May 2, 2020

Searching for equity in the science fair

Posted by Laura Guertin

What would you think if you saw this story…

“Oliver’s project is on factors that affect the results of science and engineering fairs… research confirmed her initial observations that winning projects tend to come from more privileged areas, and she found a growing gap between income levels for cities with the top three projects and income levels of cities for all other projects.” (full story)

Now, what would you think if I told you that this project was developed and carried out by 13-year old Rinoa Oliver in 2019? Yes, even a 13-year old can see the inequities in science fair competitions.

For close to 100 years, science fairs have challenged pre-college students to design projects and to experience discovery and competition. The design of science fairs has evolved over the years, starting with the first “Children’s Fair” in 1928 sponsored by the American Institute of the City of New York, in which students displayed experiments, telescopes, electric motors, and other exhibits of their own making.

Social media is filled with individual concerns expressed about the fairness of science fairs – popular for K-12 students, not-so-popular with their parents or even their teachers.



Several researchers have also investigated gender and the science fair. Girls appear to be closing the gender gap in science fair participation (Sonnert et al., 2013). Yet the competitive nature of science fairs, science olympiads, and science symposia may contribute to the observed gender gap in participation (Jones, 1991), as girls tend to prefer cooperative modes of learning while boys prefer competitive and individualized work. When it comes to area of science for their project, boys tend to choose to work in physical sciences and girls in the biological and social sciences (Korkmaz, 2012; Sonnert et al., 2013).

There are plenty of resources out there about science fairs – the National Science Teaching Association (NSTA) dedicated an entire issue of Science and Children to “Science fairs for all, and all for science fairs!” and a book series Science Fair Warm-Up. NSTA has a public resource collection for Science Fair Ideas. But what is harder to find are the publications talking about equity and access in the science fair.

So how can we approach science fairs differently?

Levy et al. (2017) report on how the science fair project can be integrated across the disciplines within a school, cutting the parents and access to university research laboratories out of the equation.

At one school in rural Vermont, teachers integrated the students’ science fair work into their social studies, English language arts, and mathematics classes. So for a period of time, the kids’ science investigations were the focus of all of their classwork across all disciplines. They wove the science investigation into everything else. It was outstanding.

And this was all purposefully done in school so that students would have equal access to materials and adult help. They wanted every student to have the same level of opportunity. One administrator told me that they needed to make this level of support available to each of the students as a matter of equity.

In Wisconsin, an interesting twist on the science fair model happens with “Science Strikes Back, aiming to encourage community members in Milwaukee to critically analyze environmental issues and solve problems in their communities. Through the development of collaborative relationships between students, educators, and content specialists from locally-based organizations, Science Strikes Back will produce a strong network in Milwaukee for continued environmental education and natural resource stewardship.” This format allows students to determine which problem facing their community they want to help solve, and identify which issue(s) they want to raise awareness.

Here’s one more example of what AGU member Dr. Sarah Fortner and two undergraduate students were able to put in place, thanks to an AGU Celebrate 100 grant (please click to read the article – you will be inspired as to how these two students mobilized others to engage underrepresented minority children at the Ark Children’s Rescue Center in science experiments):


This blog post is meant only to call attention to what we already know as scientists, teachers, and parents. We all need to take that step back, reflect, and provide an honest answer to the question, “are science fairs really fair?”

I’ll end with a quote from Levy et al. (2017):

But how you design a science fair really depends on what you want the goals of the fair to be. Is the focus on equity of opportunity? Is it on competition? Or is it on providing students with a window into actual challenges that scientists and engineers face? We saw a lot of models that worked. Ultimately, there isn’t one format that works best—but teachers’ and administrators’ decisions about what they want to accomplish are critical.

And when it comes to the Earth sciences – that’s a future post. As Jones (1991) points out, “The lack of participation in earth science research projects was striking.” I’ll explore some of the reasons why…



Jones, G. (1991). Gender differences in science competitions. Science Education 75(2): 159-167.

Korkmaz, H. (2012). Making science fair: how can we achieve equal opportunity for all students in science? Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 46: 3078-3082.

Levy, A.J., DeLisi, J., Pasquale, M. (2017, November 3). Putting science fairs to the test. Education Development Center.

Sonnert, G., Sadler, P., Michaels, M. (2013). Gender aspects of participation, support, and success in a state science fair. School of Science and Mathematics, 113(3): 135-143.