When you think of school science fair projects, you might think of baking soda volcanoes or Styrofoam models of the planets. More to the point, that’s what a lot of students think of – and what they enter – in science fairs.
But to a lot of real scientists, projects like that are a missed opportunity. They say that rather than just building models, children as young as eight or ten can do actual science and discover new things.
When 14 year old Kyle Gazzillo was getting ready for this year’s school science fair in Dalton, Mass., he had a pretty good idea what he wanted to enter.
"I was hoping to combine inside a bottle baking soda and vinegar and seeing which ones explode the best," Gazzillo said.
Of course, it’s easy to understand why teenagers gravitate toward projects that explode. Those baking soda rockets and volcanoes are old standards at science fairs, so popular that you’ll find more than a hundred videos on YouTube of kids making them.
But the more Kyle thought about building effervescent bottle bombs, the less excited he became.
"That’s something a lot of people know how to do," he said. "It’s just messy and looks cool. It has no science behind it besides the reaction with baking soda and vinegar or whatever you want to mix."
So by the time we met them at the Massachusetts State Science and Engineering Fair, Kyle and his research partner, Owen Alibozek, were showing off a very different experiment.
"We did our project on standing and sitting, how it affects your memory," Alibozek said.
"Yeah, because when I study I tend to like to stand, and maybe I was wondering if that affected people. And it did. Actually standing improved most people’s memory," said Gazzillo.
That new project – one the eighth graders thought of themselves – earned third place in the state finals. And it’s the kind of thing the fair’s executive director, Cora Beth Abel, wants to see more of; original research that relates to students’ own lives, rather than demonstrations they copy from the Internet or from books.
"When students own their research, they care about it, and especially when it relates to the world around them, that student really gets excited and inspired in a way that reading a textbook just can’t do," Abel said.
The Massachusetts fair has promoted that so-called “inquiry based science” for years, but when it comes to the smaller fairs that local schools might hold, projects still often lean toward the familiar standbys.
"When my daughter had a science fair, what she came home with was the idea to demonstrate something we already know," said N.C. State University biologist Robb Dunn.
Dunn helps write a blog about bugs and microbes called “Your Wild Life.” Lately, he’s been on a crusade to improve science fairs, which started when his second grade daughter showed him a list of suggested projects.
"The standard sheet of paper had volcanoes, it had lots and lots of beans, you could do a collection of leaves, but what nobody was telling these kids in general is that even as second graders, they can do science that produces results to questions we don’t know the answer to," Dunn said.
Dunn says most kids don’t realize there are a lot of questions like that. So on their blog, Dunn and his colleague Holly Menninger asked readers to suggest projects that allow young people to do real science. They got more than a hundred ideas.
"So what do ants do when it rains? What do spiders in our house eat? What effect does the ‘please pick up after your dog’ sign actually have on the removal of dog poop from a community?" Menninger said, listing a few ideas.
Those projects focus on things kids see every day and they could even discover something new, but Menninger concedes they also involve something of a leap of faith because unlike exploding bottles, original projects can have unpredictable results or no useful results at all.
"This happens to scientists all the time, too, that your hypothesis could have been wrong and I think that’s great. I think that sometimes some of the most exciting discoveries are things we don’t anticipate," she says.
But who wins a grand prize in a science fair with an experiment that doesn’t come up with a result? We want something that goes boom or makes a lot of mold. Those are the ones that win the prizes.
"Yeah, that’s a culture change I think, sort of steering people away from the final product and focusing more on the process," Menninger responds.
Menninger says a lot of kids are ready to do that. The bigger challenge is getting buy-in from adults.
At Western Carolina University, biology professor Kefyn Catley manages a regional science fair and leads these workshops to prepare teachers for it. He says some adults make the fairs worse; parents who do the work for their children or teachers who provide little guidance.
"There’s no question in my mind that 80 percent of the teachers that routinely do science fairs are not competent themselves," Catley said.
"And this is no criticism. This is a critique of their education experience because they have no research background, so they find it very difficult to advise students and the quality is pretty bad."
Cately says there’s no quick fix for what he calls “cookie cutter” science fairs. He says it will take better training for teachers and more support for science in general, but at fairs that have changed their culture, you can see the difference.
As the prizes were handed out at the Massachusetts fair, the winners ranged from complex projects that studied topics like gene mutation … to simple things, like a student who found a way to make fluffier cupcakes. What they had in common is that they were fresh, scientifically sound, and potentially useful.
And there wasn’t a baking soda rocket among the bunch.
This production is part of the STEM Story Project with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, presented by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.