Monday, October 18, 2010

Science Fairs: From the School Gym to the White House

When I think of traditional science fairs, the image that comes to mind is of rows of colorful trifold posters with maybe a baking soda and vinegar volcano or two. But science fairs in the 21st century are a lot more sophisticated than what took place in my elementary school gymnasium! With projects ranging from solar cars to cancer cures, student scientists from across the country are doing interesting projects of great value to the larger scientific community. And the students are benefiting too. As Elizabeth Marincola, the President of the Society for Science & the Public, put it last week, "Research has shown that science competitions benefit students by helping them gain self confidence; explore career opportunities; learn to take risks, and be rewarded for their ingenuity."

That idea got a boost today when President Obama hosted the White House Science Fair, which honored winning science fair entries from across the country. President Obama stressed the importance of science education in his administrative agenda: "If you win the NCAA championship, you come to the White House. Well, if you're a young person and you produce the best experiment or design, the best hardware or software, you ought to be recognized for that achievement, too."

The projects that were honored truly are achievements that deserve national attention. Teams of high school students built a carbon-fiber solar car from scratch, developed a therapy using light energy to beat cancer, and invented a water purifier to ensure water quality in remote rural areas. Middle schoolers were represented too, including a team that designed a model city for earthquake refugees, eighth-graders who used nanotechnology to create a recyclable printer ink, and seventh graders that experimented with different materials to create a safer helmet for kids. You can see the full list of projects at the White House blog

As an afterschool science institution, science fairs encourage kids to work in teams to create their own ideas and projects. The social aspect of science fairs gives kids an important support group that can help social and emotional development too. The nature of science fairs also links kids up with mentors in their communities, which is important for encouraging a long-lasting interest in science. And giving recognition to science projects, as President Obama did, goes a long way in encouraging other kids to participate in science too. Let's hope that the White House Science Fair becomes a tradition!

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