Tag Archives: Science Fair

Science Fair 911 – Don't Sweat the Science Fair We Are Here to Help

By Blog Editor Susan Wells

It’s January and it’s Science Fair season. The keywords, “science fair projects,” “easy science fair ideas,” and “science fair help” are some of the top searched terms on Google in the month of January as students and their parents get online to look for help on their science fair projects.

Participating in the school science fair is a fantastic opportunity to learn about the scientific method, ask new questions, discover new science facts, conduct experiments and gain a new understanding of how science works. It also builds self confidence and public speaking skills.

My favorite part of the science fair is the bright smiles and prideful faces of the students who participate. In my daughter’s school, participating in the science fair is strictly extra-curricular. I am always so proud of each and every student who dedicates the time and energy to enriching their education. This will be the third year I am organizing our science fair.

Science fair isn’t about demonstrating a science experiment, it is taking a journey through the scientific method and self discovery. Sure, it is a lot of work and may cause some students (and their parents) to break out in a sweat with the mere mention of it. When it is done correctly, safely and allowed proper time, the science fair is very rewarding.

The science fair is a perfect opportunity to explore your own questions and make your own discoveries. It is an opportunity to step outside the books and the classroom and personally enrich your education.

Steve Spangler Science is here for students, their parents and teachers during the science fair season. We have an entire experiment library to browse through to find the perfect experiment to turn into the perfect science fair project. Debbie Leibold, our in-house science fair expert and mom of two along with myself, a science fair veteran, will provide helpful advice and step-by-step directions from how to choose the science fair project that is right for you, to tips for parents, students and teachers, how to turn a science demonstration into an experiment, how to create your science fair board and more over the next eight weeks.

Visit our blog at SteveSpanglerScience.com/blog every Monday beginning January 9th through February 20th for an article to help you survive science fair season.

Here are the topics and links to the posts to help you survive science fair season: 

Science Fair Boot Camp – An Intense Training Program That's Changing the Science Fair Experience

Our blog editor (and my favorite contributor), Susan Wells, recently wrote an article about kindergarteners being banned from science fairs. Susan does a great job of reporting on science happenings that truly stike a nerve. In response to many of your comments, Susan asked if I would share an overview of a long-term research project that I’m working on with students, parents and teachers at one of our elementary school partners, Laura Ingalls Wilder Elementary in Littleton, Colorado. Grab a new cup of coffee and take a look…

Science Fair Boot Camp

Tri Fold

Think about a real Boot Camp . . . intense training for a condensed period of time.  The leader motivates, teaches, directs, trains, and models the behaviors or actions desired for the young recruits.  Those young recruits learn discipline, critical thinking, planning, strategy, and organization.  They also learn from their mistakes and work together to find solutions.  Boot Camp is preparation for the “real deal.”

Now think about how this Boot Camp metaphor might be applied to science and elementary school “recruits.”  At Wilder Elementary School in Littleton, Colorado, we started a Science Fair Boot Camp training program five years ago. Every year, every student in the school performs a science experiment in class, modeled by the teacher. We are mid-way through a seven year program and are seeing signs of great progress in our students and teachers.

In the Science Fair Boot Camp, the teacher models scientific thinking and the proper way to conduct a science experiment for his/her students.  The program is based on the idea of “teachers do it first.”  Over the years, scientific inquiry has generally not been modeled for kids.  We know that many elementary school teachers do not have a science background, and the thought of conducting experiments and modeling “good scientific inquiry” is out of their comfort zone.  It doesn’t have to be scary.  This program provides engaging, hands-on, simple activities that kids love and teachers can model even if they haven’t had much science themselves.

TeacherWe have found at Wilder that the teachers are growing as much as the kids.  Despite some initial hesitancy, the staff is on board and excited about Boot Camp.  What’s coming out of this program is stronger kids, but also stronger teachers.  We’re focusing on teaching our staff how to teach science—they have to learn it themselves first and know it well enough to be able to explain it clearly to others.  Many teachers learn best by teaching.  Look back on the first time you taught something and how bad it may have been.  Then consider how much you’ve improved over time as you’ve gotten more comfortable with the material and “tweaked” your classroom activities.  That’s what is happening at Wilder.  Our teachers are much better teachers of science because of the last couple of years of “tweaking” and improving what they do in this Boot Camp program.

The first key to engaging students in doing real science is to understand the difference between a science demonstration and a hands-on science experiment.  Demonstrations are usually performed by the teacher and are typically used to illustrate a science concept.  Science experiments, on the other hand, give participants the opportunity to pose their own “what if . . .?” questions.  This inevitably leads to controlling a variable—changing some aspect of the procedure or the materials used to perform the experiment.   If no variable exists, then you don’t have an experiment; instead, you are merely demonstrating something.  It might be a very interesting or entertaining demonstration, but without a variable you can’t test anything.

That’s where this Boot Camp program starts.  The teachers at each grade level design a true science experiment that they model for their students.  Then the students run their own science experiment with the guidance and support of the teacher.  They learn the importance of a variable, standardized testing conditions, and the scientific method.  They learn to ask their “Big Question.”  They create a hypothesis or “I Think Statement.”  They run tests, collect and interpret data, make “Big Discoveries,” and ultimately try to formulate some conclusions.

The process we’re trying to drive home starting in 3rd grade is the idea of a discovery.  A discovery can be anything and it doesn’t have to be right or wrong, but you can’t lie.  At no point are you ever allowed to go back and touch your hypothesis or your prediction about what you think you might discover.  A hypothesis is just a guess.  It’s what you think.  The hypothesis isn’t the grade.  You don’t win if you say, “Hey, I guessed it right!”  I think you lose.  If you say it’s going to float every time and it does (see 1st grade chapter), then you didn’t push yourself in the first place or try anything unusual.  Every kid will say that a bowling ball is going to sink and when it floats, only then do they make a discovery.  With the discovery comes another experiment.   The scientist asks more questions, collects more data, compares it to the previous data, and sees what other questions arise.  Along the way he or she makes lots of little discoveries and then finally draws some conclusions.

My ultimate goal is that when students get to 5th grade they understand the difference between discovery and conclusion.  I like to compare it to watching an episode of CSI—the discovery happens about forty minutes into the show.  There are little discoveries along the way, but the “big discoveries” occur close to the end of the show, and in the last thirty seconds we get the conclusion.  The discovery leads you to all the things you did or thought that were wrong.  When you get to the conclusion, you tie it all together.  Your conclusion isn’t what you set out with at the beginning.  There’s always a little twist or turn.  Those twists and turns are what make the show interesting and, in a science experiment, are what keep the scientist exploring new ideas.

I like to use the acronym CCCOM to illustrate good scientific thinking.  Count, compare, classify, observe, and measure.  We should focus on this approach with all we do in science.  If the science we’re teaching doesn’t have at least several of these ideas, perhaps we should reconsider taking the time to teach it or at least adjust the method by which we are teaching it.  If a kid can’t count, compare, classify, observe, and measure, how can he or she make good decisions when he or she goes to buy a first car?  How can a kid ever know if something he or she sees on the Internet is true?  These are life skills we’re talking about.  You have to have a little skeptic in you to be able to notice when something doesn’t feel right and to know that you should ask questions or do a little research.

This Boot Camp program guides kids through this process.  It encourages kids to explore their ideas.  Test them out.  Were you correct?  What did you discover?   What would you do differently next time?  What else did this make you wonder about?  Did you write the conclusion in the last thirty seconds?  When you get to the 5th grade level, if you’re picking the right experiment, you are asking more questions than you could ever answer.  There are so many variables that there is no way you could get through them all.  Some teachers fall into the mold of: “Please submit your project by such and such a date and we will analyze it to see if this is a viable project.”  Why do we do that to kids?  We should be encouraging them to explore their ideas and natural sense of wonder while also teaching them the skills of scientific inquiry.

We need to be flexible and run in the direction our discoveries take us.  Teaching science is like jazz.  I know where I’m going to start and I know where I’m going to finish.  I just don’t know where I’m going to go in between. Every night I play it just a little bit different.  Every time I teach science it’s going to be a little bit different.  Every year you do the Boot Camp it will be slightly different.  Students will make different discoveries and want to take the experiment in different directions.  Allow them to do that even if it means taking a few extra days.  Kids learn that their ideas matter when they are given the time to ask questions and are encouraged to pursue the answers to those questions.  Boot Camp models critical thinking skills and, hopefully, prepares kids to explore ideas independently.  Even if the students never choose to do a science fair experiment on their own, they will leave Wilder Elementary having completed six real science projects.

If we’re going to effect change and we’re going to model something new, it has to be hard and you have to have resistance.  If you don’t, you’re just like the first grader who was always right in his sink/float predictions.   Getting started with the Boot Camp program isn’t easy.  Many teachers will be uncomfortable with changing they way they’ve been teaching science and with taking themselves outside of their box.   We found that to be true at Wilder, but if your school has a “Pied Piper” to lead the charge and motivate the staff to try something new, we think you’ll be very glad you put forth the effort.  The kids are ready and want to participate in hands-on, engaging science activities much more than they want to learn science out of a textbook.  The parents are excited to hear their kids talking about science at the dinner table and recounting the awesome discoveries they’re making under the guidance of their wonderful teacher.

To be successful, however, the staff has to be on the same page.  Every class in each grade level needs to do the same project and needs to share what is working and what isn’t.  Each grade level needs to hear from the others what is going on in their classrooms, what successes they are having, how the kids’ thinking is changing, and what they need help with.  Frequent feedback amongst the staff helps teachers know what is coming and helps them anticipate how they might want to change or extend their experiment based on what kids at younger grades have experienced.  By 5th grade, the students are ready to go and the teachers have a chance to hit a home run.  Give them the support they need and let them go.

My hypothesis is that over a period of time we will see an advancement not only in the kids, but also in the teachers and the parents.  We just completed year five of our seven year pilot program at Wilder Elementary.  I believe we are really going to see evidence of great advancement at year seven when we interview the middle school science teachers.  Hopefully they will have seen growth in student background knowledge and independent thinking.  We are seeing the proof that our program is working already.  The teachers are experiencing “aha” moments and the kids are growing leaps and bounds in their scientific self-confidence and background knowledge.   Parents are much more comfortable with the voluntary spring Science Fair because their kids already know what to do.  They aren’t the ones teaching science and trying to figure out what to do and how to do it when their child says they want to do the Science Fair.

Please take what Wilder has done and adjust it for what works for you and your students.  You don’t have to re-invent the wheel.  Learn from the teachers at Wilder as they share their projects and progress.  Now, slow down and allow kids to wonder, discover, and explore.

Kindergarteners Banned from Science Fair? What is the Right Age to Participate?

Contributed by Susan Wells
Blog Editor – Steve Spangler Science

What age should children begin participating in science fair? Should science fairs be judged? How much involvement should parents have in their child’s project? These are questions that are debated every year during science fair season.

I recently read a mother’s frustrated rant about her child’s school and how they ran their science fair this year. She said older children in grades 4-5 received 1st, 2nd and 3rd place trophies, while children in the 2nd and 3rd grades only received first place trophies. The kinder and 1st graders only had first place winners, but did not receive trophies. At the awards ceremonies, all the winners stood together, and a third place 5th grader received a trophy next to a first place kindergartener with the prize of only recognition. I won’t go into what is wrong with this – I think it’s obvious.

When she asked why the younger ones weren’t as strongly recognized, she was told that only the upper grades should be allowed to participate and kindergarteners should “just be glad they are allowed to do a project.” It was also explained that kindergarteners do not understand what a hypothesis is, so they can’t do a project as independently as the older kids.

If kindergarteners aren’t allowed to participate, then how will they learn about the scientific method and be able to form hypothesis? Aren’t you stifling their ability to learn by deciding what they are and are not capable of doing? Kindergarten is the best environment to encourage lifelong learning, thinking outside the box and exploring. Five and six year olds are extremely creative and excited to make discoveries. If we wait until they are 10 or 11 years old to start encouraging learning, aren’t we failing our children?

Yes, a kindergartener will need some extra help and guidance in putting their science fair project together. But the next year as a first grader, they will be able to work a little more independently and so on each year.

All children who participate in science fair should be applauded and recognized, regardless of age or grade. I think this school and organizer completely missed the mark with their science fair.

While I am on my science soap box, I believe science fair should not be judged. At my sons’ school, participation is encouraged, and not judged. In each grade, starting in kindergarten, the students work on a class science fair project. This teaches them how to conduct an experiment and present it as a project. Each year, the experiments become more challenging and the expectations raised.

The focus of science fair is asking questions, learning and finding the answers to your questions through exploration. Science fairs that are judged encourage a deeper parental involvement because of the competitive aspect. The focus is on a winning project, the best looking board and the most professional appearance. The true focus is lost. Children should have parental support and guidance, but should do the work and make the discoveries for themselves. Education is not a competition – it’s a lifelong dedication.

With that, how does your school handle science fair? Is it judged? Is it open to all grades? Is it voluntary or mandatory?

Science Fair Planning and Creative Ideas

By Guest Blogger: Karen Bantuveris, VolunteerSpot

Mad Science Meets Crazy Easy Student Science Fair Planning

Building extravagant dioramas and goo filled volcano models is only half the battle for creating a successful science fair. There’s a lot of work that goes into coordinating and planning this staple of elementary school life, and this post is dedicated to making it an easily navigable event for kids, parents and teachers.

Putting on a science fair can seem like quite the impossible task for both teachers and parent volunteers alike, but with advanced planning, a little creativity and a lot of enthusiasm, a science fair can be a whole bunch of fun for everyone involved.

Planning and Promoting

  • Decide where and when the science fair will be held, and when the deadline for the projects will be.  The cafeteria and the gym both provide open space where tables can be set up and people can easily walk around. Open the fair during the school day and encourage teachers from non-participating classes to bring their students!
  • Help students come up with topics, talk to your science teachers and find local research universities. Put together a giant list of science fair projects. A resource like Steve Spangler Science is perfect because there are oodles of ideas, and even better, there are hard to come by supplies!
  • Get the kids excited by offering creative awards for the projects deemed: messiest, stinkiest, loudest, smallest, biggest… get the kids thinking outside the ‘normal’ same old projects!

Volunteers

A large event like this needs a lot of support, from parents, kids and teachers. Make sure to get everyone on board a few weeks ahead of time using online signup sheets; busy schedules can fill up super-fast! Have parent helpers come for one-hour shifts during the day, and stagger set up times for the kids so there isn’t mass chaos as everyone tries to set up their projects at the same time.

You may also opt to have outside judges from the community – be sure to ask people from several scientific areas: engineers, doctors, and fish and game specialists. Ask around to see if any school parents fit the bill. Once invited, add them to your VolunteerSpot.com FREE Sign up reminder system.

Event Extras

  • Keep repair items on hand, just in case someone needs a last minute piece of duct tape, or a touchup with a Sharpie.
  • If the kids are presenting their projects to the judges, keep a detailed schedule of who’s going when and who will be judging who.
  • Take this opportunity to add a lesson plan on public speaking for the students that will be presenting their project to the judges.
  • Once the science fair is finished, have volunteers and judges fill out an evaluation form that outlines their feelings on the successfulness of the event, to help make the next year even more successful.

Prizing

The last thing to consider is how many prizes, what kind of prizes and what guidelines there will be for prizes handed out. Will there be an award for everyone who participates? Or will you have the traditional gold, silver and bronze awards? Will prizes be based on grade level, but have an overall winner for the school? What does a successful science fair mean for your school?

Here’s to an exciting and super successful science fair!

About the author:

Karen Bantuveris is the founder & CEO of VolunteerSpot, a time and sanity-saving online coordination tool that empowers busy parents, teachers and grassroots community leaders by making it easier get involved. VolunteerSpot’s free online sign up sheets are perfect for organizing a school or community science fair. Karen is passionate about increasing parent participation in schools and lives in Austin, TX with her husband and daughter.

How Roxborough Elementary Encourages Participation in the Science Fair

With strong parent support and amazing teachers to encourage a love for science, Roxborough Elementary is celebrating the largest participation in their Science fair this year.

Science fair can be a daunting event for both students and their parents. But participating in science fair doesn’t have to be scary. All it takes is a question to get started.  It can be a simple question like “Which diaper absorbs the most liquid?” or “Which gum flavor lasts the longest?” After you ask a question, run a series of tests to answer your question. Sometimes, you won’t find a clear answer.

Roxborough Elementary takes advantage of the scientists in their community from Lockheed Martin. Community members are invited to help judge science fair projects. They don’t let their participants struggle on their own. They give each participant a packet of information on how to put their project together for the fair. Roxborough is sharing their packets with our parents and teachers to help them communicate with their participants and complete their projects.

If you are looking for a science fair project, check out our Science Fair library.