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Social Studies Fairs Inspire Young Historians

Picture a room filled with colorful project displays and students who look like they just stepped out of the pages of a history book -- and you are imagining the view teachers, parents, and students alike enjoy during a social studies fair. Like other subject-focused fair events, students showcase their efforts in the form of thorough, thought-provoking projects that are evaluated by judges. This type of fair, however, gives students the chance to be historians for the day, sharing their research with their peers, their families, and other lucky visitors.Included: Tips for starting a social studies fair in your school.

"The social studies fair is a great way for students to learn about history, but perhaps more importantly, to learn the art of history," Jason Caros told Education World.

We live in a time when so many people are uneducated when it comes to history and current events, and by conducting a fair, teachers can get students and parents more interested in the study of it, added Caros, a social studies specialist with Volusia County Schools in Daytona Beach, Florida.

History should not be a passive enterprise but an active one that leads to the creation of more active and responsible citizens. What better way could there be to learn and do history than to participate in the social studies fair process?
-- Jason Caros

Annual fair themes are selected by National History Day, an organization with year-round programs and a week-long national contest for grades 6-12. The theme for 2010 is "Innovation in History: Impact and Change."

Having a broad common theme provides a standard from which student projects can be compared and judged, added Caros.

"Good fair themes are important because they direct the historical research," he stated. "In the case of this year's theme, students can select a topic that pertains specifically to a triumph or tragedy, or they can choose a topic related to an event that had both.

An example of both might be the civil rights work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose efforts resulted in gains for African Americans but resulted in his assassination.

Because school social studies fairs require cooperation from teachers and others, Caros says that a fair coordinator is a necessity. The coordinator is charged with the tasks of maintaining motivation and interest in the fair, tracking down a space where projects can be displayed, scheduling judges, securing awards, and more. Another essential item is a guide that offers clear topics, directions, rules, and procedures for the fair. Many suggestions are included on the National History Days Creating an Entry Web page.

"School fair coordinators should understand and support the mission of National History Day, which is to promote history as a cornerstone of education and get students to think and act, in a small way, as historians," Caros added.

Connecting the fair with the National History Day mission gives students a strong sense of purpose that should permeate the entire process, he added.

Organize Your Own
Social Studies Fair

An excellent place to begin planning a school social studies fair is your state fair Web site, says Regina Scotchie. For example, the West Virginia State Social Studies Fair Web pages have all of the information about that state's event, project criteria, judges' scorecards, and rules. School fairs should be conducted in a similar fashion to the state competition.

"Next, fair coordinators need to consider the location of the school fair and the availability of the auditorium, cafeteria, gymnasium, or another multi-purpose room large enough to hold all of the projects on the day of judging," she explained. "Consider how many judges you will need. That will depend on the number of projects submitted."

Be mindful of registration deadlines for county-wide or state events. When setting a date for your fair, allow time for winners to be sent to the county fair level, which forwards its best competitors to the state competition.

Volusia County Schools has received a great deal of support for its social studies fairs from community members who help with judging and from businesses and organizations that provide financial support and prizes for competition winners.

"That is where the fair coordinator and others working on a fair play an important role," said Caros. "They must communicate with the community about the importance of the fair and fair needs. In my experience, businesses and organizations are more than willing to support this type of educational endeavor."


"I know the West Virginia State Social Studies Fair is meaningful and worthwhile for students when I see the look of pride on their faces and on the faces of their parents as they watch their children set up their projects and practice their speeches the morning of the event," said Regina Scotchie. "I know it is worthwhile when students tell me that they never would have thought they could be so successful."

The West Virginia State Social Studies Fair brings together about 5,000 people to celebrate the academic accomplishments of students in grades 4-12. Funding for the days event is provided by the West Virginia Department of Education, said Scotchie, who works with the department of instruction. Approximately 1,500 projects, involving more than 2,000 students are set up in a large arena. The projects are evaluated by 250-300 judges.

"Students have the freedom to pursue any one of nine fields of social studies," Scotchie shared. Students must demonstrate research skills, the ability to construct a creative and appealing visual display, writing skills [in the completion of their abstracts], and public speaking ability for the oral presentation of their work before the judges."

Students compete as individuals, pairs, or classes within their grade levels and within the categories they have chosen, added Scotchie. The fair develops among participants an ability to use, and an appreciation for, the scientific method as it applies in social studies. And it provides students and teachers with the opportunity to share and exchange ideas in social studies.

"The fair gives students an opportunity to interpret the cultural, social, political, and economic forces of our times and to understand and appreciate the concept of global awareness," she explained. "Students are encouraged to broaden and deepen their understanding of social science concepts and principles while they practice their skills in communication, critical thinking and problem-solving, and self-direction."

Did you know that the word history stems from the Greek root word that means inquiry and knowledge?
Often students tell Scotchie how much they have learned through their projects, and their entire families share the knowledge they have gathered just by observing and listening to their children during project development. For some of those families, attending the state competition is their first trip to the state capitol. It is a long drive for many, and they sometimes choose to spend the weekend in the city of Charleston and experience the area's attractions.

In fact, some families use their summer vacation time to investigate a famous American or event that is of interest to the child for the next year's fair project.

"As students work on their projects, they may generate an interest for family travel, use educational Internet resources, visit the library more often, conduct interviews, and learn to use multiple types of research and communication skills," Scotchie stated. "Students are incredibly sharp. They come up with very creative projects, and their research always proves to be surprisingly thorough."

At the competition, some participants dress in costume to enhance their presentations. Excitement and anticipation runs high. Families meet their peers from other parts of the state and start new friendships.

"Students calm one another's anxieties as they wait their turn to deliver their speeches and present their projects," added Scotchie. "I know of no other competition where the atmosphere is so festive and the level of academic achievement so high."


"Being a part of social studies fairs has been a very satisfying experience," Sharon Coleman, director of the Georgia State Social Studies Fair, told Education World. "The first students I involved in social studies fairs are in their 30's now and doing great things."

Fairs Fit In

To avoid overloading students with projects, Sharon Coleman advises schools to
--- alternate social studies fairs with other fairs;
--- designate specific grade levels at which participation is required;
--- develop projects over a 2-3 year period; and
--- allow students to choose the discipline in which they do research, with the stipulation that one of each type [subject] should be done over a given number of years.

"Learning is more meaningful and lasting if teachers in all disciplines -- including the arts and physical education -- establish connections to the real world in some way," explained Coleman. "I see competitions as teacher tools for inspiring students to apply their best thinking to real-world processes and activities. Therefore, we should provide opportunities for competition in all areas at some time in the educational process."

Coleman believes the most successful social studies fairs have master plans that rise from school goals and have the support of school leadership. They are organized by interdisciplinary teams and support staff (rather than being the responsibility of one teacher), communicate expectations and reasonable timelines to students and parents at the beginning of the year, and are part of a curriculum that "scaffolds" students into developing superior products by providing benchmarks and coaching at school along the way.

"A good way to begin is to form a team of administrators, teachers, parents, support personnel (such as media specialists, art teachers, technology specialists), and social studies professionals to look at different social studies fair plans and decide on the guidelines you would like to use, the grade levels it will involve, and a date for the fair," said Coleman. "Issues driving the decision may be which guidelines relate best to the existing curriculum, desire to enter winning projects in existing higher level competitions, and more."

The next step is to identify the tasks and who will handle them, with deadlines for completion. Although there are some commonalities in research procedure among the disciplines, there are also differences in the processes and vocabulary from discipline to discipline.

"Offering opportunities in all disciplines exposes students to professionals in specific fields who carry out those processes on a daily basis, through their products, performances, or involvement with competitions," observed Coleman. "Hopefully, as students participate more and more, they begin to relate their own interests and characteristics to a particular field and choose to pursue it as a hobby or career."

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
Copyright © 2010 Education World

Originally published 01/31/2007
Last updated 01/18/2010