Thoughts on a Science Fair Project, part 1

Science Fair Resources

“Science Fair Project!”

Ahh, those three special words that can strike terror into the hearts of students, parents, and teachers. I have already begun to get emails requesting fun, quick, easy projects that no one has ever done before, and that will win the science fair. I wish I had a few hundred thousand projects that fit those requirements, but even that would not take the frustration out of this annual ordeal.

Before we get into my pet peeves about science fairs, the first thing we should think about is why we have science fairs in the first place. What is the purpose of a science fair project, besides the obvious torture of students and parents?

Most science fair resources say that the purpose of a science fair project is to teach students about the formal scientific method, giving them a chance to be creative and do some “real science” instead of just memorizing facts. It is an opportunity for students to see how exciting it can be to make a scientific discovery, while showing them how science is done in the real world.

This is a wonderful goal, but it very rarely works out that way. The “real science” usually gets buried under a huge pile of demanding rules and requirements that do not in any way reflect “real science,” turning a potential learning experience into a miserable, frustrating experience. Students get so overwhelmed with trying to figure out how to write an abstract, the proper format for stating a hypothesis, and designing an artistic project board that they spend very little time on the actual science part of the project. As a result, most projects are done the night before the project is due, mostly by parents who are yelling at their kids for waiting until the last minute. It seems to be the perfect recipe for convincing students that they do not like science.

Let’s take a moment to compare a science fair project with science in the “real world.” Imagine that you have just been hired by Global Science Projects, Inc. On your first day at the job, you are told that you have to come up with an original, unique project in any area of science. On your own, you must select the topic, research the subject, develop and conduct experimental trials, write a professional paper on the results, and construct a presentation of your results by gluing graphs and labels onto a piece of cardboard.

You have six weeks to complete this, and then a team of executives (who may or may not know anything about the subject you have selected) will spend a couple of minutes looking at your cardboard display and decide if you get paid or not.

A large part of that decision will be based on the visual appeal of your display board, and since the executives have more than a hundred employees to evaluate in one afternoon, they will probably just skim over your written paper and actual data, to be sure that you worded your hypothesis in the right format, and that you used proper punctuation.

While you have been told that you must do the entire project yourself, you are fully aware that other employees who are competing for the job are getting help from relatives with skills in specialized fields of science, art design, etc. At the last minute, one of your supervisor’s steps in to do the project the way he thinks it should be done, all the while telling you that if you were not so lazy, you would have finished this weeks ago.

The worst part is that once you are finished, the scientific information that you worked so hard to research and test will likely be thrown away or stuffed into a folder where it will never actually be used for anything.

Does that sound like “real science” to you? Would it make you want to go into a career in science? It is exactly the picture that we are giving our students. Is it any wonder that the point where most students are expected to start doing serious science fair projects (grades 5-7) is also the point where most students stop liking science?

So what could we do to make things better? Over the next few blog posts, I will be sharing some of my thoughts on making science fair projects less stressful, more realistic, more educational, and hopefully more encouraging for students who might follow a career in science.

Go on to part 2

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