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A science fair experiment is generally a competition where contestants present their science project results in the form of a report, display board, and models that they have created. Science fairs allow students in grade schools and high schools to compete in science and/or technology activities.
Although writing assignments that take a long time to complete and require multiple drafts are fairly common in US schools, large projects in the sciences (other than science fairs) are rare. Science fairs also provide a mechanism for students with intense interest in the sciences to be paired with mentors from nearby colleges and universities, so that they can get access to instruction and equipment that the local schools could not provide.
In the United States, science fairs first became popular in the early 1950s, with the ISEF, then known as the National Science Fair. Interest in the sciences was at a new high after the world witnessed the use of the first two atomic weapons and the dawn of television. As the decade progressed, science stories in the news, such as Jonas Salk’s vaccine for polio and the launch of Sputnik, brought science fiction to reality and attracted increasing numbers of students to fairs.
The first ever American national science fair was won by Alan J. Fletcher, when he was 18 demonstrating the laws of motion. 1950, Pennsylvania
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Garcia points to the process of elimination as a factor which may discourage students from taking further interest in the sciences. He claims that traditional science fairs, as well as programs like the Westinghouse Science Honors Institute, place too much focus on competition, a charge which science fair supporters answer by pointing to the real life competitive nature of awarding scientific grants and even the Nobel Prize.
A related source of criticism is the tendency for an inordinate amount of parental contribution to the projects, especially of winning projects. In the desire to see their children win the competition, many parents direct the children to choose projects far above a secondary student's capacity for understanding. Therefore, the parent or a connection of the parent with scientific or technical expertise will direct the development and execution of the project. Not only does this minimize the educational value of the project for the student, but also provides an unfair advantage to students whose parents have the technical connections and financial resources to invest in these projects.
Often, prizes in science fairs do not go to the best science, but to technology that is currently fashionable (green technology or health-related projects, for example). Judges often overcompensate for the possibility of parental involvement and downgrade advanced students who do work beyond what most of their peers are capable of.
- Garcia, Louis David. "Shortcomings of the Traditional Science Fair". The Virtual Science Fair: Motivational Effects of Publishing Student Research on the World Wide Web. Retrieved 11 April 2011.