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Science fairs are a rite of passage for students in elementary school through high school, and they have existed for decades. My son, a kindergartener, even had an opportunity to enter one at his school this year. The goal of these fairs is to have students create and conduct experiments that follow the scientific method and typically fall within the category of biology, chemistry, computer science, earth science or physical science. Presenting their findings gives students an opportunity to choose a topic they’re interested in and learn more about organization, writing, data analysis and public speaking. Prizes are awarded, and students may move on to regional, state, national or even international science fairs.
Animals are naturally popular with kids and often become subjects of science fair projects. Students’ experiments can involve animals in a variety of interesting and acceptable ways, such as through direct observation of wildlife, pets or other domesticated animals in their natural settings. Experiments can also involve animals in non-harmful ways, such as food or toy preference or behavioral studies. While most science fair projects are genuinely clever, fun and innocuous, some of those that involve animals can be troubling or downright cruel. It might be unintentional or the result of a child lacking direct adult supervision or knowledge, but this unnecessary use of animals (such as mice, rats, frogs, chickens, etc.) not only harms the animals but also sends the wrong message to students that animals are expendable “tools” or “models” to be tinkered with. In addition, frogs and other wildlife should not be removed from the wild. Not only is it difficult to replicate their natural habitats with heat, light and food requirements, but they will also likely be stressed. Furthermore, many types of frogs, toads and salamanders are declining in the wild.
School administrators, faculty and parents are the ones who must be responsible for assuring that students do not harm animals, especially since animal experimentation in schools below the college level is not subject to federal animal welfare regulations. Some states have laws that restrict or prohibit harmful experimentation on animals by students. For example, in New Hampshire, laws prohibit the use of live vertebrate animals in science class or science fair experiments other than observation.
While major national and international science fairs do allow their use, they have fairly strict rules regarding the study of animals. For example, the rules of the Intel Science Talent Search, the most prestigious science competition for high school seniors, state, “No projects involving live non-human vertebrate animal experimentation will be eligible.” The rules, however, do allow students to team up with scientists working in a federally regulated laboratory, but the students themselves cannot perform invasive procedures on animals or kill them for their own experiment. The rules of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, the largest global high school research competition, are similar and state that the organization “…strongly endorses the use of non-animal research methods and encourages students to use alternatives to animal research. If the use of vertebrate animals is necessary, students must consider additional alternatives to reduce and refine the use of animals.”
However, even under these parameters, animal use can be troubling. For a study I conducted to better understand the use of animals in science fairs, I observed the ISEF in 2002, and one memorable project involved studying the locomotion of three cats from a local shelter whose spinal cords were intentionally injured. Even though the high school student’s study was funded by the National Institutes of Health and was done in a federally regulated laboratory and not in his garage, I still worry about what message it sent to that student and to other “future scientists.” While the stringent rules are meant to protect animals (and the students) from harm, they fail to set meaningful parameters, even if students are just tagging along on experiments that would be conducted anyway.
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