As a science-y spouse of a secondary school biology teacher, I’ve judged my share of science fairs. I have routinely struggled with the judging criteria. In one case, my wife rewrote the judging rubric being used to focus on how well the student implemented the scientific method, not superficial elements. I often struggled with being asked to give points for “importance” or “novel research”. These are high school/middle school science fairs. You want curiosity. And screw “novel”. Reproducibility and retesting are part of science too. I would leave glowing notes complimenting students even though the judging criteria wouldn’t let me give them top scores because, for example, parts of their board presentation were hand written.
The previous paragraph was an incoherent ramble. For a very coherent discussion of Science Fair issues, especially reinforcing privilege and excluding disadvantaged students, you need to read Erin Salter’s “Science fairs: rewarding talent or privilege?” at PLoS’s Sci-Ed blog.
The nominal purpose of science fairs is to promote student-led inquiry and give kids hands-on experience with the scientific method. Much of our science education centers on the “product” of science – established laws, facts, and theories…Student-led projects (like those done for the science fair) are one way to incorporate open-ended inquiry into education.
However, the rewards system of the science fair is flawed. There is no equity of access to lab facilities and equipment or access to scientific mentors, meaning some students are disadvantaged from the start…the students who win these science fairs will often be the ones with the best access. – Erin Salter