A few weeks ago, Forbes published an article entitled ”Why Biotech Whiz Kid Jack Andraka is Not on the Forbes 30 Under 30 List”, which highlighted some interesting claims of the top project at 2012’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF).
Mr. Andraka’s award-winning project was presented by the media as an “earthshaking breakthrough” from a “Teen Prodigy of Pancreatic Cancer”. The camera flashes and glitzy spotlights turned a much respected science fair into the set of just another reality show. Excellence and innovation in research, especially in young students, should be recognized. Broadcasting one student’s story can inspire countless others to pursue their passions, and the monetary incentives like scholarships and travel awards to attend international conferences create more opportunities for already-motivated students. The problem is the image of real science that this presents.
Real science does not occur in the twelve-month span of time allotted to national and international competitors. Science fairs do not involve the very real world scientific activity of writing and submitting proposals for grants. Generally, science fair projects do not include the skill of working cooperatively. But most importantly, real science does not end with a gold medal.
Science evolves. One of the most phenomenal aspects of this field is how relentlessly it poses questions and tests its theories. But you’d be hard pressed to find this at science fairs. After the distribution of appropriate medals, trophies, and cheques, there are media interviews to attend, follow-up “thank you” e-mails to write, and public showcases to present at. Never in my four years of involvement have I (or any of my co-exhibitors) been required, asked, or spoken to about publishing my work. There are no opportunities for peer-review, and no other ways for the young scientists to validate their results. It’s shocking how self-contained these weeklong fairs can be. For something so heralded as an “opportunity to foster a lifelong love of science”, you’d be surprised at how many students leave the field entirely, sometimes even after receiving recognition three or four years in a row.
I think that alone creates a strong case for the awards presented at these fairs to never be cash in hand, but more like grants for further research, internship opportunities, or even travel awards for relevant conferences. Because, really, giving a $5 000 award to a medallist at the national science fair is pretty redundant, let alone the $75 000 awarded to the grand prize winner of the international fair. Because let’s face it, these titles themselves are enough to make admissions officers and scholarship committees pay attention to a student, and given the fact that this money might not even be used as intended (as an investment into a promising young scientist) the dollars really could be put to better use.
For what they are, science fairs do pretty well at their goal of advancing youth involvement in research and innovation. It isn’t fair to expect a novice to push the envelope, and the skills required to follow through with a project does encourage academic growth. And I’d be lying if I said that the fairs don’t inspire. But I think the way they’re run should be reconsidered and, ideally, redesigned. Anything that furthers the development of young scientists is valid. Five minutes on CNN, or even TED turns science into something it was never meant to be.