Taking the traditional science fair out of the school gymnasium and placing it on the Web, Google launched its 2012 Global Science Fair yesterday, a follow-up to last year's inaugural event.
The fair is open to any student (age 13 to 18) from anywhere who has access to the Internet and to a Web browser.
This year, Google is taking the "global" aspect of the contest seriously, allowing submissions in 13 different languages (last year's were only accepted in English). The company will also select 90 regional finalists -- 30 from the Americas, 30 from the Asia-Pacific region, and 30 from Europe and Africa. It's about "guaranteeing more global coverage," says Maggie Johnson, Google Director of Education and a Google Science Fair judge.
As with last year's event, Google has assembled a prestigious judging panel that includes Google Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf and particle physicist and Nobel Prize winner. And the prizes for the winners are not insignificant: the grand prize is a $50,000 scholarship, a trip to the Galapagos lead by a National Geographic Explorer, a hands-on internship at Google, CERN or LEGO, access to the Scientific American archives for their school and a personalized LEGO trophy. Two other finalists will each receive $25,000 scholarships, access to the Scientific American archives, and a LEGO trophy.
In response to last year's criticism from the New York Times questioning whether the event was simply a marketing ploy to expose students to Google products (you can read the MindShift take on it here), Johnson addressed the company's the motivation behind the fair.
Johnson pointed out that the science fair does not require that students use Google products for anything more than the submission process (they must use a Google Sites template for that part). That standardization is necessary, she argues, since the company is hoping to exceed the number of submissions it received last year (over 10,000 students from 90 countries submitted their science projects to the 2011 competition).
Johnson also contends that scientific experimentation is a crucial part of Google's corporate DNA. Indeed, the company was founded by two young computer science students back in 1996 who had a hypothesis that all the information on the Web could be cataloged and searched. Johnson says that scientific exploration and experimentation remain important to the company's existence to this day, and that Google wants to help encourage this same sort of curiosity among the next generation.
As such, it's particularly important that the entire process occurs online. It isn't simply that science fairs may be waning in their off-line manifestations. There's something about the accessibility of the Web that makes it easier for students to present their findings. And to do so in an online forum may actually encourage those who might otherwise find the process intimidating to participate in science fairs. Standing next to your project in the school auditorium can be daunting. Submitting it via an online form, much less so. Could this lack of a public performance -- at least in the submission stages -- make the Google Science Fair more appealing to girls, for example?
Last year, the top prizes at the Google Science Fair went to girls went to girls. Google doesn't ask for gender as part of the submission process, so it's not looking to highlight girls' scientific achievements. But Google has added a new prize this year -- a "Science in Action" award sponsored by Scientific American, that will go to a project that addresses "a social, environmental or health issue to make a practical difference in the lives of a group or community."
And having that practical, community-oriented focus may attract girls to STEM projects (more so than, say, "science for science's sake.")
Submissions for the second Google Global Science Fair begin today and run through April 1.