Sociation Today®
The Official Journal
The North Carolina
Sociological Association: A 
Refereed Web-Based 
ISSN 1542-6300
Editorial Board:

George H. Conklin,
 North Carolina
 Central University

Richard Dixon,

Chien Ju Huang,
 North Carolina
 Central University

Ken Land,
 Duke University

Miles Simpson,
 North Carolina
 Central University

Ron Wimberley,
 N.C. State University

Robert Wortham,
 North Carolina
 Central University




Volume 2, Number 2
Fall 2004

 How the “Queen Science” Lost Her Crown: A Brief Social History of Science Fairs and the Marginalization of Social Science


Jonathan Marx
Winthrop University

    Many college students equate science with experiments and more specifically classic experimental design.   A classic experiment tests the effects of an independent variable on some dependent variable through pretesting and post testing of experimental and control groups. Ideally, the two groups are equivalent except that the experimental group is exposed to the treatment and the control group is not (Babbie 1998:252; Frankford-Nachmias 1996:105).   The classic design allows the researcher to draw causal inferences and test whether the independent variable caused a change in the dependent variable. 

    Unfortunately, questions raised by many sociologists do not lend themselves to a classic experimental design that relies on deductive logic, assumes linear causality, and is typically performed in artificial laboratories rather than natural settings.   Instead, we rely on various other designs such as quasi-experiments (Campbell and Stanley 1963) or qualitative methods (Flick 2002) that do not offer the same power in drawing causal inferences, but do provide other advantages including external validity and level of understanding.  Since sociologists do not regularly utilize the classic experimental design, a number of our students, and for that matter the public, view our most solid social facts as one step above opinion and the products of  “bad science.”

    We contend this outlook is fostered in part by primary and secondary school science fairs.  In this paper, we explore several sources from the Science Service. The Science Service has organized the International Science and Engineering Fairs (ISEF), the world’s largest pre-college competition in science, since its inception in 1950.  Our qualitative analysis examines rulebooks and other fair information available in the Science News Letter (SNL), a weekly publication of the Science Service since the 1920s. The analysis documents the formalization process of science fairs over the last fifty years: 1950 through 2000.  We argue that a proliferation of new rules, standards, and forms have acted to both define and ultimately reinforce a constrictive view of science in the eyes of school children and their parents. 

    Science is typically perceived as simply the investigation of natural or physical phenomenon by means of hypothesis and controlled experiments.  As a latent consequence, most social science research is pushed out of bounds. 

    After reviewing the materials, we identify three distinct periods:

  • Precursors of the Science Fairs, 1920-1949 
  • Early Science Fairs, 1950-1975 
  • Modern Science Fairs 1975 to 2000. 
We discuss these in turn and consider their implications for our discipline.

Precursors of Science Fairs, 1920-1949

     The origins of the science fairs in the United States began almost thirty years before the first Nation Science Fair in Philadelphia in 1950.   Its beginnings can be traced back to newspaper mogul  E.W. Scripts in 1921.  He fathered the Science Service in collaboration with The American Association for the Advancement of  Science, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Research Council.   Scripts created the Science Service as a nonprofit organization to popularize science by explaining technical scientific findings in a jargon-free manner to the American public.   Under the watchful editorial eyes of Edwin Slosson and Watson Davis, the original weekly mimeographed Science News Bulletin evolved by the end of 1920s into the Scientific News Letter, a weekly magazine with photographs and advertisements (Science Service 2003).

    Davis used his influence at the Science Service to forward science education for all American children.   With sponsorship from the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company in 1941, Watson expanded the science club movement begun 14 years earlier by the American Institute of the City of New York into a national movement –Science Clubs of America.  As a result of the Science Service’s efforts, some 600,000 young scientists were organized into 25,000 science clubs (Science Service 2003).  The early efforts of the science clubs were reported in dispatches appearing weekly in the science newsletter.  The clubs were inclusive and very much based on the wonder of science and discovery.   Davis (1941:262) states:

      Almost anyone can organize a science club.  The organizer does not have to be a scientist.  He needs not have studied science in school or college.  He and the members of the clubs should be interested in doing something or studying a particular thing. There are no troubling details or examinations.  You can make your own rules and hold meetings when and where you wish. 

     What the science clubs did depended on the interests of children assisted by adults who acted as sponsors.   Margaret Patterson (1949:186) writes:

      If the members are young, they are apt to do a great deal of collecting; seashells, leaves, rocks, minerals, insects, stamps, pets, pictures, bird’s nests.  They arrange their treasures in neat boxes; carefully lettered scrapbooks or flashy exhibits…Among junior high school age students interests usually become more general…Everything is subject to their curiosity.  Individually or collectively the members may turn almost overnight from insect building to crystal growing; from building terraria and aquaria to glass blowing; from tropical fish breeding to scientific crime detection; from microscope studies to stuffed animals… Senior high school age member of science clubs have decided interests for such fields as astronomy, electronics, embryology, microscopy, etc. and join others who share their interests.

    Entering the 1950s, the growing science club movement was clearly marked by Davis’s vision.   The club forwarded a populist and positivistic philosophy in advancing the cause of science worldwide (Rhees 1979).   Some six hundred foreign science clubs were affiliated with the 15,000 Science Clubs in this country “forming the nucleus for the international expansion of the movement” (SNL 1949:85). International clubs were serviced on the same free basis as those in the United States.  As part of the international program, the Science Service distributed experimental kits and materials promoting scientific experimentation, and it provided current information about all fields of science. 

     The clubs endorsed an effort to build off the natural curiosity of the child in his or her community.    Science was defined broadly.   The common ingredients included detailed observation, and classification, the planning and building of things and the performing of experiments.   The virtues of the scientific method seemed secondary to “tinkering and experimenting in their home workshops” (SNL 1942:286).

 Early Science Fairs, 1950-1975

    The work of science clubs began to culminate in science fairs held locally as part of the science movement.   A science fair (SNL 1960:54; 1966:156) was originally defined as the followings at the first national science fairs in Philadelphia in 1950.

      A science fair is a collection of exhibits, each of which is designed to show a biological, chemical, physical or technical principle, a laboratory or other procedure, an industrial development, or an orderly collection of anything which can be fitted into the broad concept of any branch of any pure or applied science.

    During the first fifteen years, projects were marked by individual creativity, ingenuity and resourcefulness.   Science News Letter contributor, Allen Long (1954: 283) argued: “…getting into the competition is not hard.  A student decides upon some project and builds an exhibit around it.  The project can be something especially thought up for the fair.  Frequently, however, the projects are the outgrowth of scientific hobbies the students have been pursuing in their spare time.”   Several times during the period, the SNL printed advice on how to complete a project (SNL 1961:174; Snakeberg 1965:218).  The advice was void of the scientific method.  Students were told to do the following: read widely, question others, and plan carefully, keeping complete records of all your work, both successful and apparently unsuccessful. In such a welcoming backdrop, a vast array of topics was explored and impressive science was conducted.   Below is a review of several early winning projects: 

  1. Peter Miller won with an exhibit on paleontology of St. Paul, consisting of charts containing fossils, diagrams and data, a geologic column, maps, and his scientific equipment.  He wished for an elementary microscope and a blowgun for first place (SNL 1951:326). 
  2. Victoria Richards studied the nutritional possibilities of the Osage orange fruit, or common “hedge ball.”  After proving it was not toxic, she went on to process it for use as animal food, extracted oil and alcohol from it; and even used it in recipes for food that included cookies for the judges (SNL 1961b: 325; SNL 1964: 322). 
  3. Sociology’s own Erik Olin Wright won for “Analysis of the  Total Number of Twists Resulting from Cutting any order Moebius Band with any Number of Cuts” (SNL 1964:322).
    The projects of this time were done individually on topics that reflected the student’s curiosity about the country, state or region where they lived.  The students often created/invented the needed equipment as opposed to purchasing it.  Engineering and science were not uncoupled. The research often did not cleanly fit into the classic experimental design instead being collections or application of theories.   Method seemed secondary to the dual pleasures of creation and discovery. 

    Finally, the categories for grouping and judging science projects were quickly expanding beyond the original physical and biological sciences.   By the close of the 1960s, nine project categories existed and two more were added in the early 1970s, including behavioral and social science; an increasing variety of disciplines and topics were gaining entry into the fair.

The Modern Era, 1975-2000

     After Watson Davis died in 1967, the Science News Letter underwent major editorial changes becoming  Science News.  Without Davis, the newsmagazine stopped actively promoting the youth science movement.  No longer was it possible to read about the winners or find articles directed towards the youth science movement.  The leadership void was filled by the National SRC, established in 1974 (Intel ISEF Rules 2003:2). This National SRC is a group of qualified individuals whose responsibilities included the evaluation of student research, certifications, and research plans.   Compliance with the rules came under their discretion. They became the centralized body that had the power to establish and amend ISEF rules and coordinate local SRC’s activities.

     In the next twenty-five years, the National SRC implemented many well-intentioned rule changes that had numerous latent consequences.  Control of projects was shifted from the student to the “scientific” experts.  The “scientific method” increasingly became a means to an end.  The classic experiment turned into the standard to evaluate all work.  Most collections, models, and applications were excluded.  While social and behavioral science was now a recognized category, the rules on human subjects hindered psychology and at times paralyzed sociological research.  Increasingly group work was condoned and done in big research institutions.  The student-centered process of discovery that Davis championed was lost in a maze of rules and procedures.  These trends are elaborated upon below.

Scientific Experts

    The early teacher-supervisor form simply indicated that the teacher-supervisor agreed to sponsor a student and assume responsibility for compliance with existing International Science and Engineering Fair Rules (ISEF1982 Rules: 16).   The current forms are far more complex.  The International Rules for Precollege Science Research: Guidelines for Science and Engineering Fairs/1999-2000 (Intel ISEF 2000) includes both a Checklist Adult Sponsor/Safety Assessment Form (1) and Approval Form (1B).  The changes attempted to assure that a study would not potentially violate any rule or expansive federal regulation.  The checklist also spells out, to a sponsor, what paper work is required for a specific project. The Approval Form (1B) requires the adult sponsors to obey rules, students to assume risks, and a parent/guardian to consent to his/her child’s participation.

    The Approval Form (1B) also requires local SRC/IRB reviews and approvals on certain projects before initiating the project.  Further, it requires higher-level SRC approvals as the project moves forward in regional and national competition.   A local Scientific Review Committee is a group of qualified individuals who are responsible for evaluation of student research, certifications, research plans, and exhibits for compliance.  In the 1990s, the local SRC (Intel ISEF2000 Rules: 9) was composed of at least three people, including a biomedical scientist (Ph.D., M.D., D.V.M, D.D.S. or D.O.) and a science teacher who was familiar with animal care procedures.   If the student lived in a rural area and did not have a degreed biomedical scientist, the student or SRC enlisted the services of someone from another geographic region.    For those doing research on human subjects, the approval form (Intel ISEF200 Rules: 9) requires that an Institutional Review Board (IRB) at the school consisting of a science teacher, school administrator, and one of the following: psychologist, psychiatrist, medical doctor, physician’s assistance, or registered nurse.  Over the last twenty years, the list of qualified IRB committee members has become more inclusive but never specifically recognized a sociologist as a suitable candidate.

    For projects that involve more than minimum risk as determined by the IRB or SRC, the student must enlist a “qualified scientist” to direct the project. The definition of a qualified scientist has been broadened from an “individual who possesses an earned doctorial degree in science or medicine, and who has a working knowledge of the techniques to be used by the student in the research plan”  (ISEF1990 Rules: 2) to “a qualified scientist should possess an earned doctorial/professional degree in the biomedical sciences. However, a master’s degree with equivalent experience and/or experience is acceptable when approved by a Scientific Review Committee” (Intel ISEF2000 Rules: 9).  Regardless, these examples of certification indicate that a hierarchy of credentialed experts who determine what is “good science” had replaced the science fair’s original populist orientation of science for the people by the people.  It is noteworthy that social scientists do not appear to be welcomed members of the technocratic club.

     The pre-approval process creates significant challenges for social scientists and result in a disproportionate level of disqualifications in the behavioral and social sciences category (Johnson 1991). David Johnson (1991), chair of a Regional Scientific Review Committee, identified several  hurdles confronting the social science entries.   Most disqualified students failed to have IRB assess risk as required by ISEF rules.  He offers two reasons.  First, some schools have difficulty locating a qualified member who wants to serve.  Likewise, if the IRB determine more than minimal risk, many students have trouble locating a doctorial level researcher (qualified scientist, see above) to supervise them.   Second, the teacher certification procedures are a problem in many states. Many social studies teachers that supervise psychology or sociology projects have very limited training in social science. 

    In addition to those reasons provided by Johnson, we suggest the requirement that all surveys, professional tests, and questionnaires are subject to complete review before experimentation leads to an increased likelihood of disqualification.  Finally, if the IRB determines that the design requires more than minimal risk, the student must obtain informed consent from each subject (a parent/guardian signature if under 18). At several times during the 1990s, such consent was required for all human subjects regardless of risk (ISEF 1995 Rules: 21).   Overall, the approval process makes it cumbersome for all projects, but creates even greater barriers for social science experiments to be done “correctly.”

Conflation of Scientific Method and Classic Experimental Design

       After the original work of the National SRC in the late 1970s, a pre-approved research plan was only needed for projects involving vertebrate animals, human subjects, and recombinant DNA research (ISEF 1982 Rules: 5). The research plan was defined as an orderly written presentation of the proposed procedures to be used during the project, description of the methods, techniques, and materials to be used.   By the 1990s, a research plan was required of all participants.  Furthermore, research was now defined as “the process of doing an experiment” (ISEF Rules 1994: 4).  The preference towards classic experimental design has become increasing clear in ISEF statements on science research & the science method (ISEF Student Handbook 2000b: inner cover). The most recent changes in the 2000 Student Handbook from the 1994 ISEF discussion are italicized below:

Science research tries to solve a problem or answer a question about people and the world in which we live.  When choosing your topic, give careful thought to how your research might enhance the world and its inhabitants. Questioning is probably the most important part of scientific creativity and is often followed  by an “if…then” statement. Questioning usually leads to experiment or  observation. Good scientists, both young and old, use the scientific method to study what they see in the world.  By following the six stages listed below, you can produce a scientific experiment:
  • be curious, identify, chose a limited subject, ask a question, identify or originate/define a problem
  • review published materials related to your problem
  • evaluate possible solutions and make your educated guess (hypothesis) 
  • challenge and test your hypothesis through experimentation and analysis
  • evaluate the results of your experiment and reach conclusions based on your data
  • prepare your report and exhibit.
  •     The students are being directed towards manageable classic experiments that have simple independent and dependent relationships. In reviewing research plans, the first thing that many science teachers ensure is that “the chosen project meets the criteria of being an experiment with controlled, manipulated, and responding variables” (Silverman 1995).  Likewise, The 2000 Student Handbook  (Intel ASEF 2000b:inner cover) states  “conduct your experiments” and “remember to change only one variable at a time when experimenting, and make sure to include control experiments in which none of the variables are changed.”   Clearly, a preference for one type of experimental design is advocated.  Statistical control strategies, such as multiple regression, which are common in our discipline would be frowned upon.

         The following “helpful hints from the judges” at the Mobile Regional (Southern Alabama University 1999) illustrate the about-face from the approach advanced
    in the early years, when a more welcoming, inclusive approach was advocated:

              At the Mobile Regional Science Fair the judges are looking for good science; that is, projects conducted in compliance with scientific methods of investigations…Simple collections of materials or data, demonstrations, or displays do not cut it.   Collections of accurate data that effectively address a hypothesis, or an important scientific problem, that are taken over a sufficiently long period of time to show trends, or that are taken in different areas showing meaningful differences between those areas showing meaningful differences between those areas, might be deemed deserving of an award.   Simply gathering and displaying materials, or information from the literature, is not a scientific study.  Projects in which actual science is conducted, and especially projects that utilize controlled experiments, are most highly rated.
        All the external sources of evaluation act to nudge research questions to conservative topics and methodologies.  Unfortunately, many interesting student questions and sociological issues that do not match with this one research design are defined as “bad” science.

        Confronting mounting time pressures that are exacerbated by bureaucratic deadlines and multiple layers of required certification, many students “find” good science topics on the Internet such as Science Fair Research Project Research Guide  or in many existing resource books such as The Dummies Guide to Science Projects (Levaren 2002).  In fact, “science project ideas” have become a cottage industry in the last ten years.   Predictably, many a pressured student with little intrinsic motivation toward the externally generated question resort to cheating.  Shore and Delcourt  (1995) found that 25% of students participating in a science fair admitted to cheating by making up data. (see Syer and Shore 2001 for a recent review).    Clearly, the joy of exploration that Davis championed has been crushed under the weight of red tape and formalization.

    Big Science Institutions and Science Teams

           The expense, complexity, and health risks increased during the last twenty-five years in projects that would be defined as cutting edge or that would “enhance the world or its inhabitants.”   The projects need to be completed in a year’s time and many deadlines need to be met early in the school year.   Increasingly “winning” projects could not be done during the year.  Schools did not have the equipment or expertise to aid students.   More students started to attend summer research institutions that provide access to state of the art equipment and mentors.   In 1988 (ISEF1988 Rules: 28; Intel ISEF2000 Rules: 37), a new form (Registered Research Institutional/Industrial Setting Form) was recommended (now required) that attempted to in part uncouple how much of the eye- popping project was the students or faculty mentors.   Competitive research projects are less likely to be done in garages anymore or have a local flavor (remember the orange seed cookies).   Rather, grant-sponsored science centers and profit driven private industries are the spawning grounds of science projects.

         For many of the same reasons, team projects, study conducted by two or three students, became an official ISEF category in the last 10 years.   Team projects offer advantages such as pooling equipment/resources for students involved in costly, complex projects. It also better mirrors the “team” discovery that actually characterized many students’ actual research experiences at summer institutions and public schools alike.   By 2000, a separate Research Plan (1A)-Team form was required.  Each ISEF Affiliated Fair has the option of sending a team project in addition to two individual projects; team projects are not required, but are encourage (ISEF 2000 Rules: 8).   Increasingly, students are working collaboratively on group projects in large research institutions.   The high school students are receiving anticipatory socialization for future careers in organizational science setting.   It appears that the independent student attempting to complete his/her project during the school year in a typically high school would be at a large disadvantage. 

         Overall, the contemporary fairs are diametrically opposed to the original principles that directed its first 25 years of existence.  The early fairs were student-centered, curiosity driven, administratively decentralized, and small science oriented.  The shadow of big science; along with the politics, regularization, and specialization that accompanies it; has been cast over the local school science fair.


           Rule changes in the ISEF-affiliated science fairs in the last half-quarter century have had many consequences including an increasing emphasis on prepackaged ideas, an over dependence on experts, and equating “good” science with only the classic experiments.  Together the new requirements and procedures act to mystify the process of scientific discovery for many students.  Students come to believe that systematic, independent-empirically based discovery is beyond their grasp.   In particular students may have a hard time seeing how various scientific methods can empower them to seek answers to questions that are important to them.  Varied research methods-- such as participant observation, content analysis, surveys, quasi experimental designs or statistical control--are not “bad” science, but tools for the liberation of their own educational independence and life long learning.

         The public needs to be better informed on the range of scientific research designs, along with their strengths and weaknesses.  We offer the following as some suggested ways that members of local sociological societies such as the NCSA can begin to address this issue:

    • Pursue a rigorous undergraduate curriculum for social studies teaching candidates that includes at least two research methods courses taught by social scientists (ideally one quantitative and one qualitative). 
    • Explore new ways to reach elementary/HS students. Members might offer guidance to teachers on how to use FERRET and other public federal data archival and analysis systems that are widely available on the Internet.  Students would benefit from early exposure to the notion of statistical control. 
    • Get involved in judging at the fairs and actively seek membership on the IRB at neighborhood schools and, ultimately, representation on Regional and National SRC. 
        Overall, we as individual sociologists need to urge young adults to realize that we too perform “good’ science, that our findings matter, and that social research methods can empower them as citizens and life time learners.


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