Science Fairs: Why and How? (page 3)
Why do a school site Science Fair?
Science Fair is an opportunity for students, individually or as members of a team, to actually apply the skills they have learned in their study of science. For students who have not done any science, the science fair project will be difficult. But if your class and your school has made an effort to give students lots of experience solving problems, a science fair is a real chance for the kids to show what they've learned. It is also a chance to show the students and the school community how important and useful science is. Community partners, such as businesses that have made donations, can be invited as well to see the students' work.
What does it look like?
You could do a Science Fair as an individual classroom effort, but many schools have school-wide fairs. These are usually evening events, sometimes coinciding with Open House. The Oakland Unified School District will have a K-5 Science Fair March 21 to 25, and a grade 6 to 12 Science Fair February 25 to March 1. You can visit the Chabot Observatory Science Center page for more information about the grade 6 to 12 Fair. Scientists are being organized to provide on-site support for teachers and students working on projects. If you would like to get scientists involved at your school site, please contact community scientist Carol Balfe. Students who participate in the District Science Fair could be selected to go to the regional Northern California Science Fair, which is held each year at the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. (Note: the regional science fair allows only one participant to represent each project, so teams must select a single spokesperson.) This fair feeds into the State Science Fair.
Deadlines and Timelines
Many teachers find more success if they break the science fair project down into manageable chunks for students, and have the different parts due on different days. Give students a timeline with due dates for their topic question, experimental design, display design, results, draft reports and final display. The book, The Complete Science Fair Handbook, by Fredericks and Asimov, (1990, Good Year Books) has two detailed timelines, as well as a great deal of practical advice for teachers and students. You may want to give students a chance to work on portions of the project in class, and peer review can be a valuable way for students to get ideas for improving their projects. This also gives you, the teacher, a chance to make it clear what your expectations are for their product.
- The Great Volcano: You have to decide what kind of projects you wish to see. If students are given little guidance, the majority of projects you will get will fall into two categories: the vinegar and baking soda volcano, and the Tide detergent test. If this is ok with you, fine. I find it pretty dull, and I don't think students learn much from imitating TV commercials. The time to deal with this is at the beginning. Make it clear to your students that you want them to tackle a question that is new to them, not the same thing they did last year. Have them turn in their project topics ahead of time, and give them feedback if the projects look unacceptable. (Scientist could help with this step.)
- The Rich get Richer: Some students have parents who are scientists or engineers. Other students are living in foster homes or shelters. How do we cope with the different resources these students bring to a project such as this? How does an impoverished student with no computer compete when it is time to create an attractive display? First of all, try to make it clear that this is a student project. Parents can be used as a resource, but they should not do the work (build the equipment, write the report, or build the display. Second, we teachers should provide space in our class schedule for some of the critical steps in the process. There should be class time for brainstorming and critiquing project ideas, practice collecting and graphing data, and writing conclusions. The students should be presented with models of good science projects, so they know what you are looking for.
Must it be judged?
Some schools bring scientists or science educators in to judge the student entries, but this is completely optional. You can give participation certificates just as well. However, your site is limited in the number of projects you can send to the District Science Fair, so you need to figure out a way to decide who goes on.
Must projects follow the "Scientific Method"?
Many teachers use a traditional scientific method approach. It should be made clear to students that working scientists do not always follow such a rigid sequence of steps. On the other hand, for a project of this type, the students should clearly state their question, hypothesis, materials and procedure, present their results and a conclusion summarizing their findings. See the Web Resources below for a variety of models you might wish to use.
How does this relate to an Inquiry approach?
For me, this is the big question. I want my students to develop their curiousity, and their skill at developing and answering their own questions. If the science fair won't serve that goal, I do not have time for it! I see the science fair project as a chance for students to work more independently on the same kinds of investigations we have been doing in class. We have been learning to pose questions, to collect data, and to write conclusions that explain our results. I see the science fair as a chance for them to apply these skills. I hope we can add a more student-centered component to the District Science Fair, featuring students sharing their results with each other, rather than just creating a display as an end product.
Science Fair Web Links
Science Projects: Who Judges? (by Norman Brooks and A. Cody)
Science Fair Resource Guide: Very well organized reference, including how-to information, and lots of assistance for students.
T.S. King Middle School's Big Science Fair page: Resources for both teachers and students.
Science Fairs Home Page: Project ideas organized by grade level.
Cyberspace Middle School Science Fair 95 Ideas and tips on science fair projects.
Reprinted with the permission of Anthony Cody. © 1997-1998 Anthony Cody.
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