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Science Fairs for Everyone

vonzastrowc's picture

Yesterday's edition of USA Today profiles the success of Oak Ridge High School in Tennessee, where three students recently won the prestigious Siemens high school research competition for a "supercomputing tool aimed at helping scientists develop bioethanol."  Their work reportedly helped the neighboring Oak Ridge National Laboratory secure an $800,000 grant to do similar work.

These extraordinary students--and the extraordinary teacher who helped them--deserve high praise.  Their story should warm the hearts of those who fret about the nation's future economic competitiveness.

Yet the feeling will likely dissipate when we consider just how many American students lack opportunities to do such advanced scientific work in high school.  The proximity of the Oak Ridge Lab undoubtedly exposes Oak Ridge High School students to resources, people, and a culture that foster their interest in science.  Poor students in poor schools, by contrast, typically enjoy few opportunities to pursue original scientific research.  In fact, it's the poorest districts and schools that are most likely to report cutting instructional time for science as they expand time for math and reading.

What are we to do for students who can't turn to their neighborhood particle accelerator or Nobel Laureate for help on a science project--or for students who have never had the opportunity even to try a science project? It won't do simply to imply, as some policy wonks do, that the need for basic mathematics and reading skills trumps fancy notions about scientific inquiry. Talk about the not-so-soft bigotry of low expectations....

Surely, inquiry and basic skills can reinforce one another. While it is challenging to foster struggling students' basic and higher-order skills at once, educators, communities, business leaders, policymakers and others concerned about the nation's future prosperity ahould build schools' capacity to do just that.

For inspiration, we can look to several stories about low-income students who, against stiff odds, achieved astonishing things. For example, four Hayden High School students--all children of poor Mexican immigrants in Arizona--bested students from MIT and other venerable institutions in a prestigious national robotics competition.  Similarly, a team of mostly low-income high school students at West Philadelphia High School worked with their teacher to build the world's first high-performance hybrid car.

Let us know about similar stories!