Science fairs are one of the best established venues for citizen science and a valuable tool for science education. Science fairs provide a rare opportunity for high-school students to conceptualize, perform, perform, and report genuine experimental science, rather than simply repeating textbook “experiments” (more accurately, demonstrations) where the answer is known beforehand.

It’s surprising, therefore, that the space community hasn’t shown more interest in science fairs. Or maybe it isn’t. Last year, the leader of a “new space” advocacy group scornfully told us that science fairs were obsolete: No one’s interested anymore, and students never learn anything of value from science fairs anyway.

Really? Not long after that, we picked up a magazine and read about Amy Chyao, a high-school sophomore from our home town of Plano, TX. Amy took first place at the Intel International Science Fair in San Jose. What was her winning project?

She created semiconductor nanoparticles that kill cancer cells when exposed to specific wavelengths of light.

Not bad in an era of No Child Gets Ahead — er, Left Behind.

Science fairs have come a long way in recent years, from building bridges out of toothpicks to discovering cures for cancer. The competition at the highest levels is intense that high-school facilities cannot keep up, and top-level competitors like Amy are joining special programs that enable them to get access to university-class research labs. (In Amy’s case, it was the University of Texas at Dallas Nanoexplorer program, sponsored by the Alan G. MacDiarmid NanoTech Institute.)

Science fairs are also taking new forms, like the online Google Science Fair.

Unfortunately, despite all this science-fair innovation, we aren’t seeing much activity coming from the space community. In the 1950’s, Sputnik drove the US space industry to the forefront of science and technology education. Today, the space industry has been greatly surpassed in innovation by the computer- and information-technology industries. That’s true for consumer products, for services, and also for science and technology education, including science fairs. It’s time to step up to the challenge and match the creative spark we see from other high-tech industries. (Yes, we have a specific proposal.)

To be continued…

Written by Astro1 on April 25th, 2012 , Education

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    Patrick commented

    Given all the DIY capability, it seems like the time is now for science fairs to be able to do something significant, even as young amateurs. Good idea.

    May 11, 2012 at 6:14 pm