Science fairs in America

March 5, 2014
By Craig Brandhorst  

Ever stay up until 3 a.m. stenciling a hypothesis and conclusion onto a trifold poster with a graph somewhere in the middle? Okay, you know something about science fairs. Listen up, though: Sarah Scripps has you beat.

The University of South Carolina history doctoral candidate is currently completing a dissertation titled “Science Fairs Before Sputnik,” which traces their evolution from 1928 (when the first large-scale fair was held in New York City) to the mid-1950s.

“I was interested in children’s understanding of science, how children engage with science and how that’s changed over time,” says Scripps, who came to Carolina for the master’s in public history program before pursuing a Ph.D. “In the 1960s and ’70s, projects become more homogenized — you start to see the three-panel, argument-driven projects we all know — but earlier projects were very different. I find this earlier time to be the most transformative.”

Rooted in the progressive Nature Study movement of the early 20th century, America’s first science fairs were designed to foster an appreciation for the natural world among children in urban areas and tended to have an agricultural bent, not unlike the 4-H competitions that preceded them. However, as the idea captured children’s imaginations, fairs expanded in size and scope.

“They really caught on like wildfire,” says Scripps. “By the end of the 1930s, you start to see the sorts of categories we think of today — chemistry, physics, engineering. That’s also when they started to spread to a national scale.”

But prewar projects didn’t fully resemble the ones we know today, according to Scripps. Into the 1940s, for example, it was still as common for participants to build dioramas that told narratives about science as it was to follow the steps of the scientific process. Those early fairs were also open to collaborative team and club projects. By the time of the first National Science Fair in 1950, however, the focus had shifted to the individual, and fairs were increasingly meritocratic, with the related Westinghouse Science Talent Search even requiring participants to “pass” an IQ test.

“When science fairs started, they were more about grooming children to have a scientific habit of mind,” says Scripps. “In the post-WWII period, they become much more about creating future scientists and engineers.”

Scripps even tracked the careers of former National Science Fair winners, discovering eight Nobel laureates and dozens of other prominent scientists, many in fields related to national security.

“With a lot of these children, after college their career is ‘classified’ or they worked for the Atomic Energy Commission. And it makes sense. Companies like Westinghouse were the primary sponsors at that time, and, of course, Westinghouse was part of the military-industrial complex.”

But if the Cold War helped shape the fairs of the 1950s, subsequent decades sparked different sensibilities. The environmental movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s, for instance, prompted the historic ban on vertebrate animal experiments. Later, the American science fair concept went global, as semiconductor chip manufacturer Intel began sponsoring the International Science and Engineering Fair (formerly the National Science Fair) in 1998. The ISEF now attracts more than 1,600 high school students from 70 different countries.

“Children embraced this from the beginning and developed their own sort of scientific community, not in spite of their youth but by virtue of it,” says Scripps. “Science fairs were originally designed to make science fun, there was an element of playfulness. I think we should always remember that.”

Archival image courtesy of the Society for Science and the Public.

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