Rethinking the science fair

Rethinking the Science FairHow much do students really learn about science from a science fair? A typical student begins with an internet search. Teachers may even provide students with a list of websites. A Google search for science fair ideas results in over 49 million links. Before the internet, the local library was likely the primary resource for ideas. The search for ideas is just the first of many problems. A science fair project should arise from the student’s own curiosity and be something the student wants to learn more about.

According to the National Science Teachers Association, “creativity is a vital ingredient in the production of scientific knowledge.”

I’ve personally been involved with science fairs as a judge for over 20 years. Although I enjoy the process – especially with elementary students – I see little creativity. No matter what school district I go to, there will always be projects like, “Which gum lasts the longest?” or “Do video games affect your attention span?”

Many teachers dislike the science fair because of heavy parental involvement. As a judge, this is easy to see, and it is rampant. A second grader did a project with gas chromatography. Hmm… Then there is the project display done by a “scrapbook mom” with die-cut letters and images. When projects completed with obvious help win, we are rewarding privilege instead of scientific thinking.

When my daughter was in elementary school, I came to dislike the science fair because of the judges. Judges are often parents from other elementary schools, and even though they get a rigorous briefing, they are often not the best choice for a judge. I remember one year when my daughter wanted to see which type of sunscreen worked best, lotion or spray? The spray sunscreen was relatively new on the market, and she was really curious. Without going into too much detail, she thought the lotion would be more effective, but it turned out that the spray was. A judge told her, “this was a really good project; it’s too bad your hypothesis was wrong.” The science teacher in me still cringes.

Given a set of materials, students attempted to recreate a structure based solely on notes and drawings from a teammate.

So what do we want students to get out of the science fair?
We want them to develop explanations supported by evidence that are testable. We want them to be creative. We want them to see that science can explain and predict. We want them to be able to demystify science and see that is it fun and accessible. A science fair is not the only way to reach these goals.

Recently, under the direction of elementary science specialist Jessica Sanchez, elementary students in Galena Park ISD participated in a Science Survivor Series. To showcase skills in problem solving, critical thinking, and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), students competed in three challenges – academic, building and creativity. For the academic portion, teams were asked to showcase their science content knowledge. In a game called Picture It, a team member was selected to sketch up to 21 science terms while their teammates guessed as many as they could in five minutes. To showcase their building and writing skills, one student described a pre-built creation to a teammate, who then used a set of materials and their partner’s written notes to replicate the creation as closely as possible.

Drawing depictions of science terms on the board, the sketcher’s teammates had five minutes to guess as many as they could.

Creativity was demonstrated with a Texas appropriate task – students were challenged to determine how to best insulate an ice cube to keep it from melting. The students were completely engaged, using creative and critical thinking, and best of all having fun.




About the Blogger
Lisa Felske is curriculum director for science at Harris County Department of Education. Her areas of expertise include integrating science with other disciplines and student misconceptions in science. She enjoys being a Girl Scout leader, reading way past her bedtime, and using the Oxford comma.


Exit mobile version