Mandatory science fairs counterproductive, can result in cheating

Men and women walk around in a large exhibition area
Mandatory participation in high school science fairs is counterproductive and noncompetitive tracts should be offered that focus on scientific practices and learning vs. competition, researchers suggest.

DALLAS – Feb. 13, 2020 – Mandatory participation in high school science fairs is counterproductive, emphasizes winning over learning, and sometimes leads to cheating and other research misconduct, years of review of data and surveys shows.

Instead, noncompetitive tracts should be offered that focus on scientific practices and learning vs. competition, researchers suggest in the article “High school science fair: Positive and negative outcomes,” appearing today in PLOS One, the journal of the Public Library of Science.

“Schools really need to provide incentives for science fairs rather than establishing requirements,” says bioethicist Frederick Grinnell, Ph.D., a Distinguished Teaching Professor in Cell Biology at UT Southwestern Medical Center who has led multiple studies of science fair competitions over the years.

Grinnell and his collaborators surveyed more than 700 science fair participants over years of research and found several troubling trends:

  • More than 60% of the high school students had been required to participate in a fair, despite National Science Teaching Association advice that science fair participation should be voluntary.
  • Almost 10% of students required to compete who had indicated they were not interested in a career in the sciences or engineering admitted research misconduct – fabricating data or copying their data from someone else.
  • In competitive science fairs, the students’ focus was on winning rather than learning, with obligated participation receiving only about 50% “positive experience” responses compared to 75% positives rates among those who chose to participate.

If the overarching goal of science fairs is to increase a general interest and understanding of science and engineering among all students, then requiring students to participate in competitive events can be counterproductive, says Grinnell, author of The Scientific Attitude and Everyday Practice of Science: Where Intuition and Passion Meet Objectivity and Logic. The everyday pursuit of science often is a bumpy adventure “where the path to discovery can be highly convoluted with many dead ends, failure is frequent, and ambiguity is ever present,” note the authors, who include UTSW’s Joan Reisch, Ph.D., Professor of Population and Data Sciences; Simon Dalley, Ph.D., from the Physics Department at Southern Methodist University; and Karen Shepherd, secondary science coordinator of the Plano Independent School District. Offering science fair participants a noncompetitive track or alternative, on the other hand, often shifts their focus noticeably from competition to learning.

Grinnell, who frequently lectures on bioethics and the philosophy of science, founded and led UT Southwestern's Program in Ethics in Science and Medicine to gather, distribute, and publicize ethics-related research and educational activities at UTSW. Along with Tom Mayo, J.D., of SMU, Grinnell coordinates the North Texas Bioethics Network. Holder of the Robert McLemore Professorship in Medical Science at UTSW, Grinnell is a recipient of the UT System Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award and a Piper Professorship by the Minnie Stevens Piper Foundation. Additional findings from Grinnell’s published research into science fairs and related student behavior have appeared in Issues in Science and Technology, National Science Teachers Association Reports, as well as other articles in PLOS One.

About Dr. Grinnell

Frederick Grinnell, Ph.D.

Fred Grinnell, Ph.D, Professor of Cell Biology and Distinguished Teaching Professor holds the Robert McLemore Professorship in Medical Science

View Grinnell lab: Doing science

Early scientific work contributed to the discovery of the biological adhesion protein fibronectin and helped to establish the importance of fibronectin in biomedical engineering and wound repair. Subsequently, his laboratory helped popularize the use of wound fluid to analyze the human wound environment and made the discovery that chronic wounds contain degraded fibronectin and high levels of proteolytic enzymes. In recent years, his research has focused on the use of three dimensional collagen matrices containing fibroblasts to learn about the mechanics of fibrous connective tissue.

View Grinnell lab: Bioethics

Dr. Grinnell founded UT Southwestern's Program in Ethics in Science and Medicine and lectures on bioethics and the philosophy of science. Currently, Dr. Grinnell and Tom Mayo, J.D., of SMU coordinate the North Texas Bioethics Network.

About UT Southwestern Medical Center

UT Southwestern, one of the premier academic medical centers in the nation, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. The institution’s faculty has received six Nobel Prizes, and includes 22 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 17 members of the National Academy of Medicine, and 14 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators. The full-time faculty of more than 2,500 is responsible for groundbreaking medical advances and is committed to translating science-driven research quickly to new clinical treatments. UT Southwestern physicians provide care in about 80 specialties to more than 105,000 hospitalized patients, nearly 370,000 emergency room cases, and oversee approximately 3 million outpatient visits a year.