How the “Queen Science”
Lost Her Crown: A Brief Social History of Science Fairs and the Marginalization
of Social Science
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
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:
We discuss these in turn and consider their implications
for our discipline.
Precursors of the Science Fairs, 1920-1949
Early Science Fairs, 1950-1975
Modern Science Fairs 1975 to 2000.
Precursors of Science Fairs,
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:
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).
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:
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.
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).
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).
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).
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.
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
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:
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.
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
challenge and test your hypothesis through experimentation
evaluate the results of your experiment and reach conclusions
based on your data
prepare your report and exhibit.
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
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 http://ipl.si.umich.edu/div/kidspace/projectguide/
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
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
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
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
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:
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.
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 http://dataferrett.census.gov/TheDataWeb/index.html
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.
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