The Rise of the Science Competition

MICHELLE GUO

It wasn’t until after my first fair, when I walked away almost empty-handed, that I remembered what had first drawn me into research: the chance to learn things I couldn’t find in a classroom.

Gateway, Michelle Guo FeaturedIt’s the moment of truth at the North Jersey Regional Science Fair. Although I’m looking forward to discussing my research with other scientists, a different kind of anticipation is sparking in the crowded high school gym. I see it in the students clustered at their displays, frantically rehearsing presentations or putting the final touches on their professionally printed posters. A voice comes over the loudspeaker: “The Intel International Science and Engineering Fair judges will now be coming to your posters. Students, please prepare for your presentations. This is a casual reminder that we’re competing for prestige, fully-funded trips, and ultimately, thousands of dollars in scholarships.

From the dozen fairs that I attended during high school, I’ve noticed both the good and bad of competitive science fairs. Yes, they’re exciting. The rewards are motivational. But do they really encourage a sustainable interest in science? Or does the intrigue of research dry up once the prizes disappear?

There are two problems with science competitions. The first is that the media glamorizes young people doing science. In my experience, the biggest fairs often transform into gala-like events, complete with slick photography and video crews. A quick web search brings up hundreds of blurbs about superhero students conquering the world’s problems. This decorated portrayal of science competitions promotes the idea that the ability to understand and contribute to the scientific community is reserved to a privileged few. It turns science into a spectator sport, where ordinary people can only gaze in awe at the genius kids on TV who battle cancer with their bare hands. Popular culture’s treatment of science renders it untouchable. Far from stimulating young minds, it becomes something confounding, something that only a genius could understand.

The other major issue with science competitions is that it discourages youth from doing science for the sake of discovery. Many students that I met at science fairs and in my high school’s research program were simply interested in research for the advantage they conferred in college admissions. Instead of taking the time to patiently organize their data and to interpret their findings, they focus on getting quick results that will meet deadlines and impress the judges. Young researchers may worry that another student’s project is more likely to win awards than their own. They may completely miss opportunities for growth through collaboration. Of course, some competition provides the motivation to continue past initial obstacles, but it should not become the only way to get young people involved in scientific research.

At first I, too, was sucked into the competitive side of high school scientific research. It wasn’t until after my first fair, when I walked away almost empty-handed, that I remembered what had first drawn me into research: the chance to learn things I couldn’t find in a classroom. After that, I began to open up to the positive side of science competitions. While some students were only there to win, I met many others who, like me, were genuinely interested in studying science. They taught me to appreciate other fields that I otherwise have ignored. When I pushed away the pressure to achieve, what was left was the curiosity that drew me to research in the first place.

To develop that kind of curiosity, we need to encourage research with children in a noncompetitive manner. With this in mind, in 2012 I helped create the Bergen Science Challenge, our first countywide middle school science fair. Our goals were to promote research, spread the joy of science, bring students together, and show that science is something to participate in—not just watch. Every student at the Challenge was a winner, receiving certificates as well as gift bags stuffed with puzzles, T-shirts, and treats. While students knew they had the chance to qualify as Broadcom Masters semifinalists, we focused on applauding their efforts and showing them, through fun activities and demonstrations, that anyone can take part in science.

In addition to events like these, it is important that scientists and educators teach children early on that science is more than facts in a textbook. Dynamic discoveries are an essential part of science, and museum exhibits should be designed to reflect that: recent research findings should stand alongside the work of Newton and Galileo. Science centers could add more interactive exhibits so students can learn how to apply their own ideas to science. At school, young students could create their own projects with the mentorship of older students or professionals. High schools could invest in courses on scientific research, with the ultimate goal of helping students work on areas of their own choosing, perhaps even in collaboration with local labs. By making young people’s research an educational priority, we as a society can bring about a sustainable interest in science.

Michelle Guo is a Brevia staff writer. She can be reached at michelleguo@college.harvard.edu.