The Atlantic: Science Fairs Aren’t Fair

The Atlantic has an interesting article out about science fairs. Science fairs seem to be the bane of many students’ existence, requiring them to come up with some science project and then make an exhibit about it. While the goals of science fairs – to encourage students in science and to identify especially gifted students – seem to be reasonable – even commendable – the article argues that the reality is very different.

When you look at the projects from people winning prominent science fairs such as the Intel program, which offers hundreds of thousands of dollars of scholarships each year, troubling patterns appear. It looks like some of the things winners have in common are living in or near towns with major universities, having close connections to professional scientists, and having parents who are willing to put in a lot of time and money to get the best project. Thus, instead of identifying the most promising students, science fair competitions often just amplify inequalities between students. Apparently, the same happens in Canada as well, so this isn’t just an American phenomenon.

This is something that I’ve always suspected was probably true. Similar problems plague education at all levels, and selective programs such as colleges and scholarship programs always seem to struggle at identifying the best students when students come from very unequal backgrounds. I’m not sure how to fix things, and the article doesn’t provide many suggestions. Students with scientifically-oriented parents will probably always have some advantage simply due to more exposure to science and technology. Perhaps unfair advantages can be mitigated by requiring projects to be done on a limited budget and barring any work done in a professional environment. At least that way, a student from a small town or poor district doesn’t have to compete with someone working in a university lab with a multimillion dollar budget.