It's that time of year again when poster boards proudly display the answers to countless whys: Why do batteries emit electricity? Why does cigarette smoke damage human lungs? Why must we do a science fair project?
To the sounds of cringing parents, the yawns of exhausted students who started their project the night before the fair, and the sighs of teachers who have to grade them, science fairs can be a nightmare. But Christopher M. Gould, the former chair of the California State Science Fair and creator of The WWW Virtual Library: Science Fairs, says it doesn't have to be that way.
A professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Southern California, Gould believes science fairs encourage student accomplishment. "I believe that the best way to encourage student accomplishment is to recognize it, and recognize it publicly," he said. "This obviously works for school sports, as a glance at the local sports page reveals. Academic accomplishment isn't as entertaining as sports, so it has a harder time developing recognition outside of a small circle of friends."
"Kids are always asking questions," said Gould. "Science fair projects are just longer answers to some of those questions."
One of the problems with science fairs is when parents get too involved or do too little, according to Gould. "Everyone involved in running a science fair, whether it be a school-wide or a worldwide fair, has to decide what the participants should get out of the experience. Once decided, their actions will demonstrate their true beliefs."
Reflecting on his own experience as a parent of a child submitting a project to the science fair, Gould recalled the day of the fair and the comparisons of the work the students did. "A few students brought projects that were marvels of professionalism in their exquisite construction, beautiful computer-drawn graphs, and perfect lettering. Some parents did too much," he said. "A few students brought in limp excuses for projects thought up the night before. Some parents did too little."
"Of course parents help, as they should at some level, and again at some level all schools already have limits on [parental] involvement, though I think this is usually not made explicit," Gould explained.
The real message is how the projects are judged. "If the parent-done projects are selected as winners, then the message sent by their selection is that parents should do the projects," said Gould. "This conflicts with the supposed goal that students should learn by doing. School rules about limiting parental involvement are meaningless when the reward structure is backward."
Good science fairs begin in the classroom, Gould said. (See the sidebar to this article, How to Put on a Good Science Fair, for specific tips for schools and teachers.) Teachers first need to help their students select a question their project will answer. "The response of some teachers is to print up lists of topics copied from books or Web sites," remarked Gould. That is a starting point, but students most need guidance. "It's hard to pick a good question. That's precisely why teacher involvement right from the start is essential," he advised.
Helping students prepare for the fair far in advance helps assure there will be more student-done projects with parental guidance, not the other way around. "It is easy to make a science fair fail: Set the students out on their own and don't check back until the day of the fair," Gould admonished. "Instead, make many short-term goals and deadlines. No student can be at a loss unless you let them." Gould suggests that brief, weekly status reports can help keep students on track.
Gould recommends that science fairs be more than science lessons; they should take a cross-curriculum approach. Students should also learn about measurement, visual display, oral presentation, and writing, he said.
Once the students have compiled their measurements, the next step is for the teacher to show them how to analyze the data. Teachers should show students how to organize the data into categories that make sense, Gould advised. For example, show students how to compare things quantitatively -- a math lesson involving ratios and fractions -- to help them analyze the information they have gathered.
After they have completed the actual project, recommends Gould, the students should write an English paper about it. Teachers should reinforce the idea that proper grammar and spelling are important in presenting science.
Next, teachers should guide the students in their visual display of the project. "Presentation is more than getting the words right," Gould said. "Make it easy to draft different layouts, and students will take advantage of the opportunity to make it look better, especially if it will affect their art grade."
Finally, teachers should help students prepare an oral presentation about their projects, recommends Gould. Teachers should advise students to convince their classmates they have the right answer.
Teachers need to do whatever they can to make the experience one the students will want to repeat, Gould explained. "Almost none of the students in any class will end up as scientists, but the goal should be to give all of the students a sense of accomplishment," he said.
"Successful projects will show students that they can learn for themselves things which are not in their books," Gould said. "And isn't this the real goal of education: teaching students to teach themselves?"
Diane Weaver Dunne
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