All is Fair in... Science?

I never participated in a science fair, but I've been thinking a lot about them lately. In the past week I've (pretty randomly) ordered two new books on science competitions from Amazon and read three articles on them. I suppose it's science fair season, but it's also left me wondering if science fairs/contests are gaining in popularity?

In my mind I group together science fairs, girl scouting, and moms who have fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies ready for you when you get home from school-- various aspects of "traditional," and perhaps historical, American childhoods that you are more likely to encounter in children's literature than in real life.  According to this piece by Daniel Barth, Science Fair programs started in the US in 1921 and organized competition went national in 1941. This timeline is very consistent with historical patterns of organized competition for kids in the US. In my research on the history of organized, competitive afterschool activities I label the time period from the Progressive Era through the Second World War the "seeds of competition" and the time period post-WWII through the 1970s the "growth of competition" (since then, into the present, we have the "explosion of hyper-competitiveness").

Dr. Barth also points out that the traditional science fair model has become more about ego for parents and kids and "the validity of work and the experience of doing real science takes a back seat to grades and prizes – and vicarious glory."  However, another article on Lyman High School in Florida, published earlier this month in Education Week, suggests that integrating competition with the science curriculum helps students remain engaged and excited about science and can help increase creativity as well.  I would agree with teacher Bill Yucuis, with an important caveat.

Young superstar scientists exist.  An article, "The Next Nobels," in this month's O Magazine (not yet available on the web, so click HERE to see a scanned PDF from my copy) highlights four high-achieving young scientists; they are also four of the twelve kids featured in Science Fair Season, which will be released tomorrow.  Probably the most famous "science fair" remains the Westinghouse (now Intel, since 1998) Talent Search, and it's kids like those featured in the O piece and the book who will be competitive for this highly prestigious event.  But what about all the kids who are not great enough to compete at such a high level? I'm convinced by a variety of educational and psychological research that in-class competitions can help kids get excited about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) by giving them a goal and getting them engaged.  Competitions held outside of school are trickier though. When you go up against a superstar and constantly lose, it can be discouraging and lead to drop-out (what I call the "problem of the high-achieving child"). That means we may be losing the really good science students who could eventually catch up to some of the great science students if given the time, instruction, and opportunity.  What to do about this is not at all clear and in this case, big, public competitions could exacerbate the problem.

It appears that one teacher, Amir Abo-Shaeer, has found a way around this problem (incidentally, Abo-Shaeer is the first high school teacher to ever win a MacArthur "Genius" Grant).  Abo-Shaeer uses robotics competitions to make science "cool" for students as his school-within-a-school.  His team's story is the focus on the just-released The New Cool: A Visionary Teacher, His FIRST Robotics Team, and the Ultimate Battle of Smarts by Neal Bascomb. I just got the book and it's in my mile-high tower of books-to-be-read-soonish, so I'll let you know if I discover his secret. The book has been getting great reviews so it seems to be worth checking out.

What strikes me is that Abo-Shaeer appears to focus on robotics competitions.  Robotics is obviously a part of any STEM curriculum. And I can see how the technological aspects of robotics is particularly appealing to kids and adolescents. But what happens to the other parts of STEM? Are those more likely to be covered by superstar young scientists? I'd be interested to know if anyone knows of any research on this-- or how various parts of the STEM curriculum break down by sex.  If it is a trend to focus on more specific types of competitions (like robotics, or mathematics) as opposed to general science fairs, that's very interesting, and consistent with increased specialization in careers and the educational system.

As for specifics, can someone please answer this question for me: What is the difference, if any, between a science fair, a science competition, and a science talent search? I guess they are all the same thing essentially, so why the different names? Or is a fair more school/locally-based, while competitions and searches are more national?