the sun’s furious energy, where it would quickly roast to a crisp.

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Suffice to say, I didn’t win. The hot dog didn’t even get warm. But the experience was fun, and it got me thinking about what you actually need to do to invent something.

Veronica submitted her plan, and then reported back to me that we had to fill out some forms. These forms turned out to be an avalanche of confusing paperwork. We also learned that this experiment was so potentially dangerous that Veronica would have to carry it out under the supervision of a trained expert, who would first have to submit a detailed risk assessment.

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I was horrified at the thought that Veronica’s experience with science would die before it began. I needed help, and I knew who to ask for it. I live near Yale, and I’m acquainted with a lot of scientists there. I reached out to a microbiologist who also has kids in grade school. When I explained Veronica’s predicament, he felt my pain. He didn’t want to see a child turn away from science in disappointment, and so he invited Veronica to come to his lab and carry out her experiment there.

Veronica arrived with toothbrushes, bottles of vinegar and lemon juice, and a notebook. A researcher at the lab took her under her wing, offered some suggestions about improving the design of her experiment, showed her how to plate bacteria, how to incubate them, and how to count them.

Veronica got the chance to see how science is really done, under the guidance of generous, enthusiastic experts. She got good data, presented her results at the science fair at her school, and ended up going to the state fair, where she got an honorable mention. Afterward, she said she was surprised to discover that scientists tell jokes. She could even imagine herself becoming a scientist someday.

Science fair
The author’s daughter works on her science fair project at a lab at Yale. Carl Zimmer

The experience turned out well, but it also left me queasy. The only reason Veronica was able to carry out her experiment was that I had the flexibility to spend hours struggling through paperwork, and because I had a social network of scientists I’ve developed as a science writer. This was an exercise in privilege.

If Veronica had been the daughter of a single parent with a couple jobs and no connections to the world of science — if she had been like a lot of American kids, in other words — her idea would have gone up in smoke. She might not have even bothered thinking about the science fair at all.

I was reminded of Veronica’s experience when I saw President Obama planned to host his final White House science fair this week. Obama held the first fair in 2010, and each year he has continued to celebrate the work of some very talented students. This year should be no exception. There will be kids showing off homemade spacecraft, Ebola test kits, and environmentally safe batteries.

It’s great to bring so much attention to kids doing science. But when you look over the projects that win the Google Science Fair and the Intel Science Talent Search these days, it’s clear that they’re mostly the products of very bright, motivated students lucky enough to work in university labs where they can take advantage of expertise and equipment.

On a case-by-case basis, it’s nice to see professional scientists mentoring these students — just as Veronica got help. But how many students have the means and opportunity to wrangle that kind of access? Celebrating the nation’s science fair winners may theoretically inspire more students to look into doing projects on their own. But on its own, it does nothing to increase the number of students who actually follow through.

Writing in the Atlantic last March, Hana Schank reported that many students who start on science fair projects get little support, and they often don’t end up with a greater interest in science, or a better understanding of how it works.

I brought these concerns to Maya Ajmera. She is the president of Society for Science & the Public, which oversees the Intel Science Talent Search. Last fall, Intel announced it was dropping its sponsorship, but Ajmera told me that her organization will be able to announce a new sponsor in the next couple months. “We’ve been incredibly gratified with the extraordinary interest,” Ajmera said.

According to Ajmera, more than 118,000 students in grades six to 12 competed in the society’s affiliated fairs in 2015 — a number that’s held steady in recent years. She’s been gratified to see girls get much more involved. This year there were more girls than boys as finalists.

But Ajmera said that more needs to be done for underrepresented students. “We have to do a much better job on the equity piece,” she said. The society has launched a program for “advocates” who will help students turn research projects into science fair entries. Last summer the society gave grants to nine advocates and hopes to reach 100 in the next couple years.

I wish those advocates well. But 100 advocates can only make a tiny dent in a nationwide problem. We need ideas that can scale throughout the education system.

Perhaps there are easier ways to give a broad swath of American children a feel for how science works and a pleasure at building something. Maybe we don’t need a White House event, or hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money.

One of the things that students at Veronica’s school do is take a class in which they all build rockets. Along the way, they learn some engineering and physics. And then they all get to shoot their rockets into the sky.

Perhaps kids need to be shooting more rockets.

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  • Thought-provoking article and insightful and constructive comments! I’m glad to see momentum in promoting STEM for ALL interested students, not just those whose particular racial or gender group are presently under-represented at the outcome of a long process. Who’s up for organizing interested scientists into an association which can not only ease the way for students to connect with working scientists in their area but perhaps even start an outreach into the schools so that even students without privilege of connections can participate in events similar to “take your daugher to work day” where they would otherwise have no opportunity?

  • I recently read your article titled “Science fairs are as flawed as my solar-powered hot dog cooker” and not only was it a great read, but I resonated deeply with the ideas you were conveying. As a 6th grader, my first science fair project was dehydrating fruit in an oven. Because I lacked the resources and mentorship to actually execute a scientifically articulate project, I was left uninspired and nearly eschewed a career in the STEM fields. Due to certain teachers and professors, however, that changed- I ultimately went to UCLA as a neuroscience, pre-med student. As you were saying though, I believe I am part of a minority as the exception to the rule- how many other young students out there with an unlimited potential are left uninspired at the end of a science fair in which they did not even know where to start?

    I thought about this often, and thought hard. And then I created TheBruinExperiment (http://ucla.orgsync.com/org/thebruinexperiment/home). The idea was that if we could provide the mentorship for these brimming young middle school students and actually walk them through the steps of the scientific methods, inspiration would abound- and who better to provide this service for than our local underrepresented youth? There was a problem and there was a solution- and we linked them together.

    We had UCLA students, eager to go out there, give back to the community and work with the curious youth.
    On the other hand, we had the curious youth, eager for some mentorship as they navigated through the philosophies, intricacies and wonders of science.

    TheBruinExperiment served to match the problem with the solution. We created a 15 week program in which UCLA students would work with the local youth on science fair projects. Each week, we would explore one aspect of the scientific method and break into groups to work on that week’s step for the science fair presentation. At the end, we hosted a grand science fair at the Ackerman Grand Ballroom in UCLA, where our students got to share their projects and ideas, and have them judged by a panel of UCLA professors, researchers and doctors.

    The results were phenomenal. Brilliant projects, inspiration to pursue STEM careers, students that could now apply the philosophy of the scientific method and actually understand its significance to name a few. But to me, the greatest accomplishment was that the students who did not win were also inspired- and happy!. “Why?” I asked myself. The answer was clear- they enjoyed the process. Unlike my 6th grade science fair, where we were kind of thrown to the wolves and only the students with engineers/scientists in their family had what they needed could actually execute excellent experiments, our students had mentorship and resources (we use funding to pay for their apparatus) every step of the way. So in the end, the majority who inevitably would not win (simply because there are only 3 top places) felt like they still won in the sense that they enjoyed the experience and learned a lot.

    What more? The idea is spreading like fire. Another branch has already appeared in UCSB called TheGauchoExperiment. Additionally, two new branches are currently being formed in UCSD and Western University of Health Sciences. I always tell people that I believe this idea is self-sustainable. Every college has students eager to provide mentorship and give back to their community, and every community has youth brimming with curiosity and eager for mentorship. I wanted to share our idea with you because I truly resonated with your paper. Should you want to jump in and help us help the world, I’m all ears.

    Here are some YouTube links to the program:
    1. Our Bruin Science Fair: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s7iJDuMgvv8
    2. Our On-Site Visits: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Km1Bui9wFlo

  • Carl and readers may be interested to know that Yale-NUS College (an autonomous liberal arts college in Singapore created a few years ago by Yale and the National University of Singapore) has created a special award for the Singapore science fair that is restricted to “school or home-based projects”. We created this award because it had become virtually impossible for a student to win a top award at the science fair unless they had worked in a professional laboratory, usually as part of a larger project. Its not just that privilege is rewarded; its that the wrong message is being sent about what science is and what qualities are needed to make a contribution.

    Our of more than 400 projects that made it past the first cut this year, and were presented science fair itself, only 80 were school or home-based (that is, were not done using the resources and/or expertise of universities or research institutes). We awarded 10 of these our inaugural Yale-NUS College Awards for “exceptional creativity, resourcefulness, independence or curiosity” . (http://www.yale-nus.edu.sg/newsroom/22-april-2016-yale-nus-college-presents-special-award-singapore-science-engineering-fair-2016/)

  • The problem is not with “privilege” but with the evolution of ridiculous restrictions. There is nothing difficult, privileged, or dangerous about the experiment your daughter proposed nor was there any real need for her to do it in a University setting. Agar plates and bacterial plating can be done in a clean kitchen. It’s the restrictive regulations which almost held her back, and holds other children back. Current restrictions and regulations make it such that only privileged kids can participate — just as the author describes. Fight the excessive regulations and all else will fall into place.

  • Great article, Carl! It’s funny you mentioned shooting rockets…I helped start a science club at my kids’ public elementary school this year because of the very problem that your article describes. I’m neither a teacher nor a scientist, but I know how to find interesting and valuable resources (full disclosure: I work as a freelance science writer) and I enjoy talking about science with kids. So, on Mondays after school for the last 6 months or so, I’ve brought a bag full of materials — owl pellets, wind-up toy cars, brushbot kits from Makershed, boxes of cornstarch to make non-Newtonian fluids — and I handed them over to a group of about 30 elementary school students who then tinkered and teased things apart in a process that’s basically self-teaching. I asked a few questions, maybe showed a 5-minute Youtube video, and stepped back to let them explore. They’re encouraged to take risks and make mistakes. I don’t have answers to all of their questions, but I know where to look for helpful information. I’ve also recruited a handful of scientists and engineers to join us in person or via Skype on some weeks so the kids can direct their questions to true subject-matter experts and get a glimpse of what it might be like to enter a career in science.

    I’m sharing this story in your comment thread because I think others could follow the same model — particularly other science writers, or even just science enthusiasts who could help out at non-elite schools or in classes where the kids are at a disadvantage because their parents don’t have science connections. Our school PTA offered financial support for science club project supplies, which were easy to order and inexpensive. A 4th grade teacher lets us use her classroom and helps me with general oversight. Pressure for me as a facilitator has been fairly low because it’s a club, not a class, so I don’t have to follow a standard curriculum, correct tests, or deal with parents who are stressed about their child’s GPA. The biggest challenge has simply been finding time to volunteer each week. It’s time well spent, and not just for karmic reasons: Each activity has given me the chance to explore science in a new way and recall decades-old lessons from my own school days. For example, earlier this spring I attempted *my first* (!) water-propelled bottle rocket, a modest design that involved cardboard fins, a garbage-bag parachute and lots of clear packing tape. I’m about 25 years behind most people who first attempt bottle rocketry…but better late than never. 🙂

  • “The experience turned out well, but it also left me queasy. The only reason Veronica was able to carry out her experiment was that I had the flexibility to spend hours struggling through paperwork, and because I had a social network of scientists I’ve developed as a science writer. This was an exercise in privilege.”

    I am a 3 time science fair participant and 2008 Intel International Science Fair award winner. I am currently a graduate student in genetics, and when my first paper came out, my dad told me that “he tried to read it but couldn’t get past the first paragraph”. Needless to say, neither of my parents are in science nor have any connections to scientists.
    I did complete one of my high school science fair projects in a laboratory at a local engineering college. How did I get “in” to this lab? It certainly wasn’t because I had connections. Instead, when I was a sophomore in high school, I spend 6 months reading free journal articles from sites like pubmed.gov, and spend another 2 months writing a proposal and cover letter to a professor at the college (that I had no previous connection to her or the college) . She wrote back, and I used the advice from said professor to craft my original project. In fact, I spent so many hours working on my project at my high school that my mom would get frustrated that I wasn’t home until after dinner, and I did all the paperwork myself. I wish that this story had a happy ending like “and then I went to science fair and got first place”, but in fact, I didn’t do well on my presentation at the fair. I didn’t do well.
    At this point, I had two options: give up or figure out what went wrong and improve. I choose the latter, and when I presented for the professor that I had emailed earlier, she offered me a chance to work in her laboratory over the summer. I experienced many of the benefits that the author describes that his daughter did– gaining a sense of independence and also a clear understanding of “how science really got done”. If it wasn’t for science fair, I wouldn’t be in science today.
    Yes, I had a great science fair coordinator/high school science teacher and other supportive teachers. I also got extremely “lucky” that the professor was able to offer me a paid summer internship. There is a lot more to be done for other students to have these opportunities, such as the advocacy groups that the article mentions. Many high school students do get into labs because their parents have connections. This article focuses too much on “oh this group has so much privilege” rather than how can we help students that don’t have connected parents.
    I currently judge middle and high school science fairs, and I often struggle with how to assess students that clearly have different levels of parental involvement or school support. One of the best ways that I have found to do that working within the current scoring rubrics is asking questions that students who simply “did what their parents told them to do” wouldn’t be able to answer, such as how students came up with their projects or ask questions that requires that they apply what they learn. This critical thinking does not require having worked in a lab or having PhD parents.
    Furthermore, this author short-changed his daughter from learning many of the skills that students learn through science fair. Rather than asking his “scientist friends” whether his daughter could come work in the lab, what if he had encouraged his daughter to look up local scientists and email them a one paragraph description about the project? What if she had actually had to prepare for an interview for one or more of those labs? The author does not mention his daughter’s display board or presentation, but given how involved he was with the other steps, it isn’t a far cry to think that he was involved with that too.
    What would happen if parents took a step back and let the child work on the project themselves? Let them struggle with the paperwork, let them go to the public library and have them read articles about their topic, let them find scientists or STEM graduates in the area to interview, let them read about how to pick a topic (shameless plug: https://hopkinton.instructure.com/courses/39/pages/hhs-alumni-presentation-how-to-choose-a-project). If you feel you “must” be involved, teach your kids how to catch the proverbial fish rather than give them one. My parents were able to help with with interviewing and listening to me practice my presentations. After that, it was up to me.
    Just let your child do it, even if it means they fail. That in and of itself is a valuable lesson. Also, if they truly love science, they will come back the next year and be a force. Given that almost all experiments “in real life” don’t work out the way that you think that they are going to, it’s actually great preparation for what it means to be a scientist.

    While this article wants to be an attack on privilege, this article is a much greater commentary on the impact of helicopter parents being afraid to see their kids fail.

    • You raised some very important and relevant points, as a scientist myself, I was always aware of unique advantage my kids have over many other who don’t have that privilege. I think this made me somewhat harsher on them and as you mentioned, I always insisted on them finding their own science fair project and executing it, I only kept my involvement to procuring the necessary stuff required for the project. The ideas which you suggested are great, but at the same time they only work when a child is very self motivated or has already decided that he or she is going to choose science as a career or don’t know that there are some kids who get very unfair and unique advantage because of their parents’ connections. I worked at Yale and many of my friends also work at Yale, they also have their kids in the same school and when my kids see other kids getting advantage of their parents’ connections they feel annoyed and frustrated. I had really tough time to explain to them that it is not fair for many other students if you use your parents’ connections to prepare an excellent science fair project, as the science fair is not only about winning the competition, but also about learning the process and technique. But it seems winning also matters, and when I see kids only from a particular background consistently winning the competition it makes me question my standards and values. I wish every kid follows suggestions offered by you, but the reality is very different and I hope policy makers address this issue properly to make a level playing field for all students irrespective of their parents’ connections.

  • Thanks for an excellent story. The advocates program is a good start. My suggestions for expansion might be a program to bring retired scientists or teachers in to help students to navigate science fair experimental design and/or paperwork. Alternatively, administrators major US urban colleges and universities could facilitate. They could connect science undergraduates, graduates or postdocs with volunteer project to help kids who for economic or other reasons might not be able to compete otherwise. The volunteer work might provide an escape from a frustrating day in lab. @sciguy999

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