Intel is retreating from its longtime sponsorship of science fairs for high-school students, a move that drew criticism from former Intel CEO Craig Barrett.
The science fair has been an annual rite of education for generations of students, going back to the 1940s. But even the term “science fair” stirs stereotypical images of three-panel display boards and baking-soda volcanoes. Its regimented routines can seem stodgy at a time when young people are flocking to more freewheeling forums for scientific creativity, like software hackathons and hardware engineering Maker Faires.
That is apparently the thinking at Intel, the giant computer chipmaker, which is retreating from its longtime sponsorship of science fairs for high-school students.
Intel ended its support last year for the national Science Talent Search, whose new sponsor is Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, a biotechnology company.
Now, Intel will drop its backing of the International Science and Engineering Fair. The nonprofit group that organizes both fairs, the Society for Science and the Public, this past week began its search for a new sponsor for the global competition.
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Intel’s move away from traditional science fairs leads to broader questions about how a top technology company should handle the corporate sponsorship of science, and what is the best way to promote the education of the tech workforce of the future. Intel’s move also raises the issue of the role of science fairs in education in the so-called STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Intel has not explained its decision, and only said it is “extremely proud” of its long association with the two fairs. The company began supporting the national fair in 1998, taking over for the original sponsor Westinghouse, and the global competition in 1997, which had no main sponsor.
Still, Intel’s move does not suggest a pullback by tech companies for their support for sponsoring science and technology. Google, for example, hosts the Google Science Fair, a global online competition for 13- to 18-year-olds that began in 2011.
But as technology — and the economy — become more based on software, the major companies have broadened support to events like coding workshops and contests.
It is hard to imagine a time since the post-Sputnik years when science and technology education has been more valued, by universities and in the labor market. It is also hard to imagine that the leading international science fair, whose roster of participating countries and territories rose to 78 last year, up from 27 in 1997, will not find a deep-pocketed sponsor.
The Intel decision provoked a sharp difference of opinion between Brian Krzanich, Intel’s current chief executive, and Craig R. Barrett, a former Intel chairman and chief executive.
Krzanich has told colleagues privately that the science fairs were the fairs of the past and had become tilted to life sciences and biotechnology, not primary fields for Intel, according to two people who are not authorized to speak publicly for the company.
Barrett disagreed. In an email, Barrett said, “you could conclude instead that Intel is a company of the past, just like Westinghouse when they dropped” sponsorship of the national science fair in 1998.
Barrett, who is on the board of the Society for Science, also said that all of science has become data-driven and computational, so Intel has a stake in nurturing youthful innovators in all scientific disciplines, including the life sciences.
Intel, under Krzanich, who became chief executive in 2013, has become a major supporter of Maker Faire events, where inventors of all ages showcase their homemade engineering projects. The first Maker Faire was in Silicon Valley in 2006. Last year, more than 1 million people attended Maker Faire events worldwide.
In 2013, Intel introduced Galileo, an inexpensive computer chip board, which supports open-source hardware and software for the maker and education markets. Its marketing tagline: “The Maker Movement Powered by Intel.” Krzanich has often been interviewed at Maker Faire events, and he and other Intel managers describe them as incubators for the next generation of engineers and innovators.
Intel does support other programs to promote STEM education. In 2015, the company pledged $300 million over three years for a fund to diversify its own workforce by attracting more women and minorities into technology and paying for college scholarships. Since 2001, the company has contributed an average of $45 million a year to university programs, including research collaborations and scholarships. And Intel is committed to supporting the International Science and Engineering Fair until 2019.
Maya Ajmera, president of the Society for Science, praised Intel as “an extraordinary partner for the last 20 years,” though she said the company never gave the society a reason for dropping the sponsorship.
The society is looking for a sponsor for the international competition who will commit at least $15 million annually for a minimum of five years. It is an opportunity, Ajmera said, to “invest in the most important science and technology pipeline in the world.”
The international science contest has a rich legacy. About 60 percent of the participants are U.S. high-school students, and its alumni include Paul L. Modrich, a Nobel Prize winner and biochemist at Duke University; Brian Greene, a physicist at Columbia University and a best-selling author; winners of the MacArthur Fellowship, also known as the “genius” grant; and computer scientists at companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft.
Science educators say that science fairs can nurture vital learning and life skills. Students must use critical thinking, experimentation, presentation and speaking skills, and persistence.
“Science fairs still do that in a way that all the textbook learning cannot,” said Mary Sue Coleman, a biochemist, president of the Association of American Universities and former president of the University of Michigan.
For Karan Jerath, years of high-school science fairs fostered those skills.
“I lacked confidence growing up, and science fairs gave me that confidence,” said Jerath, 20, a sophomore at the University of Texas at Austin.
Struck by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, Jerath designed an underwater wellhead capping device for taming a gusher and separating oil, gas and water for recycling. His creation won one of the top prizes at the international fair in Pittsburgh in 2015. He has applied for a patent and he has presented his idea to groups as varied as oil companies, the United Nations and young entrepreneur programs.
His science-fair success, he said, has “really opened up so many doors for me that I had never thought of.”
Samantha Marquez, 21, a junior at Yale University, won a prize in materials and bioengineering at the 2013 international competition in Phoenix. For Marquez, a lesson from her experience is that science is not solitary, isolating work, as it is often portrayed.
Winning science-fair projects, she said, typically involve consulting mentors and judges, and bouncing ideas off others.
That is particularly true of the final event, where 1,800 high-school students from more than 70 nations gather to compete for the top prizes. Total student participation in the global competition remains steady, according to the Society for Science.
Raymond Wang, 19, a freshman at Harvard University, thinks science fairs are “misunderstood gems of education.”
But a branding makeover might be in order, he suggested. Wang, who won a top prize at the 2015 international science fair, avoids the well-known label and uses “research competitions” instead.
“The positioning of these research competitions as science fairs can be misleading,” he said.