The story behind the United States Regional Science Fairs

April 2015: The why

“Jen, create a list of ideas for making GLOBE more visible in the United States that will engage GLOBE Partnerships, teachers, and students nationally.”

All right. I can do that.

My top ten ideas:

Number Ten - The Science Fairs. The last one on the list. My least favorite.

Of course everyone picks that one to develop. Of course.

Flashback to my pre-GLOBE years: My failure

Coming from an undergraduate degree in zoology with a dream to be an excellent teacher, I wanted science class to be about research. That is what students should be doing in science classes, right?

Reality check. In my first years of teaching, between the classroom management and having multiple preps, I was overwhelmed thinking about how I could make that work. I lost the idea that science was about investigating every day in many different ways starting with "I wonder..." and "I notice..." I stopped students in their tracks when questions led to more questions.

We just didn’t have time to pursue them. And managing science fair projects? Right…

A few years later: Getting on the right path and then…GLOBE

I had a transformative professional development experience.

It was the summer when I participated in a teacher institute on student research at Plymouth State University. To this day, I still use the activities I learned there and have a very marked-up and well-used version of Students and Research: Practical Strategies for Science Classrooms and Competitions by Julia H. Cothron, Ronald N. Giese and Richard J. Rezba (2000) to show for it.

My classes were using science practices. I was slowly building in more and more support for student research. I was ready to teach environmental science, and to incorporate GLOBE measurements into my curriculum. And then I left the classroom to start working for a GLOBE science team, helping other teachers and students carry out research.

Flash-forward to summer 2015: Team-building

In order to make this happen, I needed a team from across the country who could support a GLOBE Science Fair in their geographic areas. This team needed to define what a GLOBE Science Fair looked like and how it could support all students and teachers who wanted to participate.

This interdisciplinary team needed the right blend of experience, knowledge, and dedication. I needed six heroes and heroines, one from each geographic area. I found over twenty.

May 2015: Identifying challenges and creating GLOBE Science Fairs for everyone

Carl Zimmer characterized some not-so-positive outcomes of science fairs in this article and he references another by Hana Schank in the Atlantic that covers the rest. I did a lot of writing and pacing across campus, thinking. I talked to my team. We all worked collaboratively on the vision of how these could be, and had to be, different.

I also talked to a lot of knowledgeable colleagues who didn’t like science fairs. It was a tennis match of ideas.

“Here is what I see happen that isn’t good: blah, blah, blah.”

“What if we do this? Will that ensure that doesn’t happen?”

And we kept thinking and designing, until there was a grudging “Maybe, it’s worth a try.”

Doubters make you work harder. At the end of the day though, as Principle Investigator (PI) on this proposal, could I overcome my own bias against science fairs and spin in what we all knew GLOBE had the potential to do, and what science was about?

June 2015: Concept development, writing begins

Let’s break it down:

  • Science is carrying out research to answer questions. Students need to experience this in order to understand the nature of science. Teachers need support (like I received that one summer) in order to try this out for the first time.
    • The project needed to support teachers and students carrying out research with professional development webinars and resources. GLOBE Partnerships needed to support their local teacher-student teams with equipment, time, and logistics management.
  • Science typically involves collaboration.
    • The project needed to encourage teams of students to work together and present.
  • Science fairs are competitive.
    • The project needed to model our judging after other national science fairs to enable students to submit their research to other competitions. The participants could think of our science fairs as formative - preparing entries for the larger, more competitive, fairs.
  • Science fairs give all students an opportunity to share their research and engage in the peer review process. This one was especially important.
    • The project needed to eliminate or mitigate economic roadblocks to participation. The focus had to be on developing scientists, the student learning process, and peer review (vs. winning).
    • The project needed to build in time for students to interact with each other and with professional scientists, and to share their research.

Fortunately, in addressing the last point, GLOBE has certain characteristics that make it more accessible to all students:

  • GLOBE is, and has always been, about the collaborative process of science and peer review.
  • GLOBE measurements and data are accessible to anyone through the website, and there is a low band width version.
  • GLOBE data collection protocols were developed and tested for scientific rigor and published on the website.
  • Very few pieces of GLOBE equipment cost over $100 and most can be purchased or made for less than that.
  • Every GLOBE student has access to the environment where they can carry out field investigations. Cities, rural areas, and the suburbs all count.
  • GLOBE student research can be carried out using GLOBE data collected from around the world, without any equipment or even the outdoors (although what fun is that?)

July-August 2015: Grant proposal submitted, reviewed and, YES!, funded

This was a project the team of United States GLOBE Partnerships was excited about.

For me, this grant proposal was for the ambitious but unsuccessful teacher I once was. It served to support that teacher and help her become the high-achieving one I wished to be, if I had just a little bit of help.

This project was about scientists and partners supporting teachers. It helped teachers mentor and facilitate students' learning and use of science practices.

Most of all, this project was about students immersing themselves in environmental questions and data, and becoming informed and empowered and excited to share what they learn.

With a humble thank you to the National Science Foundation, this project (award #1546713) was funded through the N.H. GLOBE Partnership at the University of New Hampshire Leitzel Center, home of the U.S. Country Coordinator office.

August 2015-May 2016: Let the science fairs commence!

In the middle of planning, I saw the NSTA publication, The Science Teacher (November 2015). On page 56, in the section under "Opportunities for Reform," was a reference to The GLOBE Program. The entire issue was devoted to citizen science and the article itself was on science fairs, "No Blue Ribbon, Reforming science fairs in middle and high school science education," by Matthew Wilsey and Matthew Kloser. We seemed to be on the right path.


Due to continuing support, NSF is supporting a new series of Regional GLOBE Student Symposia (previously known as the Regional GLOBE Science Fairs) in 2017. Everyone involved in this initial effort learned a lot. Through conversations with the participants, we’ve made some changes to reflect community input.

As we prepare for spring, future blog posts will share the details of each regional event, along with teacher blogs to help those planning to attend a Regional GLOBE Student Symposium.

To be continued…

More Blog Entries

Thanks to Jen for this insightful story. Bringing student research to science education is challenging, but without this, are students really learning science and what it means to think scientifically? Through the Regional Science Fairs, Jen and GLOBE have added an important support for student research and brought to light many examples of success.
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