Ben Owens: Not Your Typical Science Fair

I must admit to having a love-hate relationship to Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math (STEM) competitions. I love how they can get students excited about doing real STEM projects and research and then presenting their findings and creations to members of a larger community. But what I hate about them is seeing canned work that is lifted straight off the internet and reflecting only superficial learning at best. These types of “projects” are just about as effective for building passion for STEM as are worksheets and step-by-step labs. Just Google “STEM fair” to see what I mean – you will be bombarded with how students can take advantage of “insider information” for pretty much any kind of STEM competition that’s out there.

So why am I so excited about the STEM competition I’m going to next week? Well, this is not your run-of-the-mill science fair! I have the distinct pleasure of accompanying a group of students that will represent the United States at the Beijing Youth Science Creation Competition. These students, all from the North Carolina School of Science & Math, went through a rigorous selection process as part of the North Carolina International Science Challenge. Read these titles just to get an idea of the caliber of research these students have been doing for the projects they will present: Bacteriophages to Combat Biofilms in Hospital Drains, Novel Water Desalination Filter Utilizing Granular Activated Carbon, Inhibition of MreB and ftsZ Proteins to Disrupt E.coli Biofilms, and Machine Learning Classification of WiFi Channel State Information for Smart, Safe, Energy Saving Buildings. No Mentos and Coke projects here!

Beyond being able to work with this highly talented group of students, I’m particularly excited about being able to get a first-hand look at what types of projects students from other countries will be exhibiting, especially those from China. As a STEM educator too his keenly aware of where the United States stands with regard to various international education measures, this will be a unique opportunity for me to get a glimpse into the teaching and learning approaches used in other parts of the world.

Having been a part of dozens of STEM competitions over the years, I’ve seen my share of exceptional projects, as well as stinkers that only reflect how good parents were at making a tri-fold. This competition promises to be truly exceptional. What will make it even better is if I can uncover some common threads of success (and failure!) that can better inform the work I do to help teachers everywhere develop stronger “Strategies That Engage Minds.” This is what my friends at the NC SMT Center call the true definition of STEM and is what I hope all teachers and students can aspire to every day, every lesson, and yes, every science fair.

Ben Owens is a former physics and mathematics teacher at Tri-County Early College High School in Murphy, NC and a 2014 Hope Street Group National Teaching Fellow.  He earned degrees in physics and mechanical engineering, respectively, from North Georgia University and the Georgia Institute of Technology. After a 20-year career as an engineer with DuPont in locations across the US, he got his Master of Arts in Teaching from Marshall University and then left the private sector in 2007 to teach in rural Appalachia. Ben is the 2017 Bridging the Gap Distinguished Teacher in STEM Education and the 2016 North Carolina Science Technology & Mathematics Center’s 9-16 Outstanding Educator. He has served on the Teacher Advisory Council for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is an Open Organization Ambassador, a member of Transcend Education’s Yellow Hats League, and is a “Community TA” for MIT’s Online Course: “Competency-Based Education: The Why, What, and How.” Ben is now an Open Way Learning Consultant following the bestselling book he co-authored, “Open Up, Education! How Open Way Learning Can Transform Schools.”

Image by 立 重立 from Pixabay

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