In recent years, virtual science fairs that allow students to transmit their submissions electronically or create a website to display their projects have sprung up around the world. “ A virtual science fair means any student, anywhere in the world can participate. All you need is an internet connection,” says Maggie Johnson, director of education for Google, Inc., and a judge for the Google Science Fair, the world’s largest online science fair, open to students ages 13–18.
“Talent is universal; opportunity is not. By moving the science fair online, we level the playing field so all talented young scientists around the world can be involved,” contends Johnson. “Last year, for example, we received entries from more than 90 countries.”
Virtual fairs offer other benefits. “Since students are working in an online environment, they have access to a multitude of scientific articles, publications, newsletters, reports, and live broadcasts that depict the many facets of a particular science project of interest…They develop online search skills and [learn] where and how to find dependable [web]sites for useful, reliable information,” maintains Bruce Furino, program director for the Internet Science and Technology Fair (ISTF), which involves students in grades 3–12. Furino is also director of Engineering Outreach at University of Central Florida’s College of Engineering and Computer Science and chairs the Central Florida STEM Education Council.
In addition, students “can work at any reasonable hour of the day from school, home, or mobile tools. They are continually able to communicate, collaborate, evaluate, and present their results in coordination with their teammates, teachers, and technical advisors,” he notes.
As ISTF student teams research how an area of technology such as materials, manufacturing, or energy could be used to solve a real-world problem, they must “locate online technical advisors to support them during their four-month projects,” Furino explains. Working with these advisors “helps young students better understand what scientists [and] engineers do, occupations [students] are considering, and the role scientists, engineers, and medical technologists play in innovating real-world solutions.” Online, he adds, “they are not limited to technical professionals in their local communities, but are able to reach out for support from federal labs, academic research centers, corporate facilities, and professional societies [and] associations.”
In the National Association of Independent Schools Virtual Science Fair (NAIS-VSF), middle school teams research a topic of interest within the sciences with help from e-mentors worldwide—selected university researchers and educators, teachers, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education consultants, private research company scientists, and university science education students. “Students get individualized professional guidance, which is quite exciting and a good motivational tool,” says Whitney Elmore, the NAIS-VSF’s director and assistant professor of biology at Macon State College in Macon, Georgia. “Students also learn to work with others—not just their classmates, but peers abroad, which has global ramifications in an ever-changing global economy…Not only are our students becoming technologically savvy, they are also learning to communicate abroad using scientific principles and ethical values.”
Larry Oberg, director of the Canada Wide Virtual Science Fair (VSF), which is open to K–12 students worldwide, contends the VSF is meeting a crucial need because “many schools do not hold traditional science fairs. As well, traditional science fairs are often not available to younger (K–6) students.” He notes that “for various reasons (cultural and medical), some children are not comfortable participating in a traditional science fair environment. The VSF provides an opportunity to pursue their interest in science in a less public forum.”
Oberg, a retired science teacher and district technology coordinator, also points out that “some students with an interest in science are reluctant to participate in a traditional science fair due to negative peer pressure. (They don’t want to be classified as a geek.)” A virtual fair lets students “join a group of likeminded peers without risk of negative social pressures.”
“By having an online science fair, students from all different backgrounds, from all different types of family situations, can participate equally,” Johnson emphasizes.
Advantages for Teachers
“Many high school teachers report that because of curriculum demands, there simply isn’t time for a traditional science fair, especially if it involves travel. The VSF provides an opportunity to participate in a national competition without missing school,” says Oberg.
Teachers also get “help mentoring their students with their science projects,” asserts Elmore. “In an educational environment where the teachers are outnumbered and overworked, they all welcome the added help.” Johnson notes the Google Science Fair website has “an in-depth resources section with help and tips for students, as well as an educators section with resources for teachers and parents who want to inspire and guide their students,” and Google provides “innovative, free web-based tools for students to use in both their experiments and in their online submissions.”
Virtual fairs also can offer teachers some flexibility. Furino says teachers can “align ISTF projects with their course curriculum and select how the program can be integrated in or outside of the classroom…as an after-school program, for extra credit, [or] part of a career exploration course, research course, or senior project.”
Elmore contends teachers of virtual fair participants “are adding value to their position as well as national and potentially international prestige. The teachers I’ve had the pleasure of working with … have often cited their participation as major factors in job promotion and advancement.”
“I feel the Virtual Science Fair models the very best use of the internet,” Oberg concludes. “The VSF provides a venue for teachers and parents to expose children to a positive use of the internet in a very secure environment.” l
For More Information
To learn more about these fairs, visit