“I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand.”
Confucius, Chinese philosopher
Many of the things that students struggle with in the process of doing a science fair project are the result of not fully understanding unfamiliar tasks. If they have never written an abstract, or even read one, the challenge of composing one for their project can be truly daunting. The same is true for selecting a good topic for their project, properly stating their hypothesis, controlling variables, etc.
One of the best ways to overcome this is by first doing a group project with your class. I know that class time is very limited. Just the thought of going through an entire science project in class may make you shudder, but with a properly selected topic, a few minutes per day will make a huge difference, both in the quality of your students’ own projects, and their understanding of the concepts.
The first step in making this easy is to select a topic that will not take up a tremendous amount of time. If you have the time, let your class come up with ideas and choose a topic. If time is more limited, then you can provide the general topic, such as asking whether the amount of salt dissolved in water affects how quickly it evaporates. Don’t state this as a formal topic or as a hypothesis. Instead, just give them a general question.
From there, have the class work as a group with your guidance to form a hypothesis. For the example above, their hypothesis might be something like, “As the concentration of dissolved table salt in water increases, the speed of evaporation decreases.”
Then, the class would work together to design an experiment to test that hypothesis, making sure to identify the independent variable (what you are testing), include a control group, and controlling all the other variables. You might divide the class into small groups and have each group carry out the experiment and collect data.
If at all possible, follow this process all the way through developing a written report and putting together a presentation board. Be sure to follow all the rules and guidelines that the students will have to follow for the actual science fair.
While this may seem like a LOT of work, it serves several valuable functions. First, it will give your students actual experience with many of the unfamiliar parts of their project. It will help you identify the concepts that your students have trouble with, and it will also remind you of how much your students actually have to do for their own project. Best of all, giving them a solid idea of how to do each step can make your students more likely to do the work themselves, instead of depending on their parents to do the unfamiliar parts for them.
Even if your students will not participate in the science fair, a classroom project is an excellent way to illustrate the basic concepts of the scientific process.