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?

18 replies
  1. Sue Martin
    Sue Martin says:

    The argument that children should be ‘glad to be allowed to do a science project’ seems the saddest point of all. I am thrilled when children are excited by Science. The last I heard, we were trying to encourage more children to go on to become scientists. The earlier they are engaged, the more likely this will be. Should science be a competitive sport?!

    Reply
  2. Kim Lane
    Kim Lane says:

    All students in all grades (K-6) are encouraged to do the Science Fair at my school. I have a drawing for prizes to recognize their hard work and I make sure I have enough prizes donated so everyone receives one (I even order items through your web site to add to the stack). However, our district fair only allows 4th-6th to go on and then the state fair is 5th grade and above. We recognize all students going onto the district fair and give trophies for first, second and third place.

    Our district models the judging and awards after the state fairs guidelines, which in turn, models the rules after the international fair. This consistency helps students to prepare for the international fair when they reach high school level.

    I think it is important to recognize students for their hard work and achievement. It doesn’t mean that there needs to be trophies and prizes, but they are nice for students to display at home. I also have students applying for private schools and part of their application asks them to copy any certificates or some kind of documentation of awards they have received.

    I strongly agree that there shouldn’t be an age limit when it comes to Science Fair. All students should have equal opportunity and in order to accommodate their skill levels, several lower grade teachers at my school either do class projects or have students work in groups.

    Reply
  3. Maggie Hunt
    Maggie Hunt says:

    I think that the Science Fair committee should be thrilled that children as young as five want to dip their toes in the waters of the science fair process and to be able to see their progress over the next six years. A kindie may not know what the word “hypothesis” means but they certainly know how to “guess” what they think is going to happen in the experiment. Knowing that children at this young age do not understand the full “scientific method” they need to make a seperate part of the fair for this young group participating and have a different criteria for the judging.
    Yes, there is a great deal more help from parents at this age, but that is why you have a judging interview. The students enjoy talking about what they did and the judges know if the student had an active role in the experiment by asking questions and what the student can recall.
    The point of a science fair is to encourage not discourage students to continue to explore science throughout their education.

    Reply
  4. Julie Gintzler
    Julie Gintzler says:

    At the school where I taught, the Kindergarten always participated in the science fair, but it was not on an individual basis. Each class would do a collective project. That way the students felt the pride of participation and the teacher was able to model the entire process and guide them through the proper way to conduct a science fair project.

    Reply
  5. Carissa
    Carissa says:

    Oh man, my little guy would FLIP out if his whole school basically was doing the fair and he was excluded. BELIEVE me he GETS what the scientific method is. He’s a total science nut!

    I’m not sure I agree on the judging thing tho. I’m just afraid there is so much of the, ‘everyone wins’ syndrome going on these days. Kids should work hard and learn the lessons associated with yes… winning and losing… Am I allowed to say that?? 🙂

    I think it’s not that hard to encourage participation tho.. can each kid who ‘enters’ win a meal at the local Applebees or something??

    Reply
  6. Fadra
    Fadra says:

    My 4 year old and I were just talking about the scientific proces the other day. Mainly because we’re big fans of Phineas & Ferb so we’re well-versed in terms like hypothesis. (disclosure: I am a former science teacher).

    In fact, the younger ages are when their minds are the most curious and their thinking the broadest. What a perfect time to have them participate in a science fair. However, at elementary ages, I’m completely opposed to awards for any grade. The focus should be on the learning and the pride of accomplishment. When I was in school, science fairs didn’t even begin until middle school. We need more practice of cooperation and not competition.

    Reply
  7. Karen_VolunteerSpot
    Karen_VolunteerSpot says:

    At our school, we’ve broadened the science fair to first a two-hour community Science Night and then to a full-blown school wide Science Day. The goal is to get ALL kids super excited about Science!

    In Science Day/Night kids of all grades rotate through hands-on science demonstration stations led by parent and community volunteers — (e.g. Rocket Launching, The Physics of Baseball, Crime Lab: Fingerprints & invisible ink, Inside Out: reading Xrays & scans, BUGS, Vet science and more). They also get to visit the 5th graders’ displays and learn about their projects.

    Our formal science fair (during Science Day) is reserved for the 5th graders only. There are fun winners like ‘grossest, stickiest, stinkiest’ but no formal 1st, 2nd, 3rd. All kids (4th – 6th)are encouraged to enter the district competition that will be judged, but that’s optional.

    Reply
  8. Susan
    Susan says:

    Maggie, I agree with you. The schools should encourage the students that want to dip their toes into science and then grow from there. The science fair is all about encouraging students to explore and ask questions. It’s more than just science too. My favorite part is seeing the great pride and joy the students have in their projects. No matter their age or if they did it as a group or individually. They are excited to learn, and that’s where we all win.

    Reply
  9. Jane
    Jane says:

    My son was the only K student in the science fair years back, and he was also one of the few who could explain the entire process of his project. He created the entire thing himself, even to the lettering, unlike most of the older students whose parents did as much if not more of the work than did their kids.

    Ribbons were awarded according to the steps followed and the ability to thoroughly explain the hypothesis and its testing, etc, and not on fancy or professional-looking “appearance.” This, of course, threw a lot of parent-created projects for a loop, as most of the older students could not talk to the judges about the project because it wasn’t really theirs.

    Exclusion of a student because of age or grade level is not acceptable for any kind of creative event. Much of science is an art, and the arts belong to everybody.

    Science fair should be a grand adventure, full of enthusiasm, originality, wonder, and learning, and not just for the project’s creator. Everyone who wanders those aisles and looks at what our students of ALL ages are doing should leave with their hearts and heads full of a grand hope for the future of our planet.

    I kept my son’s K science fair project, by the way. Yes, it was that awesome. Really. And yes, I am a mom who allowed my 5-year-old son to carve statues from giant chalk sticks with a sharp knife and spray them with vinegar. Hydrochloric acid would have worked faster, but one must draw the line somewhere. (We did it at home with the acid, but took vinegar to the fair.)

    Reply
  10. Julie
    Julie says:

    I worked in a number of districts, back in the 70’s the schools I taught at did not even have a Science Fair. Since then I helped out as the Library Media Specialist mainly with ressearch. I actually got my start in loving research through Science Fair research in 9th grade.

    Requiring everyone to participate takes the fun out of it for some students, but group projects may be the way to go. I agree with the fact that the youn ger the child the broader the thinking. Even preschoolers love science and experimenting and can “guess” what’s going to happen. I like whatt Karen’s school is doing to encourage kids to become “science bugs.”

    Reply
  11. Lara
    Lara says:

    As the parent of four ranging in age from 17 to 4 I can give confident testamony to the fact that a healthy imagination knows no age. It starts early and with proper encouraging -which SHOULD be the goal of any science fair- will blossom into a lifelong love for exploration and learning.

    Reply
  12. Lisa Felske
    Lisa Felske says:

    I agree with the idea of not judging a science fair, especially after what happened to my daughter this year. Her “judge” told her that is was too bad that her hypothesis was wrong, because she had a really good project. My daughter tried to explain that hypotheses do not have to be “right,” but it fell on deaf ears. I am proud of my third-grader for understanding the nature of science better than most adults – even when they have a background in science.

    Reply
  13. Deseri
    Deseri says:

    In our school ONLY the grade 6 are allowed to participate. They are NOT allowed to do a group project. They are heavily graded on this and only the top 5 kids get awards.

    I have a child who has a hard time speaking in front of people so although her project was EXCELLENT (she did the sunscreen and beads experiment from here) UNLESS the judges who were high school students were willing to actually LISTEN as she took her time to explain the process she did not get a good grade. I would rather they NOT grade it because the kids who are excellent public speakers got prizes and those who worked hard but were NOT as confident got lower marks.

    My daughter asked why she didn’t get an award. She started it in January to everyone else’s March to make sure she knew what she was saying and doing… I had a LOT of parents approach me and say they thought my daughters project was better than which gum blows the biggest bubble which won 1st place. The lack of acknowledgement seems to have made her not as interested in science this year.

    The pressure of grades and then awards should NOT be put on the fair… instead it should focus on what you can learn. and Should be FUN. I think Kindergarteners WOULD BE A great addition to a science fair! I teach playschool and they are so EXCITED about science that NOW is the time to learn about hypothesis and experiments!

    Reply
  14. Nancy
    Nancy says:

    Why have only one top winner? Instead, why not give blue, gold, and silver ribbons depending on the level of success. Those who don’t make the grade can still get a certificate of achievement or participation. There could be several blue ribbon winners as well as the other ribbons. Then instead of a competition, the ribbons represent more of an evaluation for those who excel.

    Reply
  15. chuck anderson
    chuck anderson says:

    I am a preschool teacher working with four and five year olds and we do science on a daily basis. They totally know what a hypothesis is and how we do experiments to prove or disprove them. They routinely do thier own projects and experiments. It is just one more way that we are failing children in the educational system that we try to limit access to science curriculum based on age.

    Reply

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