Sunday, November 8, 2015

Science Fair

Science Fair.  The words strike terror into the hearts of students, parents, and staff.  As if the holidays were not stress enough!

It used to be that science fair was pretty low key and just a chance for students to have fun while learning to do experiments of their choice, or show off their model of a scientific principal, or to display their rock collections.  That's surely not the way it is now.

Today, high school students can win thousands, or even tens of thousands of dollars in scholarship money and research grants.  In the 2015 INTEL International Science and Engineering Fair, a sixteen year old, a seventeen year old, and an eighteen year old each won $50,000!  

OK - no pressure there!  These days, science fair is not for wimps.  Districts expect that science teachers will make sure that students from their district have a chance of competing at state, regional, and international science fairs and bringing home the credit to their school and school district.

Students as young as fifth grade begin competing in state or regional science fairs.  Not many parents have the background in science to help their children with that kind of project.  And not many teachers have the time to help each individual child to plan and carry out a unique and scientifically valid project.

As the result of having been the district science fair coordinator for my school district, I learned first hand that without some help, a lot of kids just can't do it.  And it's pretty obvious which kids had massive amounts of help from a parent who just happens to be an engineer or biomedical researcher. We want kids who don't have that kind of parent help to have a fair shot at learning to do a good science experiment - and maybe even going on to win some scholarship money.

Last spring, after seeing the 7,000th model volcano of my career, a homemade 3-D printer, and a fully functioning electricity-generating bicycle desk for teachers, I decided to write a Science Fair Guide for students entering their first competitive science fair, (and for the parents who want to help them plan a good project and have an encouraging experience in science).

The guide focuses on creating a scientifically valid experiment because the important thing is for young kids to understand that it's not about winning as much as it's about finding out something you didn't already know, and contributing to our knowledge of the world around us. Or, as Enrico Fermi said it best:

      "If the result confirms the hypothesis, you've made a discovery.
      If the result is contrary to the hypothesis, you've made a discovery."

That's what we science teachers want for students to understand.  It's about finding out things we didn't know, even if - or especially if - it didn't go the way we expected it to.

With this year's science fair season upon us, I've made a set of Editable Science Fair Planning Calendars for anyone who needs them.  They're free.  I hope they'll reduce the planning stress a little bit and make it easier to keep everything moving smoothly.

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