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 chip maker, 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, is beginning its search on Wednesday 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 work force 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 from 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 in 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 — becomes 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.