Science Fairs 2.0

From street festivals to high-tech fairs, students embrace invention

14 August 2013

Not all of us looked forward to science fairs growing up. But maybe that’s because they didn’t consist of Lego robots and speed Rubik’s “cubers” like in the one Google hosted at its “Geek Street Fair” on 31 July in New York City. In partnership with the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD), the goal was to promote science and technology for young New Yorkers, particularly those of modest means.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, only 16 percent of the country’s high school seniors are interested in a career in the sciences and technology. In a New York Times interview, DYCD spokesperson Mark Zustovich said, “For some of our young people, the opportunity to work in a place like Google or Facebook or Microsoft may not be readily available…This [science fair] is a way to bring this world to them and let them realize that these areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics can be in their future.”

At one booth, kids learned how to light a small LED lamp by attaching it to a battery. In another, kids made robots with Lego pieces. (You can watch the video here.) But science fairs don’t stop there.

At the middle and high school levels, science projects have come a long way in their sophistication, incorporating solar energy, Wi-Fi, and off-the-shelf robotics controllers, which were among the inventions at the IEEE Section’s science fairs earlier this year. Judges from the IEEE Northern Virginia and Washington Section said that this is the first year they saw projects involving virtualization, cloud computing, and geographic information systems, and hope that the trend will continue. “Some students used tools like MATLAB and ns-3 [a network simulator for Internet systems] to analyze neural networks and mesh networks—projects that would not typically be done until the second or third year of college,” says IEEE Senior Member Dan Cross-Cole, IEEE Northern Virginia Section treasurer who served as judge in his section’s fair.

First-prize winners were invited to the IEEE awards banquets in their region. Those projects included a mechanism for noise reduction, as well as a cloud chamber that records tracks produced by radioactive material.

While memories of makeshift volcanoes experiencing “technical difficulties” remain ingrained in my mind of what a science fair is all about, stories about a 14-year-old who developed a way to turn rain into electricity for last year’s Google Science Fair is making me take a second look at what these fairs could and might very well become in the future. With more students like Brittany Wenger, an 18-year-old student from Sarasota, Fla., who won second place at the IEEE Computer Society Intel Science Fair and the Grand Award at the Google Science Fair for her project Cloud4Cancer, which tackles genetic expression profiles to diagnose breast cancer, science fairs might not only become more inventive, but also a forum for where real innovation can take place.

From “geek” street fairs to high-tech competitions, can science fairs encourage students to choose a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) career? What would you like to see take place at science fairs to encourage more students to join the field?

Photo: iStockphoto

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