STAT correspondent Carl Zimmer had some choice words about science fairs this week, calling them “an exercise in privilege.”
His story drew a strong reaction. Here are perspectives from four science fair participants. Like Carl, all acknowledged that science fairs exclude some students. But they also want to see the process fixed. One of the students is actively trying to do just that.
Alexa Dantzler: Her SOAR project helps minority girls do science
Meghan Shea: Many ways to reform the science fair system
Vincent O’Leary: Science fairs “opened doors for me”
Kathy Liu: Encourage the curiosity and passion of young minds
Alexa Dantzler: A science project that I started my freshman year at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Va., grew in scope and detail, eventually earning me a spot in the Intel Science Talent Search. I wanted to know if perchloroethylene, a potentially carcinogenic chemical used in dry cleaning, accumulates in clothing. With eventual help from a Georgetown University professor and several of his graduate students, I learned that it does, and that some fabrics accumulate more than others.
When I began participating in science fairs, I noticed that I was one of very few minority students. That disturbed me. I had read that minority women were highly underrepresented in careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and saw this disparity in science fair competitions.
When I entered college in 2013, I started a program called Students Obtaining Atlanta Research (SOAR) to help minority girls get involved in doing science. Working with other groups at Emory University, we brought public school students from economically disadvantaged neighborhoods to the campus. I met many young women who were excited about science and who had been looking for opportunities to do research but didn’t know how to begin.
Emails to Emory researchers brought immediate results. Several agreed to mentor students. Three SOAR participants are now working at Emory in biology or chemistry labs, another is working in an environmental engineering lab at Georgia Tech. All are doing original research, and loving it. The program doesn’t involve just university mentors. It integrates their work with efforts by parents, teachers, and others.
The first cohort of SOAR participants started in their junior year of high school, too late to develop successful science fair projects. The second cohort started as sophomores. I meet with them regularly to create and build original projects and am encouraging them to apply to national research competitions.
Their entries won’t immediately change the inequalities in minority representation in science and research competitions. I hope that universities will use SOAR and similar programs to effectively partner with high schools to increase representation by minority students or those from low-income backgrounds.
The students taking part in national science fair competitions should reflect the diversity of the United States. Getting there will take innovative thinking and hard work.
Alexa Dantzler is a junior at Emory University in Atlanta, where she is a double major in biology and African studies.
Meghan Shea: I agree wholeheartedly with what Carl Zimmer said about science fairs being privileged spaces. In the realm of successful science fair participants, I was one of the least privileged people I know. I didn’t have a parent who was a scientist. I didn’t have connections to a laboratory until I outgrew my basement and high school labs. And I didn’t go to a high school that had a magnet program for science research. But I did go to one of the best public high schools in Pennsylvania, and had parents who supported my work. Both gave me a leg up in science fair competitions.
There’s no question that many students don’t have the resources I had, making it difficult or impossible for them to participate in science fairs. But the idea of science fairs is good, even though their execution may be flawed.
My journey through science fairs began in seventh grade with a project to determine if tearless shampoos for babies were more acidic than non-tearless shampoos (they weren’t). I graduated to more complex problems, like how to clean up oil spills. The project that took me to the Intel Science Talent Search was a filter I built out of household items and seeds that could be used to purify water in places without access to clean water. It was based around ground seeds from the Moringa oleifera tree, which is widely cultivated in tropical and subtropical areas. The seed has a protein that makes bacteria and other particles clump together so they can then be filtered out when passed through soil, charcoal, and fabric.
Science fairs exposed me to people who were extremely dedicated to their research and who were doing things beyond my imagination. That kept spurring me to do better science. The competitions are why I’m now very comfortable speaking in public. They nudged me to learn elements of graphic design to make my posters readable and engaging. And they constantly pushed me to dream bigger.
While I idolized scientists throughout high school, my biggest role models were science fair winners. I would never have heard about their work if it hadn’t been rewarded. Having science competitions and events like the White House Science Fair places a higher value on student science research, which I believe has encouraged schools to include more accessible science projects and inquiry into their curricula. It’s easy to succumb to the idea that research and innovation are just for adults, but science fairs provide a highly visible platform to champion the value of student minds.
While seeing role models who have access to resources you can only dream about could be a source of frustration rather than inspiration, I think there are many ways to reform the science fair system so a wider range of students can participate. The advocacy program started this year by the Society for Science & the Public is a great first step, as are competitions that have created different categories for students who worked in outside laboratories and those who didn’t. I hope that these and other efforts to reward student scientists more holistically and to create more resources for student research will help address the immense privilege gap that exists in science fairs.
At the end of the day, I want every student to be able to do what Carl Zimmer’s daughter did, or what I was able to do in high school — use the scientific method to answer questions.
Meghan Shea is a junior at Stanford University, where she studies environmental systems engineering, a newly created major.
Vincent O’Leary: I grew up in a small town in West Virginia. All eighth-graders were expected to do some sort of science project. I like the outdoors, so I decided to see if the water quality in parks was different from that in forests. It was a very simple project. I went to lakes and ponds in town parks and forests and tested their acidity using pH strips I had bought online. My mom and dad supported this work, but didn’t do any of it.
I learned that West Liberty University hosted a regional science fair, and presented my work there. A few weeks later, I was surprised when someone from the university contacted me and asked If I would like to work with an aquatic biologist there, as part of the school’s efforts to support science in local schools. I quickly agreed.
The biologist, Zachary Loughman, told me about an invasive species of crayfish that was beginning to cause problems in West Virginia. I set up several tanks in my basement and observed how these crayfish and the native ones interacted with each other and with other species. My mentor helped me learn about data analysis and scientific presentation. I entered variations of this project in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for three years.
My first science fair opened doors for me to do real scientific research. The international fair did much more. It gave me a new goal to shoot for each year. It taught me to ask questions. It showed me that failing is not only OK but is a necessary part of science. Because you have to explain your project to everyone from science teachers and Nobel laureates to the general public, science fairs taught me how to communicate science. One of my favorite parts of science is being able to talk to someone and get them excited about science.
Competing in science fairs also helped me get to the college I attend today, both in getting accepted and in paying for it with some of the awards I won.
It’s impossible to say where I’d be now without science fairs, but those experiences gave me a platform to do research about the environment and introduced me to a new world of questions.
Vincent O’Leary, a junior at Drexel University in Philadelphia, is studying earth and environmental science. He is also a research assistant in the Biodiversity Informatics Project at the Academy of Natural Sciences.
Like many teenagers, I had hazy ideas about what career I wanted to follow. The two main choices, law or a science-or technology-related field, were influenced mainly by my general fondness for related subjects, TV shows, and popular media. However, getting involved in science and technology fairs showed me where I truly want to head.
“What if?” questions often pop up in my brain, and having the first science fair date on my calendar really motivated me to try to solve them. During my freshman year, I started working in my garage, experimenting with various materials I ordered online. I learned, problem-solved, thought critically, and became increasingly interested in this type of organized yet largely free-form exploration. I’ve delved into deeper research and have eventually developed a solid-state (no acids or flammable liquids) lithium-sulfur battery that holds a charge after being recharged hundreds of times.
On the day of fairs, I get the opportunity to engage in conversations with judges about the research process and the results. Being able to talk to professional scientists and have them be interested in the work I had done is so inspiring and thought-provoking.
That’s a significant value of science and engineering fairs: valuing and encouraging the curiosity and passion of young minds. Science fairs inspire students to give exploration and innovation a shot, or a much-needed extra oomph.
I’m part of an after-school science fair club at our school. To help increase participation by all students, we help focus ideas and hone experiments; work to help find financial and research support for students; coordinate science fair entries; and mentor younger students. The best part? At our school, it’s entirely organized by students.
The science fair process isn’t a perfect system. But for me and many science fair students I have met, the process has been a catalyst for getting involved in the world of technological discovery.
As the popular internet saying goes, “It’s not a phase, Mom.” For me, it’s the beginning of a lifetime of inspired innovation.
Kathy Liu is a junior at West High School in Salt Lake City, Utah. At the 2015 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, she won best in category in the chemical energy category.