Mark Fontaine can recognize a good science fair project. After all, he’s run the Rhode Island Science and Engineering Fair for many years in addition to being a science teacher at TIMES² Academy. And Fontaine thinks what the fair and other academic competitions are experiencing would make an excellent study.
“We have less kids,” Fontaine said, when asked what’s different about this year’s fair, which was held over the weekend at the Knight Campus of CCRI. A total of 278 projects involving 315 middle and senior high school students competed in the fair. That’s down from the high water mark of 515 projects about 20 years ago.
Science Fair is not unique for its diminished participants. The Rhode Island Academic Decathlon at the CCRI campus March 10 saw less participation. With 17 schools fielding teams, it was the lowest level of competition in the 30-year history of the organization, down two teams from last year and with less than half the 35 teams that competed when it started in 1983.
Edna O’Neill Mattson, facilities coordinator at the college, which hosts many of the student events, said she has seen a similar trend across the board. The exception this year was Math League.
Fontaine believes several factors are at play. With the closing of some Catholic schools, the pool of competitors is shrinking. But that’s not all of what he’s hearing from other educators.
“With so many mandates, schools are not finding the time,” he said. The Scituate schools system, a traditional science fair competitor, dropped out this year. The reason Fontaine was given is that there wasn’t time; with everything else students have to do. Fontaine doesn’t see the students as any less motivated or curious. Nor does he think the mental exercise of selecting a project and following through with research and proving a premise is any less important in developing good management and critical thinking skills.
What Fontaine questions, which could be a key element to a project directed at the science fair, is the effect of participation in Science Fair on NECAP scores. Anecdotally, he said, students who become involved in science fair at TIMES² improved their test scores.
That wasn’t the reason Christopher DeFreitas of Warwick Vets did his project on ground level ozone around Green Airport. With all that he had heard about the negative aspects of the airport, he was interested to see if there was any basis to complaints about air pollution. He selected ozone because it can be a contributor of poor air quality and smog.
In order to accomplish the project, DeFreitas used weekends and after school hours to take air samplings at numerous locations around the airport. For all he had to do in class and social activities, time came at a premium.
“You only have so much extra time,” he said. What time he was able to come up with was used to make phone calls to his girlfriend. But if that wasn’t enough pressure, the day before the competition, he went to get his project from the science room and it was gone.
“A janitor must have taken it,” he guessed.In a frantic rush, he spent the night rebuilding it. After all that, his conclusion was there are not excessive or dangerous levels of ozone around the airport.
Johnston High School freshman Joely Centracchio also understands the commitment required for a science project. She started with her study of milk in November. Her topic was titled, “Wheying In: Levels of Carbohydrates in Different Varieties of Milk.” She said her biology teacher, Theresa Florio, played a critical role in guiding and mentoring her. She said she couldn’t guess how much time Florio put into the project.
“It was many, many hours,” Centracchio said.
Fontaine said he also finds fewer and fewer teachers like Florio.
He said either mandates really are robbing time from Science Fair or “it’s a cop out.”
But, he said youthful curiosity and determination flourishes even when a science fair is not a school event. He cited Wei Li of East Greenwich, whose project dealt with cellular and molecular biology. She was the only East Greenwich school system student in the fair.
Fontaine said the words of Matt Martinelli, who competed in Science Fair when he was in high school, capture the value of the exercise. Marinelli, now an editor at the Boston Herald, recently told Fontaine, “Science Fair doesn’t get you ready for science. It gets you ready for life.”