Experiences High School High School Life TSS

Are Science Fairs FAIR?

Reflections of a science fair kid and how science fairs could be improved.

Credit to Asian American News Bureau

It was the annual state science fair, I was wearing a formal business dress, standing in a huge stadium next to my poster, waiting for a judge to listen to me talk about the project that I poured my heart and soul into. I soon noticed that many other students have posters more impressive than me. They have long titles full of incomprehensible jargons, lots of pictures and statistical graphs, and they speak with such firmness and confidence. Later that evening, I sat quietly in the bleacher at the awards ceremony, clapping for the “impressive kids” who won the most prestigious awards like the Intel ISEF trip and huge scholarships. I wondered, why wasn’t my science as good as theirs? That was the first time that I felt that science fairs are not FAIR to me.

Credit to Merrina Lan

It turns out that those “won everything” kids might have parents who are scientists or have connections with top-tier labs. Since they could receive better mentorship and equipment for their projects, naturally, they would win the best awards. I, on the other hand, had no such connections. So I had to email professors and get rejected many times in order to do a project in a lab as a high schooler. But anyway, I managed to get into a lab and found resources to do an in-depth research. After an entire year of an average of 20 hours per week in the lab, I made progress and got exciting results. I thought, why not give science fair another try? Maybe this time I would be impressive enough.

And the result was well beyond my expectation—I qualified for Intel ISEF. I was so thrilled when the certificate was placed into my hands. As my friends congratulated me, I felt a little uneasy as this is also what they have wanted and they worked so hard for it, too. Was the science fair FAIR to them? (I can get more into detail about how I qualified for ISEF and the details of my trip in a later article)

Of course, I was thrilled to receive this recognition, but I got slightly disturbed by a few questions that popped up in my head while I reflected upon my science fair experiences:

  • Are we teaching the next generation of scientists that science is all about competing against one another? I have heard stories of how science fair awards destroyed friendships. But this is just human instinct, right? We all want to get the most benefits, even if it means that someone else will not get them.
  • Are we emphasizing achievements over our passion for science? I have read so many blogs about how colleges LOVE admitting students with impressive awards, such as Intel ISEF, USA Math Olympiad, etc. And who wouldn’t want to employ people who can list prestigious recognition on their resumes? All of these incentives reinforce the idea that accomplishments are crucial to success in life. This could make us think: I’m doing this research because I need to get accomplishments, not because I truly care about science. Even as someone who has loved science since a young age, I sometimes feel that the urge to win is greater than my passion for it.
  • Are we preserving the self-confidence of the students who did not win much? For the first two years of science fair in which I won nothing impressive, it was sad to watch how the “won everything” kids got called so many times. The announcers, photographers, and reporters paid all of the attention to them. It was as if the vast majority of students like me were invisible. I felt that I did not belong there, because no one recognized my value and my existence. I understand that great accomplishments deserve praise and celebration, but we should not forget how the other students may feel about it.

Please understand that I do appreciate the wonderful experiences of science fairs. I am not saying that competition is bad, I just want to reflect on what impacts we are making and whether they are the best for the students. Behind the triumph of the top Intel ISEF winners, there are thousands and thousands of students whose efforts in science were judged as “not good enough.” To this day, I still feel guilty for taking glory while others’ dreams are shattered. Maybe we should pay some attention to the kids who sincerely want to learn, not just those with shinning awards.

Merrina is a Johnson Scholar at Washington and Lee University, Class of 2022. She is an Intel ISEF alum and has lots of Molecular Biology research experience. Outside of science, she is a mentor, tutor, ukulele enthusiast, swimmer, and chef.

3 comments on “Are Science Fairs FAIR?

  1. Hesper Khong

    I’ve never truly participated in a science fair, nor did I ever ponder over the matter of them being genuinely “fair” so thank you for enriching me with your wonderful article! Congratulations on Intel ISEF as well!! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. In some cases many of the larger fairs report a list of “finalists”. I think that may be an attempt to acknowledge a broader group. But totally agree with your point about encouraging participation and I think that might be a better emphasis than wins/losses. Not everyone will become a scientist – creating more “STEM”-literate students benefits everyone. So while not everyone can be a winner, having a positive experience may still be a “win”.

    Liked by 1 person

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