Science fairs offer top students a grand stage

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Sandy Schaffer

Athletes can aim to win a game — or even the state championship. Actors might try out for the lead in the school play. Budding writers may land their byline in the local newspaper. But what about the kids who explore their world using science? What inspires them not to just think about a question but also to try to answer it, using scientific tools?

Science fairs offer a stage for these students to shine. The biggest such stage for today’s high school students is the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair. This competition is run by Science News’ parent organization, the Society for Science & the Public. Created in 1950 and sponsored by Intel since 1997, this annual competition brings together top student projects from local, regional, state and even national science fairs from all over the world. For one week in May, a dizzying 1,759 science-minded teens from more than 75 countries descended on Phoenix for a chance at big prizes (more than $4 million is awarded to over 400 winners).

Having attended a number of these fairs over the years, it seems to me that the real value goes beyond the scholarships and other awards. It’s the experience of being surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of other young people who share a passion for science. It’s finding out that there’s a world out there in which people recognize and appreciate the value of science. It’s being called a scientist, maybe for the first time. It’s knowing that awards are doled out based on intellect and hard work. Judges explore how sharply a student crafted his or her questions of nature, designed an experiment, analyzed the results and drew conclusions. Of course, it’s also about how well students can tell their stories.

For the second year in a row, Janet Raloff and I gave a talk to attendees on the whys and hows of science communication. Now editor of our free online magazine Science News for Students, Raloff has written for Science News since 1977. She has a thought or two about how to best write about technical subjects for a wide audience. (A few pointers: Avoid jargon; admit what you don’t know; be yourself; say why you wanted to do the project, what you did, what you found and why anyone should care.) After the talk, we gave feedback on students’ “elevator pitch” descriptions of their projects. Some had it down. Others got mired in the details of method, while others spent so long on the project’s practical implications they never mentioned the actual results. Jargon caught a few in its trap. Shyness held a few others hostage. Language barriers (many of the students are not native English speakers) jammed up some.

Overall, the science communication challenges were not too different from what I’ve often encountered in talking with adult scientists. Stumbles, but not unfixable. And there was something else these young scientists had in common with their elder peers: excitement. What came through was the thrill and empowerment that comes from not just asking a question, but also actively searching for the answer. And then being noticed for the effort by peers and professionals, like the jocks, theater-types and others who often steal the show in high school. I am always glad to be in that audience. 

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