Science fairs and Science Olympiad : influence on student science inquiry learning and attitudes toward STEM careers and coursework
Schmidt, Kathleen M.
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Thousands of middle school students participate in science competitions such as science fairs and Science Olympiad yearly, but little is known about the effects of their participation on their attitudes toward science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) coursework and careers. Even less is known about whether they increase students' understanding of the practices of scientific inquiry. In this study, 86 seventh-grade students from eight schools who participated in either science fair or Science Olympiad competitions were assessed regarding their attitudes toward STEM coursework and careers and the extent of their science inquiry skills. Quantitative data were collected through pre- and post- competition written assessments. Qualitative data were collected through post-competition focus groups.Both groups increased their understanding of science inquiry as a result of their participation in science competitions. Student attitudes toward STEM coursework and careers were generally positively influenced by their participation in science competitions. However, there was a subgroup of science fair participants for which the opposite was true. The strengths of Science Olympiad programs were the opportunities to study science topics on a deep level, to work with teammates, and to compete. However, there was little student choice at the schools studied because the coaches chose the teams and generally assigned students to particular Science Olympiad events. The level of science inquiry varied according to event. Strengths of the science fair programs were student choice regarding topics and a focus on science inquiry. However, the level of stress experienced by some students, and the negative attitudes toward science that resulted, called into question the appropriateness of engaging in a project of the length and complexity of a typical science fair project with this age group.Recommendations for Science Olympiad competitions are adding events that allow more student choice and deeper engagement with science inquiry. Science fair students may benefit from engaging in several small projects, rather than one large project, and from working with a partner or a small group. It was found that for most students, science competition participation had a positive influence on their understanding of science inquiry and attitudes toward STEM coursework and careers.