May 16, 2020

Getting Earth and space into the science fair

Posted by Laura Guertin

A colleague of mine in astronomy brought to my attention this article several years ago. It had appeared several years prior to our discussion, but it is one of those articles that I have held on to over time. We were talking about science fairs for grades K-12, and the lack of representation of Earth and space science projects. We were comparing notes on our own judging experiences, and how the rubrics for science fairs are so focused on having students carry out a project that fits the scientific method (control group and all), that Earth and space science don’t perfectly fit the criteria for judging – and for some events, not even for participation.

The article I’m referring to was published in The Science Teacher in 2002. Paul Lowman from NASA Goddard lays out a suggested pathway for broader inclusion of science in science fair projects (yes, I’m starting with one of the take-home messages):

“…encourage science fair organizers to permit students to submit observational science projects, not just experimental ones. Such projects, especially carried out by younger students, may not get as far as the formulation of a hypothesis or even the identification of a problem. But they would be the same kind of science carried out by Charles Darwin in his five-year voyage on the Beagle: the collection of knowledge about the natural world or some aspect of it.”  —  Lowman (2002)

Lowman’s paper goes on to discuss his own professional work, how observation is a fundamental step required before a hypothesis can even be formulated.

“Observational science projects take the world as it is (rather than trying to experimentally control selected aspects) and involve genuine exploration, even if limited to a back yard… The most obvious example of observational science is astronomy. We have no way to control the many variables involved in, for example, star formation. Back on Earth, oceanography, meteorology, and much of geology are largely observational, as are exploration and mapping in general. The observations in these fields can result in star catalogues, geologic maps, or collections of fossils. Such observational science is generally the foundation for subsequent scientific research, promoting recognition of previously unknown problems or questions.”  —  Lowman (2002)

But are changing the science fair criteria and judging rubrics going to be enough to have more representation of Earth and space science projects?

By limiting the discipline of science projects taken on by K-12 students, are we also exacerbating the lack of representation of young girls in these fields of physical science? My previous blog post touched on girls choosing to work on projects in the biological and social sciences more than the physical sciences (see Searching for equity in the science fair). And Jones (1991) reported that the teacher (and perhaps the gender of the teacher) may have a strong influence and bias in the selection of the research category by the student.

There’s one more factor Jones calls attention to:

“The lack of participation in earth science research projects was striking. Until recently, earth science comprised most of the North Carolina eighth-grade curriculum. Now earth science is incorporated into an integrated middle school science curriculum and only a few high schools in North Carolina offer earth science as a separate course. The reduced amount of formal education in earth science taught in many schools may contribute to the small number of earth science research projects entered in science competitions.”  —  Jones (1991)

To capture the challenges to getting more Earth and space science in the science fair… it could be the science fair criteria/judging… and student gender/teacher influence… and if/when Earth and space science are taught in K-12 grades… So what do we do about this? I wish I had more concrete solutions I could present in this post, but I do want to share one model that inspires me.

Dublin et al. (2014) published on a different model for an ocean-themed science fair, “that promoted the integration of Western science and Alaska Native traditional knowledge in student projects focused on the ocean, aquatic environments, and climate change.” Their judging criteria were expanded to not only include an evaluation of cultural and community relevance. In addition to scientists serving as judges, local and cultural experts were a part of the judging staff. One key piece to the success of their project has been daylong training sessions aimed at rural science teachers and district science curriculum specialists. Do we as scientists need to be more proactive in working with teachers during the planning stages? In serving on planning committees for science fairs? In being inclusive of our communities?

Have you done something to increase the Earth and space sciences in your local K-12 science fair? Please share in the comments section below – this is too important of a topic for us to not take some action.



Dublin, R., Sigman, M., Anderson, A., Barnhardt, R., and Asiqluq Topkok, S. (2014). COSEE-AK ocean science fairs: a science fair model that grounds student projects in both Western science and traditional Native knowledge. Journal of Geoscience Education, 62: 166-176.

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

Lowman, P. (2002). Exploration science: a case history from Earth orbit. The Science Teacher, 69(7): 24-30.