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The Evolution of Science Fairs

The Evolution of Science Fairs

When Wayne Corbett first started judging science fairs, the projects were mounted on single display boards — a small detail that shows how things have changed over the past decade. 

“Now you’ve got these exotic things where people are putting two or three boards together 10 feet into the air,” says Corbett, general studies program conductor at South University — Columbia. “The showmanship has dramatically increased.” 

Whether it’s the regional fair in South Carolina where Corbett serves as a judge or comparable events across the country, science fairs keep getting bigger and bolder as projects and presentations become more sophisticated and the events themselves gain corporate sponsors. 

One example of the change is the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF), which is the world’s largest international pre-college science competition with 500 high school students from over 50 countries, regions, and territories. The computer chip manufacturer became title sponsor for the science fair in 1997, and the relationship was recently extended through 2019, said Michele Glidden, director of science education programs for the Society for Science & the Public

“Intel’s title sponsorship has greatly enhanced the Intel ISEF program, providing long-term financial support and stability for the program, while also significantly increasing awards to competing students,” says Glidden, whose group organizes the science fair. “The Intel ISEF continues to grow and expand its reach and impact each year. This growth can be mainly credited to the promotional and public relations efforts Intel supports, which have made the program much more visible and exciting to high school students worldwide.” 

Corbett of South University got involved with science fairs back in 1999 when he agreed to do a favor for his longtime friend Don Jordan, a professor at the University of South Carolina. Jordan was a previous director of a regional science fair in central South Carolina, and asked Corbett to be a judge. Eleven years later, Corbett continues to serve as a judge in the annual science competition, where students from nine counties compete. 

Students’ enthusiasm for science has kept Corbett coming back for more than a decade. 

“What I see is a very narrow segment of the student population, but all of them are extremely interested in what they’re doing,” Corbett says. 

The number of projects in the regional event has increased over the years. When Jordan first started in 1996, there were approximately 200 students competing. In 2010, there were 670 students in the competition. One reason for the increase is fifth graders can now compete along with sixth through eighth graders. 

Judges at the regional science fair select two students from the approximately 200 students in the senior division to present at the Intel ISEF. The competition is fierce at the Intel ISEF, which students can attend if they win their local, regional, state, or country fair. 

While serving as director of the USC Central South Carolina Region II Science and Engineering Fair, Jordan has seen three students go on from the event to become international winners, with one winning project in botany and two in environmental science. 

“For a South Carolina student from Region II to stand up there on the stage with the final five and be the best in the world, it’s significant,” Jordan says. 

As is true in South Carolina, the number of projects has increased on the national level. The number of finalists at the Intel ISEF increases each year by two to three percent. In 1980, 255 fairs were represented, and 458 finalists competed. In 2009, 550 fairs were represented, and 1,502 finalists competed. 

The number of finalists and projects has grown because of the increased prestige, publicity, and awards available, Glidden says. However, she noted the number of high school entrants has decreased. 

“This is primarily due to the increased expectations put on young people, the added testing required, and the volume of extra-curricular activities available,” she says. “Fewer schools require a science fair project of students than I think was true 20 years ago. Students engaged in scientific research today are largely self-motivated and/or students in magnet and science-focused programs.” 

In order to entice more students and get more exposure, many science fairs have obtained corporate sponsors. The Region II competition has received donations from companies such as BlueCross BlueShield and Colonial Life. 

According to Corbett of South University, the projects have been impressive since he first began judging, but they get more sophisticated each year. For instance, a recent participant assembled a rudimentary hovercraft device that could actually lift off the ground. 

Glidden believes today’s more complex projects are a reflection of the overall sophistication of scientific research, as many students are able to work at registered research institutions, using high-tech instrumentation and procedures. Advancing technology also has increased the size and scope of projects. 

“From planning a research project using a search engine on the internet, to working with cutting edge instrumentation and procedures, to having the ability to do complex analysis of data using computer technology, all [these things] greatly impact what a student can do with the limited time he or she has to conduct a scientific research project,” says Glidden. 

Corbett has seen project topics change with the times and reflect popular subjects that are in the news. He’s also seen his share of topics that remain popular year after year, such as aviation. But the one thing he hopes he never stops seeing is the love students have for science. This passion translates into extremely polished science fair projects, which leads to what Corbett says is the hardest part of being a judge. 

“The overall quality is so high, it makes it difficult to choose the winners,” Corbett says. 

Looking into the future, the only obstacle Jordan foresees for science fairs is finding the right people to adequately manage the growth they are experiencing. However, with corporate sponsors willing to help and an ongoing stream of students interested in science, science fair supporters believe the events will continue to expand for a new generation of students. 

As Glidden puts it: “I believe that the political leaders of the United States and global business leaders such as Intel recognize the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and the role independent research plays in establishing an informed workforce.”

Written by freelance talent for South Source.

© South University