Saturday, February 5, 2011

Not Fair

The New York Times reports while President Obama talks about a "Sputnik Moment," school science fairs are waning. The problem -- too much else to do:
One obvious reason for flagging interest in science fairs is competing demands for high school students' extracurricular attention. But many educators said they wished the projects were deemed important enough to devote class time to them, which is difficult for schools whose federal funding hinges on improving math and reading test scores. Under the main federal education law, schools must achieve proficiency in math and reading by 2014, or risk sanctions.

The Obama administration has urged broadening the subjects tested under the law -- possibly including science. But some teachers say they are already burdened by state requirements to teach a wide range of facts -- say, the parts of a cell -- which prevents them from devoting class time to research projects.
Maybe it's time we rethink the whole "fair" concept. Instead of showing off knowledge for a panel of judges, why not find a real-world application for a team of students and let them go for it?

A bunch of kids interested in electronics can help design and build a phone system or an office computer network for a non-profit group. The students interested in human can shadow and work with nurse practitioners at health screenings. Earth science and meteorology junkies could team up and form their own school forecast lab, using the same freely available data the National Weather Service looks at every day. More internships would help.

At the end of a science fair, a student is left with a prize -- or maybe not -- and hopefully a sense of fulfillment from exploring a curiosity. With some flexibility and imagination, many more of us could reap benefits from that.

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