Kid With Frog

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.

Keep It Cool, Not Cruel

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.

Adults Need to Take the Lead

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.

The good thing — and a point worthy of mention to teachers, students and parents involved in local or small-scale science fairs — is that very few of the projects that advance to the prestigious ISEF involve live vertebrates. Of the 1,300 projects at this year’s ISEF in Phoenix, Ariz., 49 (3.8 percent) involved live vertebrates, including mostly mice and rats, but also farm animals, fish and birds. Three used cats or dogs. (It’s unclear how many of these projects involved invasive/noninvasive use of animals.) These recent numbers are the same as those reported in 2002, but the percentage of vertebrate use is slightly less: Of 1,051 projects, 49 (4.7 percent) involved live vertebrates at the 2002 ISEF vs. the 3.8 percent today. Some projects failed to make the 2012 and 2013 competitions because they involved a predator-prey experiment with mice, a toxicity experiment also involving mice, experiments conducted in a home and not a registered research lab and animals experiencing more than momentary pain and distress.

Using vertebrates doesn’t translate into winning top prizes, either. The Best of Category Award in 2012 for the Animal Sciences section went to a student who utilized bacterium, and this year to a student who used roundworms. The ISEF top prizes in 2013 were awarded to students who utilized artificial intelligence, electronics and astrophysics.

All Animals Are Worthy of Protection

This is not to say that experiments on invertebrates are without concern. At this year’s ISEF, one student exposed tiny glass (or grass) shrimp to a pesticide to assess its effects (my guess is that it’s toxic). In 1997, a California student was disqualified from advancing to a regional science fair due to his killing of the fruit flies in his experiment. The National Anti-Vivisection Society, a Chicago-based animal protection organization, is opposed to the use of all animals in science fairs, and created an award program for students with creative projects that do not involve harming animals.

Nicole Green, director of the humane science education organization Animalearn, states, “Science fairs can provide a wonderful opportunity for those students who are drawn toward innovation in science. Sadly, however, many science fair projects include experiments on animals that involve physical pain or stress, psychological stress, surgical procedures, force-feeding, drug addiction and/or radiation exposure. Not only do these experiments often cause great harm and suffering to animals, but they are often wasteful of both resources and animal life and produce little or no new information because they duplicate past studies.”

While much of what is written here focuses on larger science fairs and experiments of a higher order, parents and educators should be aware of these concerns at every level. Having elementary or middle school students transport crowded containers of frogs or boxes of chicks to a school science fair accomplishes little more than stressing the animals, not to mention their questionable fate when the science fair is over.

Animals can play a useful and meaningful role in educating students about science. The key issue, however, is that their involvement is innocuous and humane. There are plenty of experiments or studies that can be safely conducted using animals that help students learn about the natural world around them without causing pain, stress or death. For example, behavior or preference studies, conducting photographic surveys, organizing a “bio blitz project” and the direct observation of animal subjects can all help students learn and gain a greater appreciation for animal life.

Looking Forward

Participating in a science fair is an exciting opportunity to explore endless topics and provide unique solutions and ideas for real-world issues. Instead of relying on old methods of research, students are proving that they can find other ways — better ways — to learn about and improve science. Instead of relying on stale experiments repeated from the past, let’s encourage students to really be innovative. For instance, help them find other ways — better ways — to test human drugs without using live animals. That’s the way of the future and something to reward.

Read more Vetstreet articles about children and animals:

7 Children's Books for Animal-Loving Kids

School's In for the Humane Society's Online Humane Academy

Get Your Kids Involved in Training Your Pets