Science Fairs Are As Flawed As My Solar-Powered Hot Dog Cooker

By Carl Zimmer

Last fall, my daughter Veronica got an idea for the seventh grade science fair at her school. She'd compare different ways to clean a toothbrush. First she'd take a new toothbrush out of a package and brush her teeth, covering it with her mouth bacteria. Then, she'd clean it with one of three liquids: water, lemon juice, or vinegar. Finally, she'd wipe the brushes on Petri dishes and see how many bacteria grew on them.

It seemed to me like a straightforward enough idea. It might fail, but so what? It would still be worth her time.

I recalled my own doomed seventh-grade science fair project: a solar-powered hot dog cooker. I lined a cardboard box with a curved sheet of aluminum foil, convinced that it would act like a parabolic dish or a magnifying glass. I skewered a hot dog on a straightened-out coat hanger, so that I could suspend it at the focal point of the sun's furious energy, where it would quickly roast to a crisp.

Suffice to say, I didn't win. The hot dog didn't even get warm. But the experience was fun, and it got me thinking about what you actually need to do to invent something.

Veronica submitted her plan, and then reported back to me that we had to fill out some forms. These forms turned out to be an avalanche of confusing paperwork. We also learned that this experiment was so potentially dangerous that Veronica would have to carry it out under the supervision of a trained expert, who would first have to submit a detailed risk assessment.

I was horrified at the thought that Veronica's experience with science would die before it began. I needed help, and I knew who to ask for it. I live near Yale, and I'm acquainted with a lot of scientists there. I reached out to a microbiologist who also has kids in grade school. When I explained Veronica's predicament, he felt my pain. He didn't want to see a child turn away from science in disappointment, and so he invited Veronica to come to his lab and carry out her experiment there.

Veronica arrived with toothbrushes, bottles of vinegar and lemon juice, and a notebook. A researcher at the lab took her under her wing, offered some suggestions about improving the design of her experiment, showed her how to plate bacteria, how to incubate them, and how to count them.

Veronica got the chance to see how science is really done, under the guidance of generous, enthusiastic experts. She got good data, presented her results at the science fair at her school, and ended up going to the state fair, where she got an honorable mention. Afterward, she said she was surprised to discover that scientists tell jokes. She could even imagine herself becoming a scientist someday.

The experience turned out well, but it also left me queasy. The only reason Veronica was able to carry out her experiment was that I had the flexibility to spend hours struggling through paperwork, and because I had a social network of scientists I've developed as a science writer. This was an exercise in privilege.

If Veronica had been the daughter of a single parent with a couple jobs and no connections to the world of science -- if she had been like a lot of American kids, in other words -- her idea would have gone up in smoke. She might not have even bothered thinking about the science fair at all.

I was reminded of Veronica's experience when I saw President Obama planned to host his final White House science fair this week. Obama held the first fair in 2010, and each year he has continued to celebrate the work of some very talented students. This year should be no exception. There will be kids showing off homemade spacecraft, Ebola test kits, and environmentally safe batteries.

It's great to bring so much attention to kids doing science. But when you look over the projects that win the Google Science Fair and the Intel Science Talent Search these days, it's clear that they're mostly the products of very bright, motivated students lucky enough to work in university labs where they can take advantage of expertise and equipment.

On a case-by-case basis, it's nice to see professional scientists mentoring these students -- just as Veronica got help. But how many students have the means and opportunity to wrangle that kind of access? Celebrating the nation's science fair winners may theoretically inspire more students to look into doing projects on their own. But on its own, it does nothing to increase the number of students who actually follow through.

Writing in the Atlantic last March, Hana Schank reported that many students who start on science fair projects get little support, and they often don't end up with a greater interest in science, or a better understanding of how it works.

I brought these concerns to Maya Ajmera. She is the president of Society for Science & the Public, which oversees the Intel Science Talent Search. Last fall, Intel announced it was dropping its sponsorship, but Ajmera told me that her organization will be able to announce a new sponsor in the next couple months. "We've been incredibly gratified with the extraordinary interest," Ajmera said.

According to Ajmera, more than 118,000 students in grades six to 12 competed in the society's affiliated fairs in 2015 -- a number that's held steady in recent years. She's been gratified to see girls get much more involved. This year there were more girls than boys as finalists.

But Ajmera said that more needs to be done for underrepresented students. "We have to do a much better job on the equity piece," she said. The society has launched a program for "advocates" who will help students turn research projects into science fair entries. Last summer the society gave grants to nine advocates and hopes to reach 100 in the next couple years.

I wish those advocates well. But 100 advocates can only make a tiny dent in a nationwide problem. We need ideas that can scale throughout the education system.

Perhaps there are easier ways to give a broad swath of American children a feel for how science works and a pleasure at building something. Maybe we don't need a White House event, or hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money.

One of the things that students at Veronica's school do is take a class in which they all build rockets. Along the way, they learn some engineering and physics. And then they all get to shoot their rockets into the sky.

Perhaps kids need to be shooting more rockets.