Homeschoolers & Science Fairs

This post can also be seen in its original and complete form at Supercharged Science here.

Guest post by Barnas Monteith

As a recent former Chair of one of the oldest state science fairs in the country, I can tell you that the topic of homeschool student participation in science fairs has been a major discussion point at many board meetings over the years. In the past, many fairs found it difficult to involve students who didn’t have school mentors to assist in the process, or insurance from their local school districts, to cover any accidents while conducting a project. Or, other various complicated legal or practical obstacles. But, things have changed, and fairs have found ways to work around many of these issues. In recent years, more and more fairs have begun to do more specifically to reach out to the homeschooling community.

Often homeschooling parents will be frustrated both with the lack of information and support, and the sometimes overwhelming bureaucracy of science fairs . And fairs at different levels don’t necessarily talk to each other or work with each other (i.e. districts, regions, state and national/international fairs). There are pre-approval forms, science review committees, and various safety checks and other things to do, before even starting your project. Often, fairs discourage parents from “too much” participation in a student’s project. It’s viewed as a way of making things fair for all students; the same policy applies to all parents to ensure that students are doing their own work. It’s understandable why some homeschooling families don’t want to bother with whole science fair process. Well, the climate seems to be changing rapidly, as traditional fairs, math competitions, robotics/maker fairs, virtual science fairs (Google has a great one) and other types of STEM-related informal educational activities have been competing to get more student participation. At the same time, fairs and other competitions have been offering ever-increasing prizes, to attract and reward top science talent. At the MA State Fair, we offer around a half million dollars in prizes, including some full patent awards each year (which can cost upwards of tens of thousands of dollars) to the most patentable ideas. Science fairs are no longer just about demonstrating the understanding of scientific method, as they were in the recent past. Now, science fairs have become a place where real-world science and engineering gets done, where students get their work published or patented, and even as Freshmen, are sought out by the very top research institutions and companies in the world. It’s a very rewarding experience in many ways, andit is wonderful that homeschooling families are participating in ever-increasing numbers each year.

Yet, one of the other major concerns I’ve heard over the years, especially from homeschool parents, is that access to lab resources is sometimes geographically challenging and also, often, costly. It’s hard to find projects where you can do something meaningful without spending lots of time and money obtaining data. This too is changing!

As a student, my own project looked at the evolution of dinosaurs into birds, using both microscopy and biochemical data, with real fossilized and modern eggshells. I would then crunch the data using algorithms I set up in mini-databases. It was very cross disciplinary, and that is where things seem to be heading more and more. The more disciplines you can include in your project, the more your judges believe that you are not just a deep scientific thinker, but a broad scientific thinker, who can link and bridge common ideas from otherwise very disparate subjects. While I did use some resources and materials that had a cost to them, nearly all of these were donated. Getting the data was indeed difficult, but the most innovative portion of my work was really done on computers. Admittedly, obtaining rare fossils and getting access to fancy equipment is certainly a barrier to entry and an impressive feat. But, I do think judges focus on innovation rather than the work done to obtain the raw data.   Now, both as a science fair judge, and an administrator/policy maker, I can tell you data doesn’t win fairs.

Since that time, I’ve gone on to do research and business in various scientific and technical fields. Whether it’s been working on diamond-based solar cells to new types of electrosurgery tools to planarization techniques for semiconductors, one of the key things that I’ve noticed over time is that things have gotten much easier to connect research data to the people who need that data. From simply sharing scientific experiment results / engineering tweaks more freely, to sharing rich data that demands large storage space, to crowd-sourced data, to publicly funded data, the DATA itself is becoming simpler to access. Maybe not entirely trivial to the research community, but for science fairs and the world of inquiry based education in general, it’s becoming less and less important as time goes on. And that’s a really great thing for science fair parents who don’t have funds readily available to contract out lab work, or to set up their own labs at home. There are now very compelling, top award winning science projects (including this year’s very top ISEF winner, who also happens to be from Boston, MA), that require nothing more than an Internet connection. So, if you’re reading this, then you’re all set to go win lots of science fairs.

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