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Are science fairs passe?  Please describe your conclusion on this poster board.

  • David Brooks Concord MonitorThis March 22, 2014, photo shows students from 16 schools on the floor of the gym at NHTI, Concord’s Community College, as part of the 11th Science and Engineering Expo.



Monitor staff
Monday, February 27, 2017

If you’re reading a column with “geek” in the title, you probably have fond and/or painful memories of being in a science fair.

You know the routine: Find a project, run it for weeks or months, record data (maybe fudging it a bit), anguish over a write-up, then finally summarize everything on a trifold poster that you schlep into the school cafeteria on Science Fair Night, where you stammer through a prepared spiel for a procession of judges and friends’ parents.

If you’ve forgotten what it’s like, you can check out NHTI next month when it hosts the annual New Hampshire Science and Engineering Expo, a science fair featuring teens from around the state.

So it’s definitely part of the educational routine. But should it be?

I ask because Intel, the computer chip giant, is dropping its longtime sponsorship of the International Science and Engineering Fair amid discussion about whether the whole approach is outdated in an era of hands-on Maker Faires, engineering contests like FIRST Robotics, and continuous online education.

The resulting hand-wringing (a New York Times story was headlined “Intel drops its sponsorship of science fairs, prompting an identity crisis”) is particularly painful for the N.H. Science and Engineering Expo, a volunteer-run event that has spent years struggling to get recognition despite a lack of state support.

“It’s kind of appalling when I compare New Hampshire to other states,” said Deb Shue, an engineer with MITRE Corp. in Massachusetts who is president of the NHSEE. She remembers a time when “only three states did not participate in the international competition, and New Hampshire was one of them.”

“We are maybe similar to a regional fair in Massachusetts – it’s big bucks there. And Texas! Texas probably sends 30 to 40 students to international competition,” she said.

In more than a decade of effort, the all-volunteer group slowly built up a cadre of judges – including me, an indication of how desperate they were at times – and developed the procedures and methods required by the International Science and Engineering Fair.

That effort paid off. For the past two years it has been a real “state science fair,” able to send winning New Hampshire high school students to the national contest, where they’ve snagged several prizes. The prospect of having a rug pulled out from under the whole process is disheartening.

Still, it never hurts to re-examine your premises.

“I think that it’s time to adapt from that, definitely,” said David Benedetto, director of STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) at the New Hampshire Department of Education. “Science education is changing and the science fair needs to change with it – be more hands-on, constructivist, getting in and making things. . . . The three-panel fold-up is passive, not active.”

“I don’t think we should drop the science fair, but adapt with the times, maybe have a traditional category and other categories,” he said.

Careful what you wish for, Shue said. She argues that while those new approaches work for engineering and software, they are less effective for the life sciences, including medical and environmental projects, and they may not teach the communication skills necessary in the traditional approach.

“We still need the outlet for the kids who are going to cure cancer, find ways to purify water,” she said. “There needs to be an outlet for basic research to be shown and shared, and the presentation part of it is an exceptional skill that these kids develop. They have to organize, present the material coherently, be able to tell people in 15 minutes what it’s all about; they are skills that allow to become a project manager going forward.”

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Indeed, there was a pretty good demonstration of that earlier this month, as the American Association for the Advancement of Science held its huge annual meeting in Boston. At least a half dozen lectures and discussion sessions anguished over how scientists can convey their work to the general public even as scientists were trying to convey their work to other scientists via science fairs.

Except they’re not called science fairs when you’re a Ph.D. – they’re called poster sessions. But the idea is the same: Display your project on a single display board with illustrations/charts and stand in front of it to explain further, as necessary.

So if you want your teen to become a real life scientist, maybe schlepping poster boards to school is more realistic training than you think.

If you want to see a science fair done at a high level, check out the expo. It will be at NHTI on March 16, with projects available for viewing from 10 a.m. to noon, with a post-lunch award session and a speaker starting about 1 p.m. I won’t be a judge this year, so that’s one incentive to visit.

For more information, visit nhsee.org.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)