“How Much Turmoil Does the Science Project Cause Families?” reads the tongue-in-cheek science-fair-style poster illustrating parent Susan Messina’s views on science fairs. Her materials list includes: at least 1 grudging parent, half-baked idea of very dubious merit, and procrastination. I think you can guess at the project’s “findings.” George Takei recently shared Messina’s photo of her project on his Facebook page, where he often includes science-related items.
My own experience with science fairs is tangential at best. The closest involvement so far has been fielding a phone call or two from family members looking for fair project ideas. My work with the JCE Classroom Activity series over the years provided a ready source of hands-on activities that could potentially morph into a project investigation appropriate to an elementary-aged student. In fact, I wrote an Especially for High School Teachers column several years ago about my niece’s use of the Activity “A Magnetic Meal.” Aside from that, my experience is nil.
I have had a negative knee-jerk reaction when science fairs come up in conversation. I don't think I'm alone. As seen in Messina’s poster and online comments about it, typical perceptions are that the students are uninterested, the parents are the ones doing the work, a majority of projects have no real relevance to the students’ lives, and work is often done at the last minute. The phrase “baking soda volcano” was mentioned at least once. One of my feelings is that fairs often confine the idea of science into a single pathway—first find a question to investigate, then follow the scientific method, and bam! You’ve got science.
Another parent in our local homeschool group approached me this year looking for my thoughts on offering a science fair within the group. Her son had read about a science fair in a book and wondered how he could participate in one. My first thoughts were the negative ones mentioned above. But then I considered further—how might a fair give students an accurate picture of science and help them to experience it in a meaningful and positive way? I brainstormed a list of desired qualities: each student exploring something that truly interests them; the process of getting students into inquiry, giving them ownership of the project and its procedure; students being able to communicate about their project to peers and adults; and participants realizing that science is not necessarily a rigid following of steps in a method. I would love for students to know science and to enjoy it. But how to get there, science-fair-style?
Have you had science fair success? What are some best practices for regular in-school science fairs?
(Photo credit: J. Chem. Educ., October 1997)