Sunday, January 16, 2011

Facilitating Science Fair Projects

Science is a family affair.

The science fair is upon us, and after a week of endurance and back-to-the-drawing-board perseverance, the girls have officially completed their final reports and display boards. In celebration, I offer this intuitive look at the science fair process:

1) Start early. The day after the previous fair is the perfect time to begin. In fact, if your student can do an extension of the previous year's project, by all means encourage her to go that route. That way she will have a whole year's extra thought and data to sift through.

Or, you could do like us, and proclaim your good intentions from February to September, insist from September to November that you will start before Thanksgiving-- as library books gather dust on the shelf-- and end up performing experiments into the New Year.

2) Do research. The student should understand all concepts related to her area of focus BEFORE beginning the experimentation process. This will help her develop an accurate and precise hypothesis.

Or, you could do like us, and grudgingly slog through research as the necessary purgatory for entrance into the heaven of hands-on experimentation. I think "research first, experiments after," is a little backward for elementary school students and others who do not have an extensive science background. Of course they want to do the experiments first. Who cares what water flow is until you have seen its effects on the rate at which a string winds around a dowel? What does leavening really mean until you have watched batter being baked into bread? Why would you want a dry definition of translocation before you have actually seen colored water travel from the bottom of a vase up through the stem of a flower?

3) Have the student keep a log book of all research, and document each and every bit of experimentation. You never know when something you thought was minor will end up being significant.

Or, you could do like us, and begin with great expectations of real-time documentation, but discover while analyzing results that those little time-saving omissions ought to have been included in the log book. When this happens, you will sit down with your student over tea and discuss every second of research and experimentation-- and general family activity-- that went before, attempting to piece together significant information that will help the student analyze her data. This is a terrific lesson in the necessity of attention.

4) Gather all supplies before experimentation. Make that list, check it twice, and head to the store only once.

Or, you could do like us, and-- well, we manage fine in this area. Although some people may think that pizza, ice cream cones and "I love you" stickers are not absolutely necessary to the scientific process. But we do much better on major projects when we have treats sprinkled along the way.

5) Go over variables with your student. Encourage her to make as many of them constant as she can, so her experiment will be as fair as possible.

Or you can do like us, and realize that controlling variables is related to comprehending infinity. There is no end, and you can get obsessed with it. Are the materials at the exact same temperature every time, and is everything measured exactly the same, and is the environment exactly the same... in short, is everything exactly the same EXCEPT the part the student is testing? This is a good lesson in being thorough, as well as understanding limitations.

6) Watch over the experiment process and recommend adjustments as necessary. Often in the process of experimentation, the student will discover things she hadn't considered.

We adjust and adjust. There is ALWAYS something we haven't considered. Sometimes I can head off problems with Socratic questioning before experimentation starts, but often the experiments become long and drawn out with adjusting this or that. The girls generally start off enthusiastic and end irritated. Experience is a forceful teacher. But here's the funny thing: some of the most provoking and aggravating experiments end up being remembered as favorites. Just this year, Mariel told me her all-time favorite science project was her bird project of two years ago, but two years ago she was convinced she would never want to observe another bird again, ever.

7) Your student should plot data on graphs and charts, and take pictures. This will help her draw conclusions, and is also an effective way to communicate findings. She may need your help designing the spreadsheet.

Aravis is the only person at our house who truly understands Excel, so science fair season is frequently punctuated by cries of, "Aravis! Come look at this. I can't make it do right." She is the real chart-and-graph assistant, and is very patient with us.

8) Discuss the data and come to conclusions with your student. Did things go as expected? Why or why not?

I love discussing results so much that even after the kids have their final reports done, I often raise new points for discussion. A lot of times, they add to their projects-- either rewriting conclusions or performing just one more experiment-- based on a-ha moments generated by these discussions. They are not always pleased about this, although they usually want a re-do once they see a flaw. There is something so real about being involved in a process of discovery and finding out that you weren't rigorous enough for it to be considered science.

9) Be available as your student writes her final report and builds her board. She will need your help editing.

Red pen is our friend, and we go through lots of printer ink and paper. I edit their final reports and they rewrite until we are all satisfied. Inevitably, someone will notice a lack of punctuation or spelling error or crumpled edge on the display board and have to remove a sheet of paper, fix it, and reglue. Occasionally, someone realizes she left out something major, like the hypothesis. (Not good.) The week before the fair, this happens numerous times, until we all agree NOT to look at the boards anymore. Because nobody's perfect, and that's okay. ;o)

10) Listen as your student practices her presentation.

Listen, question, applaud. Rinse and repeat. After the first couple of years of participation in science fair, I realized that there is no such thing as too much rehearsal, so now we just run the presentations every morning the week before the fair. (We don't do this all morning-- it only takes twenty to thirty minutes.) I ask the hardest questions I can in order to prepare them for judging. As Aravis has gotten older, this has gotten much tougher, because I just don't remember much high school science. I try to read all her research so I can be a challenging questioner.


I am not a science person, but I do imitate one for my girls. They may not grow into scientists, but they will understand the rigor and balance necessary to produce research that can actually be called science.

And we all feel really good when Mom finally says, "Done!" :D

Updated to add a quote brought to my attention by a Facebook friend. This pretty much sums it up:

"That's the whole problem with science. You've got a bunch of empiricists trying to describe things of unimaginable wonder."

— Bill Watterson, author of the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip

1 comment:

CAB said...

Hee hee. I like your line at the end, "I am not a science person, but I imitate one..." - that will be me. Or, I'll just pull my Physics major husband in for these sorts of things to keep us on track, he likes science....go figure :) Glad y'all are "done!"