September 30, 2023

Promoting Science, and Google, to Students

The company is getting into the science fair business with its first Google Science Fair, a global competition for teenagers that spans sciences as diverse as computer engineering, space exploration and medical technology.

The event does not have the name recognition and deep roots of the science fairs from companies like Intel or Siemens, but for most children, Google is the most familiar company of the three. With the science fair, Google aims to play an even bigger role in their lives by encouraging young scientists to experiment — and to use Google products while they’re at it.

Google’s science fair is different from the others in a major way: entrants submit their projects online, using Google products like Gmail, YouTube and Google Docs and Sites. It’s the modern-day version of showing up at the school gymnasium to demonstrate lava-spewing volcanoes or bacteria colonies in petri dishes.

The goal, Google said, is for students to be able to enter even if they live too far from a science fair or if their schools lack the resources to travel to the most prestigious fairs. Monday is the last day for science-minded teenagers to enter the competition. “The science fairs of today have not changed much in years — they’re still in gymnasiums with cardboard and glue,” said Tom Oliveri, a Google spokesman for the science fair. “So we can use the Web to reach a lot more students.”

It also serves another purpose. By putting its products in the hands of budding scientists, Google is trying to make its brand central to students’ lives, just as Nike does when it outfits top high school football teams.

Vint Cerf, the chief Internet evangelist at Google and a science fair judge, insists that Google’s motivation is not to attract long-term customers. “The real motivation is to help stimulate kids’ interest in science and technology, and we hope infect other parts of the population in their excitement,” he said.

But 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.

“This was a back-door approach — you get the kids focused on Apple IIs and Macs and the idea was as they grew up, they would demand them at work and in their homes,” said Tim Bajarin, a longtime computer industry analyst and president of Creative Strategies, a research firm. “Google is mapping that in the same context, but with the basic idea that the Google online tools will represent the productivity tools of the future. Get the kids used to them in education and it becomes part of their overall lifestyle.”

Google has struggled to make inroads into offices, where Microsoft software still rules. If Google convinces high school students that its products — for example, Google Sketchup, Google Scholar and Google App Inventor — are useful, they could use them at work later on.

The strategy has already made progress with young scientists. Gabriela Aylin Farfan, a geology major at Stanford, said she started using Google Maps and Earth for field work and Google Docs for group science projects in high school when other students introduced her to the tools.

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.

Google’s mission is also part of a broader one to improve science and math education in the United States. Participation in science fairs nationwide has tapered off, largely because teachers facing budget cuts and overcrowded classrooms lack the time and resources to coach students.

Google winners will receive a trip to Google’s research lab in Zurich, a trip to the Galápagos with National Geographic, three days with astrophysicists at the CERN lab in Geneva or an internship at Lego.

While few people attend physical science fairs, more people will see Google science projects because they are posted online, Mr. Cerf said. Still, entrants of past fairs say that their concern about Google’s fair is that all entrants won’t attend in person.

Ms. Farfan, who was an Intel winner for her research on the scientific properties of Oregon sunstone, said that presenting her project in person taught her to speak plainly about science. For Li Boynton, a Yale freshman who won a top prize at Intel for her research on bioluminescent material, the most important part of the competition was meeting people.

“Simply being surrounded by the type of people who win Intel and the people who get there, they’re extremely self-confident and motivated and have taught me a lot about ways to live life,” she said.

It might take a while for Google’s fair to have the name recognition of the big fairs. Many schools that send students to Intel’s fair, like Catlin Gabel School in Portland, Ore., had not heard of Google’s fair.

Still, the name alone will be a draw, said Anita Chetty, chairwoman of the upper school science department at the Harker School in San Jose, Calif.

“As soon as you say Intel, they’re not thinking of a computer, they’re thinking of the competition,” she said. “Because it’s Google and it’s known for creativity and known for being cutting-edge, I think the kids are going to be really excited. Certainly the name affiliated with it adds that extra level of prestige.”

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