Issue Date: February 21, 2011
Virtual Science Fair
Google can now add science fair to its diverse and growing portfolio of projects and investments. Last month, the Internet giant launched the Google Science Fair, the first global online science fair, for youths aged 13 to 18. “Our company is founded on experimentation, and we’re hoping to encourage the same behavior in the next generation of scientists,” says Google spokeswoman Katherine Eller.
Chemistry is one of 11 categories in which participants can submit their projects. Chemistry Nobel Laureate Kary B. Mullis, who invented the polymerase chain reaction, is among the panel of judges.
“I think Google’s effort should be applauded,” says Elizabeth Marincola, president of the Society for Science & the Public, which administers both the Intel Science Talent Search and the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair. “It has the potential to reach a large number of kids, and anything that gets young people interested and engaged in science is good.”
An online science fair has its benefits. “Right now, opportunities to participate in science fairs and science competitions depend very much on where a student happens to have been born,” says Adam E. Cohen, who won first place in the 1997 Westinghouse (now Intel) Science Talent Search and is now an assistant professor of chemistry and chemical biology and of physics at Harvard University. “We’re probably missing a lot of potentially great scientists because they were born someplace where there aren’t many opportunities.”
Moreover, an online science fair makes sense at a time when schools are cutting science fairs out of their budgets, says Jeffrey I. Seeman, a visiting senior research scholar at the University of Richmond.
To enter the Google Science Fair, participants create a Google site with a virtual presentation that includes a question, hypothesis, research summary, experimental data, observations, conclusion, and works cited. Participants must also create a two-minute video or slide presentation summarizing their project. Google encourages participants to use the company’s suite of free online tools including Google Apps, Google Docs, YouTube, and Google Earth in building their sites.
“Science literacy in our country needs to be improved at all levels for all ages, and this is a bold attempt to add another building block that can improve science literacy in a self-learning, self-discovery model,” Seeman says. “What is badly needed are lots of initiatives that offer people at all ages the opportunity to grow and learn.”
Last year, Seeman launched a website aimed at improving science literacy. The Archimedes Initiative features students sharing their science fair experiences with each other through videos.
A new book written by current and recent Harvard undergraduates, titled “Success with Science: The Winners’ Guide to High School Research,” also offers students’ insights into participating in science competitions.
Submissions to the Google Science Fair are being accepted through April 4. Sixty semifinalists will be announced on May 9, and up to 15 finalists will vie for awards to be presented in July at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. Three finalist winners, one in each age category, 13–14, 15–16, and 17–18, will be selected.
The science fair is supported by Google’s partner institutions: National Geographic Society; CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research; Scientific American; and Lego Group. From the three finalists, a grand-prize winner will be chosen to receive a $50,000 scholarship from Google and his or her choice of an “experience” at Google or one of its partner institutions. The winner will also receive a National Geographic trip to the Galapagos Islands, among other prizes. The two other finalists will each receive a $25,000 scholarship from Google and will have second and third choice by random selection of one of the remaining experiences at Google, CERN, Scientific American, or Lego Group.
The general public will have the opportunity to view the projects of the 60 semifinalists and comment on their work. They can also vote on their favorite for the People’s Choice Award Prize, which is a $10,000 scholarship from Google.
Despite the advantages of an online science fair, face-to-face interactions remain an important part of the science fair experience, says chemistry Nobel Laureate Dudley R. Herschbach, trustee emeritus of the Society for Science & the Public Board of Trustees and Harvard University emeritus professor. “If you ask the students, they would say that the opportunity to have face-to-face meetings with senior people who express great interest in what they’re doing counts for a lot,” says Herschbach, who is a longtime supporter of science competitions. Marincola agrees, “It’s through these face-to-face interactions that you can really deepen your understanding of science.”
Still, every opportunity to get involved in a science fair will help improve science literacy. “We’re by no means trying to eliminate the traditional science fair,” says Eller. “We’re trying to encourage additional ways for students to get inspired by science.”
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