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George Takei reignites discussion on lackluster science fair fare 

A photo originally posted on George Takei's Facebook wall in 2014 illustrates the cookie cutter nature of school science fairs, and it has re-surfaced in time for this year's science fair season. 

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    Dr. Wim F.A. Steelant, dean of the School of Science, Technology and Engineering Management at Saint Thomas University, judges students' science projects during the third-annual Miami Gardens Science and Engineering Fair at the university in Miami Gardens, Fla., Monday, Dec. 9, 2013.
    Daniel Bock/The Miami Herald/AP/FILE
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Last February, actor George Takei launched into the issue of how stale science fair fare has become by posting a photo of a mom's poster mocking elementary school science fair projects. 

Like a comet, that post has come back around, streaking through news feeds this week as the 2015 science fair season takes off, and again, the topic becomes one of national relevance for families and educators.

The poster reads, in part, "How Much Turmoil Does the Science Project Cause Families?" The finding? Of course, "Everyone HATES the science fair!”

It was created by professional fundraiser, childbirth educator, and mom Susan Messina four years ago, when her daughter was doing her fifth grade science fair project, but didn't gain broader media attention until February 17, 2014.

Over the past year, the Takei Facebook post of the image has garnered more than 363,000 likes, 430,000 shares, and 12,000 comments, with thousands of comments appearing just within the last couple of days.

My hypothesis is that Takei stumbled onto a sensitive subject that, year after year, rankles parents. Messina’s poster illustrates the frustration of parents and kids preparing for the annual science fair, and her ultimate finding is that everyone ends up miserable. 

Because my youngest of four sons, Quin, age 11, just finished his annual, required, tightly controlled, cookie-cutter science fair presentation poster last week, and got his grade (a 93 percent) yesterday, this post is one I personally shared on my Facebook wall today.

“Oh! Oh! So true,” Quin said as he watched me make the post this morning. “All we get to do is a poster. Nothing creative. They all look the same and the topics they give you to choose from are so lame. If you pick something really interesting like I did last year it’s like you’re a rule-breaking freak or something.”

Last year, Quin was stoked to enter the science fair.

Under the close guidance of his father he built a model of an infinite mirror to go with his tri-fold poster, and in so doing was dumped from the science fair roster because it turned out to be a posters–only event.

So, this year, he slapped the science fair rubric on the dining room table, announcing he had decided to give up and just pick the first topic that wasn’t already taken from the prescribed list – “Does the temperature of the water affect the rate at which salt dissolves.”

When we (I was the overseer this year) finished, I posted a rather tongue-in-cheek image to Twitter because it seemed so pat as to be practically an advertisement for the salt company more than a science breakthrough moment.

Seeing Mr. Takei’s post today, I realized I’m far from being alone in my frustration. 

One commentor, Andrea Shuman Freedman, posted on Takei’s wall making a very good point.

“As a former chemistry teacher and Science Fair judge, I can say with confidence that nothing makes kids hate science more than being REQUIRED to enter science fairs,” Ms. Freedman wrote. 

She adds, “Do we make every student who takes music lessons join the band? The kids who are interested in science should be encouraged to enter science fairs, just like kids who enjoy playing instruments should be able to join an orchestra or band.”

On Twitter this week, one science fair judge lamented the lack of creativity as his followers quickly chimed in guessing that he would encounter nothing but jars of soil and batteries made from potatoes.

As for Ms. Messina’s 2014 blog post about her scathing yellow poster, she points to a myriad of reasons that science fairs today are lacking.  

“First, any elementary school project that requires a lot of parental time, energy, resources, support, cajoling and financial investment is just BAD,” Messina wrote in her blog post. “Such projects privilege students from higher-income families for all the obvious reasons. They also take away from family time that families at all income levels have less of these days. And they definitely are a challenge for any students living with parents who cope with physical illness, mental illness and/or substance abuse.”

I decided to call my friend, Dr. Arthur Bowman, biology professor at Norfolk State University, education consultant for NASA (among others), and one of Virginia’s go-to science fair judges on local and state levels. 

Bowman agreed with Messina saying, “I always tell my fellow judges that what they are really seeing and judging at these fairs is not the student or their project. We are really in the position of judging the family, community, and school of the child, and not the child’s real ability at all.”

“When the reward for teachers having kids do well in science fairs gave way to rewards for high marks in standardized testing, science fairs went right down the tube,” Bowman added. “There is a long answer to how to fix that. My recommendation is to have schools step up to supply materials needed by students to give a level playing field. Then we need to have classroom and team science projects without the fair for elementary schools.”

He recommends that individual science fair projects be the realm of middle and high school students who have had the classroom and team experiences.

Messina also wrote about a fallback idea to “re-cast it [science fairs] as an elective, noncompetitive family project.”

Bowman agrees that kids should be the ones to decide to enter science fairs rather than making them mandatory.

“From the time some kids are an embryo they are trying to please their driven parents who want the science fair victory more than the student wants it,” Bowman reflected. 

“Then the kids who win the fairs, driven by the parents and their resources and goals, get into a great university and find they absolutely hate what they are doing. You have angry students rather than inspired, creative students. Then you see more problems than problem solving.”

While Messina’s poster is not new, Takei’s star power may have given it, and this issue, the additional boost it needed in order to break through the atmosphere of uninspired science fair fare.

Perhaps, as Messina’s poster makes its annual trek around the Internet, enough parents will feel empowered to bring this issue to their local school boards to make a big bang and create a new kind of science fair that families can get behind.

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