science competition and collaboration

At our region’s recent science fair, I assumed my typical, annual role of organizing evaluators to fan out and assess the merits of posters and presentations. As we dispersed, I found myself saying, enthusiastically:

“Go forth and judge!”

And then there was a moment of internal pause as I heard those words echo inside my head. They struck me, whimsically, and I cracked a smirk to elaborate:

“Which is the opposite of what Jesus said, but it’s what we do in Science Fair.”

The judges looked at me, some laughing, others with their engineering heads at a strange angle, trying to interpret either what I meant of how serious I was. This lasted about 4 seconds, and then they moved on to place judgement on our children.

My quip about Jesus — which I was quite proud of: the combination of wordplay, reflection on my days as an altar boy, and my takeaway from a general education course I took on the Synoptic Gospels — flashed back while I was sitting in a Science Olympiad event this Saturday. The Olympiad is another annual occurrence, and I was monitoring students’ ability to solve problems in groups. It struck me, as I was figuring out how to score these collaborations, that the Fair and the Olympiad both had a distinctly competitive theme to them. This is obvious.

What’s less obvious is that the competitive nature of these major, nationally renowned efforts to promote science education, is completely counter to how science is actually done. We’ve modeled these after other events: Science Olympiad looks like a major track and field competition, and the Science Fair is (and I hate to say this) most resembling of a major beauty pageant. These kinds of competitions are all very exciting and engaging. But science at its heart is quite the opposite of what the competitions are modeling. Science is collaborative. Even as individuals might want to get to a discovery or a disproof before another does, and even as we try to get grant funding that others also want to draw from, we are all working towards the same goals. At a real scientific conference, we all get to learn what others have done and talk about these ideas, learning from the advances that a “competitor” has made. At a science fair, children stand by their boards for four hours to be judged and never have an opportunity to learn from other projects or even imagine a collaboration, not to mention just a glimmer of an idea.

I know of some other science events that model this collaboration and sharing of knowledge, but not enough of them. We’ve decided, somewhere along the line, that modeling science after sporting events and competitions is what will promote the doing of science. Unfortunately, we’re missing one of the real essences of science, and we’re using these competitions as false models of how science actually works. I’m happy to honor the great, often jawdropping work of our youth. I just wish that they were learning more about real science in the process.

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