Science Fair came into my teaching life on my very first day as a teacher. Three weeks before the start of that first year of school, I’d been called in for a planning session. I sat around a table with other teachers brainstorming ideas for the brand new sixth grade that was being added to the school’s original k-5 span. Chart paper with diagrams, word webs, and sticky notes hung on the walls like ancient peeling wall paper. They outlined ways to make the transition to a middle school program for students. They contained ideas for new types of learning students could do now that they advanced beyond their elementary years.
We had a large task and my principal had assembled an experienced team to confront it. The team consisted of seasoned teachers chosen from the current school staff plus me: the new science guy. My background in informal science education at a science museum helped a bit, but didn’t prepare me for the huge work of formal teaching (not to mention building a science program from the ground up). So, when it came my turn to stand up and offer ideas for the new science program I said, “how about a science fair.”
Those words would come back to haunt me in the form of hours and years of tedious, frustrating, unsuccessful work added to an already challenging curriculum. However, it seemed simple at the time. What’s the big deal? Pick a question. Test it out. Put the results on a tri-fold poster board. A pretty simple assignment, right?
I heard that. Yes, I heard you chuckling at that last statement. In the twelve years since that first day of planning, I’ve come to realize exactly what you now know. According to Global Language Monitor there are 1,013,913 words in the English Language. Any one of them would be a more apt description for Science Fair than the word “simple.”
Why it’s not “simple”
Lets get a definition of Science Fair going. For me, Science Fair consists of a series of pieces. First, there’s the project. For Science Fair, students conduct an independent, at-home, scientific experiment. The experiment tasks the students with putting together many steps including, stating a testable questions, researching the question (via the library or internet), making a hypothesis, designing an investigation to gather data that will address their hypothesis (an experimental procedure), conducting their experiment and gathering the data, analyzing and organizing the data (usually as graphs/tables), drawing a conclusion, writing it all up in a lab report, and finally crating a visual display board that summarizes their whole experiment.
The next part of the Science Fair experience happens on the day of the fair itself. On this day students “dress for success,” set up their tri-fold boards and wait while judges make their way through all the projects. Finally, the science staff announces the winners. For many, that concludes Science Fair. In some districts the winners may go on to compete at a higher district or state level.
That whole experience from giving the assignment, to the back and forth of rough drafts/feedback/final drafts of each piece to presentation day is what I’m calling “Science Fair.” Phew. It’s a lot for us science teachers to wrap our minds around. Imagine the reactions of the kids!
The first time around, many teachers (myself included), write up all the steps in a directions pack, give out the assignment, and wait to see what comes back. Does this sound familiar? My first year I gave a lot of time for students to complete the assignment, thinking they’d work on it gradually over time. I’m not sure why I expected this. All I needed to do was to think back on my own school project experiences to realize that no one would start until a few days before it was due.
This became apparent as I checked in with students about the project along the way. Not only did most put it off, but the few who had shown initiative and got their project rolling had serious flaws in virtually every aspect of their experiment. They had devised untestable questions, with inappropriate hypotheses, and irrelevant procedures unlikely to get them any data at all not to mention relevant data. As I worked with individual students, I began to see that the Science Fair train sped along the tracks at ridiculous speed heading exactly for a giant cliff. I wanted to hit the breaks or slow down, but that option did not exist. School schedules had been set, rooms had been booked, judges had put in for time off from their real jobs to come in for fair day.
The inevitable happened. The train, heading for a cliff at incredible speed, did exactly what all things do when confronted with gravity and altitude. It plummeted to a fiery wreck of baking soda volcanos, moldy bread, and unanswered (unanswerable) questions.
That year (and just about every year since then) my efforts in Science Fair represented the hardest work I’d ever done with the worst payoff. However, a weird thing happened the next day, after that first fair. I received hearty congratulations from many colleagues and my principal. It almost made me feel that I had accomplished something. Almost. I had read all the reports and assessed all the tri-fold boards. I had seen the train wreck. Does this sound familiar? Have you conducted the Science Fair train off the cliff…more than once. I definitely have.
Just to be clear, there were a handful of excellent projects. Some of the students received excellent support at home and had a lot of help puzzling through the many steps of the assignment. These kids represented the extreme minority. Furthermore, by the time Science Fair rolls around, I already had an idea of which kids received support at home. In an urban setting such as where I teach, significant at-home support occurs much less frequently than we would all hope. So, each year I could pretty much predict which students would win the science fair before I even gave the assignment. Obviously, this raises serious equity issues. Fear not, my ultimate solution goes a long way to solve this problem.
What is it about Science Fair that makes it such a train wreck year after year? After all students do projects in most of their other classes all the time. They write papers on novels in Language Arts. They research historical figures in Social Studies. They measure and redesign the school playground in Math. Those trains seem to arrive safely at their designated station. Why does the science train always seem to veer uncontrollably toward the tallest cliff on the line?
Lets look at the first thing students must do for their Science Fair project: pick a Question. Each student receives the task of choosing a question that they will answer by doing their experiment. We encourage them to choose a question on a topic that interests them. For me, the array of questions that they end up choosing has usually indicated a severe need for support. However, it’s not support that can be delivered like a typical lesson to the whole class. Indeed, because each student has chosen their own question on a different topic, representing different levels of complexity, each student requires specific individual support. A few comments on a passed back sheet of paper will not do the trick. They need real planning, formative assessing, scaffolding. They need teaching…not just feedback. The level of individuation goes beyond mere differentiated instruction. Differentiated instruction occurs when students are grappling with the same content and have different needs. For Science Fair, because of the level of unique teaching required, the correct model for doing this is individual tutoring, not whole class teaching. This actually occurs with those few students who have significant support at home. For most, the feedback we give them will not do the trick. They never revise their questions to a form that can lead to a successful experiment.
In short, the task of assigning a question that can be tested on topic of their choosing is too big. It’s not really an assignment. It’s 28 different assignments. Each student gets a different assignment and requires a unique set of lessons tailored exactly to them to support them in completing it. Since the whole project will spring from this question, it’s pretty much doomed from the start.
Then students move on to doing background research. I require students to do library or internet research on their topic. The idea is that by doing this research they’ll gain knowledge on their topic so that they can make a more informed hypothesis.
Here’s what I learned my first year: students don’t know how to do this research. What came back were random “facts” they found from places like “yahoo answers,” and “ehow.com.” Much of their research was irrelevant and all of it was poorly cited. Many students cited “google.com” as a source. Ug. It became very clear to me that first year that students would not complete successful background research without a series of dedicated lessons on the topic. However, the train had left the station and picked up more speed each day. I tried to help with as much individual feedback as possible. This train, though, had a lot of inertia.
Something like this repeats for every step of the project. After a couple years doing this, the pattern became clear. Students complete a step in the process. I see the amount of individual support needed. I give as much as I can. It’s not nearly enough. Train rolls off the cliff. “Congratulations, Mr. Shopis, another great Science Fair.” Seriously?
Perhaps this pattern looks familiar to you. It’s not like we don’t try to get that train to it’s station. We work many, many hours on providing support and feedback. It’s just never enough.
The consequences are severe. We and our students spend huge amounts of time on this endeavor and we get two results: bad scientific process and bad scientific content. Their experiences with designing an experiment do not prepare them for doing it again the next year. Their new teacher will basically start from scratch. Moreover, no one cares which bar of soap floats and which one sinks. That’s irrelevant, non-standards based content. Everybody loses. Yet we always get that congratulations and we do it again: year after year.
There is an answer, though. It’s coming up soon enough. Now that I’ve broken down why Science Fair fails a bit, I’m going to delve into what we often try to do to fix it, why that also fails, and how to reorganize to make it all work.