Is Google's Science Fair Just a Marketing Ploy?

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The New York Times' Claire Cain Miller published a story this weekend entitled "Promoting Science, and Google, to Students," which looks with skepticism at Google's first ever Global Science Fair. The story is positioned, in part as a follow-up to a story from February documenting the decline of science fairs -- just as President Obama had called for another "Sputnik moment."

That story noted in passing that some science fairs have seen their corporate sponsorships disappear (it primarily emphasized how increased standardized testing may have made efforts like science fairs fall to the side). But this most recent Times story implies that Google's sponsorship of a science fair is merely a marketing ploy:

"Google’s marketing department is overseeing the science fair; Mr. Oliveri is the head of product marketing for Google Apps. “Part of this program is helping students use the apps to discover new things and develop their hypotheses,” he said. The strategy is similar to one Apple used in the 1980s and early ’90s, when it outfitted school computer labs with putty-colored computers, desktop publishing software and CD-ROM drives."

Certainly Apple did make strong in-roads into schools, and arguably the company still benefits from a lot of good will when it comes to educators. While the business world has long been seen as more hospitable to Windows than to Apple, education has remained "friendly grounds," even though Apple no longer has a monopoly over the machines in the computer lab. Of course, the introduction of the iPod, iPhone, and iPad has done much to shake up the whole computer market. But I'm not sure we can tie that directly to the rows of Apple IIs or iMacs in school computer labs.

That's not to say that getting students to use a product and to become brand loyalists isn't something that tech companies want. Of course it is. But it seems unfair to point the finger at Google -- or at its Science Fair -- and suggest that it's just an empty gesture.


The Google Science Fair does require that participating students both build and submit their projects online -- using Google Docs, Sites, and YouTube, for example -- and use Google's tools for everything from data collection to the final presentation.

But what the New York Times story fails to mention is that many students -- some 10 million in fact -- already use Google Apps for Education, another program by Google that offers these tools to schools for free. The article instead describes Google's other educational efforts this way:

"Google reaches into schools in other ways, too, like offering free business-level apps to schools, recruiting college students to be campus ambassadors for Google Apps and sponsoring computer science workshops for middle and high school teachers."

That's actually only a very partial list of Google's education "marketing." Educators are using applications in all manner of different ways. They use Sketch-up and Google Earth. They're becoming Google Certified Instructors. Google has funded projects like Khan Academy. And the company announced on Tuesday that it had awarded $1 million to the Mountain View Whisman School District to help improve education (Google is headquartered in Mountain View).

Maybe Google's ulterior motive is to get students to identify with "brand Google," or maybe the company has an authentic interest in progressing science, tech, and math education. And maybe those two things aren't mutually exclusive.

The New York Times article does beg the question then: since tech companies like Google (and Apple and Adobe and Hewlett Packard and Cisco any number of other high-tech companies) are actively promoting their tools in classrooms (for better or worse), how can we both welcome and scrutinize those efforts? Does seeding innovation come with a price?