Confession of a Science Fair Judge

Google “science fair” and you’ll be presented with 61,700,000 results … yes, you read that right. 61 million +! The first one up in the search I just did is a site called It advertises hundreds of detailed science fair project ideas for all grade levels in a wide range of topics from Aerodynamics to Zoology. To be first up, it must be pretty popular or have paid for the privilege. But there are pages and pages of other similar sites.

Nightingale Elementary Science Fair

Nightingale Elementary Science Fair

There are also images … images of the now ubiquitous science fair boards (wish I had stock in those companies) displaying titles like “Do white candles burn faster than colored candles?” (3 photos of this exact project, each directly below the other, differing in color scheme only) and “Does temperature effect a tennis balls (sic) bounce?” and the ever popular “Which paper towel is the most absorbent?”

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve judged that last project, I could have a pretty decent meal tonight at a nice restaurant.

There’s something terribly wrong here. And it makes me wonder …

Is this what scientific investigation has been reduced to in our schools? A series of formulaic, recipe driven activities that kids and parents plod through every year … more to get it over with than out of any genuine curiosity about what they will discover by doing the investigation.

In what has become the quintessential TED talk with over 6 million views, Sir Ken Robinson asked in 2007 “Do schools kill creativity?”

The presumptive answer is “Yes!” Robinson claims, “We are educating people out of their creative capacities.” Is the current model for Science Fairs one small incremental way in which we do that? Probably. For the record, Robinson defines creativity as “the process of having original ideas that have value.”

Four interesting words pop out at me in this quote: process, original, ideas, and value. I’ll leave you to ponder the role each of these plays in our current science fair culture. In far too many cases, original is surely open to question. While seeing what kids can do that is original is inspiring.

Take, for example, 14-year old Maria Elena Grimmett who got her science fair project idea from her own observations. “I live next to a golf course and I always saw them spray pesticides on the lawn,” she said. “I wondered if these contaminants could possibly get in the water table because naturally Florida has a shallow water table.”

Here’s how Maria’s abstract of her work defined the problem she was attempting to solve and the approach she took in her study “Removal of Sulfamethazine by Hypercrosslinked Adsorbents in Aquatic Systems”:

“Four hundred tons of sulfamethazine are fed to livestock annually in North America to prevent disease and promote growth, but most of the drug is excreted unmetabolized into the environment. Because of slow degradation and high mobility, sulfamethazine contaminates groundwater supplies and causes aquatic ecosystem damage. Current water treatment methods to remove pharmaceuticals are not universally effective and have considerable limitations, which necessitate newer remediation techniques. Hypercrosslinked adsorbents, polystyrene polymers 100% crosslinked with methylene bridges, show promise because of high surface areas, high mechanical strength, and regenerable properties. This study screened four Purolite hypercrosslinked adsorbents (MN152, MN250, PAD400, and PAD600) to remove sulfamethazine from contaminated water and then characterized the most efficient resin, MN250, with batch adsorption and desorption experiments to optimize its use.”

Sorry about that. Admittedly, Maria is a special case. The daughter of well-educated parents who were able to spend thousands of dollars supporting her research, she is enrolled in a school for the gifted. She discovered her passion for science in third grade in the classroom of an inspiring teacher who encouraged science projects and has spent years developing her skills as a researcher. (italics mine)

Then there is sixth grader Suvir Mirchandani who wondered about how he could help his school save money on handouts. Everyone else was focusing attention on reducing paper costs with double sided printing and single spacing documents, but Suvir got curious about whether or not even more money might be saved reducing the use of ink. He studied fonts and came to the conclusion that by switching to Garamond, his school district could save $21,000 a year. Now 14, Suvir has extended his research, applying similar reasoning and analysis to quantify how much the U.S. government could save by switching fonts. It’s a whopping $1.8 billion for 2014.

Admittedly, Suvir is a special case as well. And there are others.

But mightn’t there be more Maria’s and Suvir’s, if we could stop making science fairs so formulaic?

Pershing Elementary Science Fair Project

Pershing Elementary Science Fair Project

I would like to see more science fair projects grow out of genuine student interest, sparked by their curiosity about things they see in the world around them and things they are studying in school. Rather than last minute, as they so often are, what if science fair projects were begun the previous year as an outgrowth of each student’s ongoing thinking about the science they’ve been studying in school, worked on over the summer, further developed at the beginning of the school year, and brought to fruition just ahead of “science fair season?” I imagine these projects could be students’ attempts to pursue ideas and questions that have sparked their natural born curiosity. And I imagine that by starting the previous year, students would have ample time to think more deeply about their topic, to become truly expert, to try, to fail and fail and fail, until they finally nail whatever it is they are trying to figure out. Now those would be science fairs that would be a delight to attend and to judge! Those would be science fairs with real scientists in front of their data, children who are thinking and acting like their adult counterparts, children who would have a much better shot at actually becoming STEM professionals. What a boost that would be for our country’s ability to advance the human condition.

So my confession is this. While I love talking with children about their science fair projects, watching them blossom into the confident adults  they hopefully will continue to become, I live for the day when I’m not judging somebody else’s project, the somebody who created the recipe that the child in front of me has simply followed.

What do you think?

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple’s STEM professional development program here.

You might also enjoy this thoughtful blog post by science teacher Nick Mitchell who asks the question, “Are Science Fairs Worth It?”  You can read it here.







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Filed under children as scientists, Nightingale Elementary School, science fair, Uncategorized

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