Blog Post

Sputnik or Model T? Why Science Fairs are Failing

Today's New York Times brings us another article on why American kids are failing at science.  This one comes with a twist.  Amy Harmon's "It May Be A Sputnik Moment, but Science Fairs Are Failing" argues that we cannot rally kids to science if they are too busy studing for the End of Grade tests.   Here's the url:


The assessment of the problem is correct but the cure must go lots deeper.   Virtually everything in our current educational system (K-20) is designed for a highly mechanistic, divided, discipline-specific way of thinking that has very little to do with great science--or great thinking in any field.   That is, we've bought into the idea that achievement scores on a highly limited test (the item response multiple choice test is our favorite model) is an end result.   We've flipped it, making the metric that is supposed to gauge how well kids learn and where they might need improvement as  the end point or goal that measures if they have learned successfully.   What that means is the Kaplan people and lots of others make millions teaching you how to do better on tests . . . not how to think more creatively, imaginatively, experimentally, boldly.   Success in our society is measured by how well you can respond to a limited range of options on a multiple-choice test.


That form of testing was invented for efficiency, using the model (explicitly) of the assembly line as an inspiration for turning out kids, for easy grading, for meeting the challenge of getting immigrants in the first decades of the twentieth century through the public school system which could not handle the masses flowing through.   Now that test of what was then called "lower order thinking" is our single metric for all achievement, from first graders to law school, medical school, and beyond.   We're teaching the best achievers how to game the system . . . how to do well on that test.    We are not inspiring them to excel on the biggest test there is:  the one that requires creative problem-solving in the real world, whether in the science fair or in the greater fair that is the 21st century.


To succeed there, we need not just science fairs but real challenges that expand and explore kids' thinking, like the ones they encounter every day, and (judging by the statistics) several hours in each day in their video games and other forms of interactive learning.  Instead of trivializing that form of learning, instead of thinking video games are the problem, educators would do well to turn that around:  if these games inspire kids to higher and higher challenges, greater and greater acts of speed and dexterity and strategy and planning and, often, in the multiplayer games, collaborative skill, how can we take those mechanisms and transform them to inspired and inspiring learning?  Games are among the oldest of human preoccupations.   There's a reason.  Unlike multiple choice End of Grade exams, games are open ended, they don't tell you answers from which you pick one single-item without making logical connections one to the other.   Games give you the rules and they you have to work brilliantly, adaptively, creatively, experimentally within those.  A lot like science.  Or any higher order critical thinking.




1 comment

This paragraph from the NYT article was illustrative of the challenge:

Some time-strapped teachers seek out scientists in industry and at universities to work with science fair students, but such connections are difficult to make. Even in the heart of Silicon Valley, it took two months of concerted effort before Craig Young, a physics teacher at Wilcox High School in Santa Clara, Calif., found a professional mentor to advise two students who wanted to use bacteria to generate electricity. He posted on the National Lab Network, a Web site devoted to such collaborations, but his requests went unanswered.

That's a huge opportunity for knowledge networking. How do we connect and promote connections between experts, students and their teachers or groups?

The Science Olympiad was great for me ( I spent weeks preparing for about 5-7 events ranging from mousetrap vehicles, thermal insulation, bridge construction, and more.  Craft was as important as the principles involved and the iterative design process that one had to go through to get a good working prototype reinforced persistence and experimentation.  I only wish those opportunities had carried over into high school, but my experience was similar to the one described in the article where only certain students were encouraged and enabled to compete. 

I think it's rather unfortunate that NSF encourages only major commitments to K-12 education through grad student and faculty fellowships. What if the commitment were reduced to an event or and few months – as in short, iterative, experimental engagements?  Perhaps then it wouldn't seem to conflict as much with career goals and reward systems.