Hey, STEM Funders: What If Science Competitions Aren’t Good for Kids?

Judging from the philanthropic portfolios of the country’s big tech companies, you’d assume science competitions were launching armies of young geniuses to lead the nation in STEM fields. But for all the attention they get, how do we know if science competitions have a positive impact? 

It seems like a foregone conclusion, given their pervasiveness in schools and informal education settings. And STEM grantmaking programs go nuts for science competitions. We’ve written pretty extensively about companies like Siemens, Broadcom, Intel, Biogen Idec, Amgen, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Alcoa, etc. (phew, got all those?) that fund a variety of competitions. The White House has even hosted one annually for the past five years.

Related: Eight Ways to Land K-12 STEM Funding

But there’s actually not that much in the way of data on their effectiveness, and that needs to change, according to leaders of a new study on the subject. Science Fairs Under the ‘Scope is being funded with a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to put some rigorous research into what kids learn from competitions, whether they spark an interest in science, and if they are cost-effective. 

This is research that top STEM funders will want to pay attention to. 

It’s understandable why science competitions and fairs have their share of proponents. Such fairs have been popular since 1960s, when they were seen as a way to groom America’s high-tech workforce and spot young geniuses. They just seem good for kids. After all, kids like to compete, they like to have a little freedom to be creative. It gets science out of the classroom. How can it not be a good experience? 

Well, for one, a lot of parents hate science fairs. Like, seriously hate them. Google it. You might have seen this fake science fair poster go viral not long ago. As the mother who made that poster wrote, science fairs inevitably require work from parents or other adults outside of the classroom, which puts stress on families and creates a disadvantage for lower-income families or those facing illness or substance abuse problems.

As a recent article in the Atlantic explored at length, this is a legitimate concern. As the sophistication of science competition projects has escalated, winning projects have demanded more adult mentoring. Which is great for the kids who have access to it, or those so into science that they will seek help on their own. But competitions could be leaving the other kids in the dust. Similarly, schools that make them a priority and can devote resources to them tend to dominate the higher-profile competitions. 

If this concern proves to be true on a broader level, you can imagine how it would actually undermine the intention of science fairs. Then again, maybe philanthropy can give such kids more resources. After all, many sponsored competitions actually focus on engaging with underprivileged kids. But the question remains: Do these things really draw kids, and does it stick? That’s where this kind of research can come into play. 

So what happens if science indicates that science fairs aren’t that good for science? Well, my guess is not much will change, but hopefully it would send some STEM funders back to the trifold poster board.