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Science Fairs Are Ground Zero For U.S. Innovation January 31, 2012

Posted by The Raise Project in Women in Science.
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It’s easy to get downbeat about the future of science in America.

While Silicon Valley’s tech-savvy continue to drive entrepreneurship in the United States, it surprises few in the country that many U.S. high school graduates leave school without understanding algebra and basic financial literacy. In fact, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) which assesses the economies of the world’s richest nations, found that the United States ranks 17th in math and science education, with China at the top.

Quite frankly, such results are a national disgrace and there’s no excuse for such poor performance from the richest country in the world.

But I bet those Paris-based researchers drafting up the OECD’s annual reports have never been to a Montgomery County elementary school science fair. For it’s at places like the gym at Rachel Carson Elementary School one night in January that show you just how parents much parents in this part of the world are devoted to encouraging their children to think through ideas and understand the world around them a little bit better. Some insight into presentation and how to engage with an audience too are skills that are cultivated through a science fair.

Of course, figuring out how sugar crystallizes in saturated solutions makes rock candy, or figuring out why certain materials float while others don’t, will not immediately result in better test scores and improve the U.S. standing in global math education rankings. Yet it’s safe to say that there is a direct correlation between young learners being encouraged to think for themselves and being awarded prestigious science prizes down the line.

Take the example of Shree Bose. As a second grader, the Texas girl tried to invent blue spinach for a science fair, and ten years later, she became the grand prize winner of the 2011 Google Science Fair. The 17-year-old’s ovarian cancer research project was supervised by a professor at the University of North Texas who took the teenager on in her lab.

Or Intel’s Science Talent Search program, which awards high school seniors with some of the most innovative scientific research at a level far above that of ordinary students. Montgomery Blair High School has produced the most semi-finalists for the competition to date, with 108 students, while the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology has produced 75.

Take a look at some of the projects these students have worked on and be awed. From studying the relation between teenagers and cell phones to understanding the engineering of wind turbine blades to increase efficiency, the topics they analyze are timely, interesting, and in most likelihood, with considerable business potential. The Intel and Google awards are only two of the many hosted by corporations to entice students to get excited about science.

With students like these and companies, schools, and communities to encourage them, I can’t help but believe in the future of scientific education in America. It’s a true win-win relationship for all involved, as companies get kudos for their involvement in nurturing future brains, and recipients get much publicity and accolades as they rightly deserve.

At the end of the day, test scores are simply numbers that don’t really tell the whole story, and the story is that the United States needs creative thinkers who can harness knowledge into business as much as knowledge for its own sake. I just only hope that more resources that got these students engaged in the first place will be available to more kids at an ever-younger age.

About this column: GoTo Mom is a fortnightly musing by a Gaithersburg mother of two who, even after seven years of parenthood, is still trying to figure out how to have it all. She enjoys unwinding at the end of a snow day with a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon.

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