Science Fairs: in Praise of Successful Failures

If we wanted to design a system to thwart students from becoming good critical thinkers and science enthusiasts, in some ways we could hardly do a better than what we are doing today in our K-12 classrooms. What’s the problem?

Every test question has a right answer. Every lab has known results. We emphasize facts, rather than the process and joy of science. We praise success but don’t sufficiently reward effort. And–although the National Research Council has long advocated “inquiry-based science,” we often expect kids, who in their spare time are used to actively controlling their virtual worlds with role-playing games, to be passive absorbers of knowledge in classrooms.

Put another way: we don’t give our kids enough experience in how to ask questions, develop a hypothesis, try things, gather data, and sometimes fail–and to do so effectively. And we need to teach them it’s OK for things to wrong in the short term if they are working hard toward a longer goal and using the evidence-based process of science. Trying and failing is fine. Not trying: not fine. Sometimes you have to fail to succeed.

That’s another reason why we need Science Fairs such as the one held yesterday at the White House –the fifth one during the Obama administration. We need to recognize the kids who try–and so inspire the rest of us to try as well.

“Hello scientists!” greeted the President during his formal remarks, after touring each of the 30-plus exhibits and speaking with the young researchers. “This has got to be the most fun event of the year.”

And it was. As editor in chief of Scientific American for half a decade, I’ve met a lot of fine scientists. And the students, their posters and projects on tables arrayed in front of collections of —> Read More