Sunday, April 30, 2017

Some serious flaws associated with the way science fairs are judged.

Science is not just an academic discipline or a subject from school curriculum, but it is a liberating tool available to anyone and everyone. It liberates our mind from the darkness of ignorance, enables us to question things. It encourages us to learn by observation and also teaches us that there are many things which we don't know, and it's OK not to know about things and continue to look for answers. This is why I love basic elements of science, which encourage questioning, analysis, data generation and verification, and critical thinking. All these elements are not only helpful while we study science during our school or college days, but these things are extremely useful in our day to day lives. This is why I love the idea of conducting science fair for school children. The main intention of these fairs is not just to attract talented students to the discipline of science, but also to introduce school kids to all these elements of scientific analysis at a very young age so that they can use them in their day to day life. This is the reason whenever possible I try to volunteer as a judge in city and state science fairs.

While judging these fairs I observed few things which somewhat disturbed me. I saw kids whose parents belonged to science field taking undue advantage of resources available to them to perform science projects way beyond their grade level, whereas other kids who didn't have access to such resources lacked that sophistication and couldn't compete with this elite class of kids from families of parents from a science background. There is nothing wrong in encouraging your kid to take up challenging science projects or brainstorming with them to generate some relevant idea for their project. I am a scientist and I do that with my kids, but my role is limited to raise questions and make sure that they try to find something on their own which suits their level of understanding of science. Neither I generate an idea for them, nor I help them to select the topic, my role is limited to provide them with materials required for the experiment and make sure that they do it safely.

When there is no level playing field the competition becomes one sided, heavily biased towards kids with scientific privileges, and this thing bothered me. But, the question is how to balance this imbalance of resources so that all students get the fair deal? How to make sure that all students are competing on a level playing field? There is no easy way, it is not the fault of these students that their parents are scientists and they are helping these kids in a way they shouldn't be. We can't punish these kids for the well-intended help offered to them by their parents, but then how can we watch these other kids with no scientific help apart from their teachers and schools fail regularly in front of the kids from the scientifically privileged background? The only way out is to make disclosures of all help received mandatory: from where you got the idea, where did you conduct the experiment, who helped you, is any of your parents belong to science field? The list is not exhaustive, but these questions might give us an idea of the scientific privilege of such kids, and let them compete with each other, this will be the real test for them and it will be better for them. Maybe others have better suggestions to tackle this issue, but I feel this should be discussed before many kids move away from science just because they can't compete with few kids who come from scientifically privileged families. We need bright and creative kids to chose science as their profession, science needs creativity and imagination like any other field and as a scientific community, it is our responsibility to make sure that we create conducive environment to attract such talent.

The USA has a great tradition of scientific endeavors, we cannot afford to loose this advantage, this why we need to stop this field from becoming a monopoly of few privileged communities. The USA is a leader in science and technology and this is one of the main reason for its world dominance. If scientific community doesn't take serious efforts to increase diversity and reachability of scientific knowledge to each and every corner of society, this country might lose this edge to others who are rapidly closing this gap. Let's start with fixing the science education and the way many of these science fairs are judged. Please remember, prevention is always better than cure.

Thanks for reading and please share your views on this topic.

[Copyright : Vinay Thakur. Please contact the author for re-posting or publishing]