Science Fairs vs. Science Festivals

Science Fair

Science Fair. Image courtesy of Flickr user Dr. Bacchus.

If you live in Philadelphia, you probably have seen some jaunty ads for the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, a month-long celebration of dance, theater, music, and visual arts best summarized by its large (LARGE) scale replica of the Eiffel Tower. While I certainly plan to stuff my face with free baguette and catch a show or two, what I’m really looking forward to is the “less glam, more blam!” Philadelphia Science Festival.

Starting next Friday, PSF presents two impressively packed weeks of lectures, demonstrations, games, science cafes, dinners, panel discussions and more from a host of city science institutions (CHF, of course, included). The idea of a great big science party reminds me of a more familiar, if less celebratory, gathering of minds: the school science fair.

Philadelphia, aptly enough, was the location for the first international science fair in the United States, held in 1950. It was not the first of its kind; informal “science clubs” had been growing throughout the country since the 1930s, and their projects naturally culminated in public demonstrations now and again. The inclusivity of these groups, and their popularity, was one result of the decades-long “general science” reform in secondary science education.

Though high school attendance in the early 1900s was expanding at a record pace, enrollment in subjects like physics, chemistry, and biology was on the decline. Curricula for these disciplines had traditionally been dictated by the university classroom, strengthening scientific professions but leaving the non-collegiate student behind. A Nation columnist summarized the public relationship with science in 1906: “Today, no layman may fairly hope to keep up, and all sorts of popularization meets with increasing difficulty.” It’s a sentiment that would not appear out of place today.

The general science movement pushed against this feeling to create a site that had no analogue at the university. General science textbooks focused on students’ immediate environment, explaining how heat cracks sidewalks and why soap washes away dirt—fodder for science fair projects since time immemorial (along with the standard tooth-decaying-in-soda horror). But as students were applying scientific logic to the world around them, away from the prestige and mystery of the lab, I wonder if they felt as though they were “doing” science—if, of course, that was ever the goal.

Posted In: Education | History

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