Are Science Fairs worth all the STRESS?!
As scientific research is constantly changing, so is the nature of science education. Yet one educational method has stood the test of time and continues to be an effective learning tool, the science fair project. I assume that for those who are not scientifically inclined, science fair projects inspire feelings of anxiety and stress. The effectiveness of science fair projects has been debated and even researched (see the image below). But I believe that embracing the Scientific Method through self-directed research helps students internalize concepts better than any book or website could ever do.
The Randall Museum is about to host the 35th annual San Francisco Middle School Science Fair and I have had the pleasure of directing the fair for seven years. This event is by far the most rewarding part of my job. I get to see brilliant children shine. My favorite part is watching those students from under-served neighborhood schools win first place with project boards written in crayon. I’ve spoken with crying parents whose child was not successful in school until participating in the science fair. I have seen first-hand the countless positive results of this event.
There is plenty of criticism for science fairs. For example, I’ve heard that only students with the resources do well. But in my experience, that is simply not true. Students are judged on their creativity, their adherence to the scientific method and their communication skills. None of those items can be bought; they exist within the scientists’ minds. Some people say it shouldn’t be a competition. But why not? Why not celebrate those who go above and beyond? I fully support it.
Science fair projects are invaluable because they allow the student to direct their own education. Naturally, a classroom full of students completing individually unique projects requires extra effort by the teacher. Please know that I am not disillusioned about how much work being a middle school teacher is. However, when a student picks a project they can get excited about, they then own that concept and carry it with them for the rest of their lives. First place or honorable mention both carry the excitement of acting like a real scientist.
But what if a child is not scientifically inclined? As I tell classes that I visit, science exists in anything you can think of. Kids are inherently curious about the world and whatever they are curious about can be analyzed by the scientific method. Do you like to paint? Study color theory. Some students test whether the color of text affects information retention. Are you a musician? Research sound wave resonance in different materials. Science is everywhere.
Finally, science projects naturally induce universal learning. As Common Core education standards are merging with Next Generation Science Standards, it is becoming more important to blend subject matter for more fully developed learning. STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math) has now morphed into STEAM to include Art because the science and art naturally compliment each other. Learning hard science concepts like physics and chemistry are much easier if you add in art. Even college biology students are learning anatomy with coloring books. Science fair projects require that students blend Common Core communication standards with artistic creativity and the scientific method. It adds up to a priceless learning opportunity.
However, the science project requires motivation and guidance by teachers and parents if it is to be successful. A project can be intimidating for the student and it needs to be broken into manageable and fun chunks. We must support our students! They need to understand that a science project is simply creating structure around natural inquisitiveness. Human curiosity has driven such phenomenal discoveries so far, I am very excited to see what secrets of the universe science fair participants of today will discover in the future!
I LOVE learning new things. More than I love learning new things, I love sharing awesome discoveries about our world with others.