Why science fairs matter in America

Harshini Mukundan, a microbiologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, has spent years judging middle and high school science fairs. (Courtesy Los Alamos National Laboratory)
Harshini Mukundan, a microbiologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, has spent years judging middle and high school science fairs. (Courtesy Los Alamos National Laboratory)

In the United States, high school science fairs are an important forum for students to explore what they’ve learned in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) while competing with their peers and flexing their creativity.

Science fairs help students apply what they’ve learned in STEM subjects in an innovative way. The students start with their own curiosity and, in some cases, figure out how to tackle pressing problems in society, said Harshini Mukundan, who has spent two decades judging middle and high school science fairs at the local and regional levels.

“Every individual child decides to take and pick what they’re interested in and explores it however they want,” said Mukundan, a microbiologist and a deputy group leader in the chemistry division at Los Alamos National Laboratory. “Scientific curiosity starts young, and I think it really needs to be nourished and encouraged.”

When students study biology, chemistry and physics in the classroom and think about concepts such as trigonometry and calculus, it can be tough to envision real-life situations that use those subjects.

Science fairs allow students to apply their STEM learning to real life. Beyond that, science fairs represent the culmination of various disciplines coming together to create a solution. Developing good language skills, for example, is important to properly present a project and communicate its findings to judges, Mukundan said.

“We live in little bubbles, but in real life the bubbles have to come together,” Mukundan said.

Mukundan researches developing diagnostics for infectious diseases, including emerging ones. Her career builds on an interest sparked in childhood — she had the mumps, and close family members contracted measles or chickenpox.

She grew up in India and took part in science fairs there, treating them as a way to think about how she would solve certain problems. Science fairs, she says, encourage students to think unconventionally about issues while applying lessons they have learned.

Mukundan encourages all kinds of students to consider science, even those drawn to the arts and humanities. “Science is an art, it involves a lot of creativity,” she said. “It involves a lot of imagination, and innovation and ingenuity and new ideas.”