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Hold an Interest Fair
Broadened "Science Fair" Taps All Subjects, Students' Interests

In keeping with their focus on the individual child, St. Joseph Montessori School in Columbus, Ohio, shunned the proverbial "science fair" in lieu of a broader alternative -- the "interest fair." Now the school's fair is a diverse event that gives participants an opportunity to investigate favorite things and share them with the school community. Included: Tips from interest fair teacher Erin Farley.

Picture a gymnasium packed with well-dressed fourth through eighth graders. Lean in and listen to their conversations with adults about diverse topics like the history of Ellis Island, how commercials are made, lasers, the hip, Ireland, and more. Primary students have on display projects simply for the appreciation of the visitors -- my collie, divas, orchids, and warts! This is Interest Fair at St. Joseph Montessori School in Columbus, Ohio, an annual event that encourages students to delve deeply into concepts that arouse their curiosity.

Interest Fair Photos

Click the photos below to see them larger and to read their captions.

Photos courtesy of Erin Farley.

Established at the highpoint of the popularity of "science fairs," the interest fair's flexibility of topic more aptly suited the school's Montessori philosophy of emphasis on the individual student. Not all kids love science, but all kids love something!

"Like a science fair, students create a project, write a paper, design a display, and prepare an oral presentation, but unlike the science fair, students may choose any topic that interests them," Erin Farley explained. "There are a multitude of advantages because in it there are many more options. For students who like science, they can choose a topic related to science. Students also start doing interest fair projects as early as first grade, so they become experts by the time they get to eighth grade."

Farley, a seventh and eighth grade language arts teacher, says that the process of creating interest fair projects begins with topic selection in October and follows with a series of deadlines for bibliography, sketch of a tri-folding display and three-dimensional project, rough draft of composition, and completed presentation in February. Students do most of their work at home while lessons on proper note taking, using parenthetical references, and more are taught in school.


On the evening of the event, the students' displays are set up in the gym, and participants are dressed and eager. This is the moment when work they have done in the classroom on public speaking skills pays off. Presenters must have their talks ready and also be prepared to answer questions.

Every student is judged by two separate people. Judges are from the local community, and many have judged the event for several years because they are so impressed by the student work. Some of the judges are professors at Ohio State University, others are from the school board, and still others are the friends of teachers.

Insider Tips For a Fabulous Fair

Erin Farley admits that every interest fair at her school is a learning experience for both the students and teachers involved. Here she shares ten tips with new fair coordinators.

1. Start early, even months ahead.

2. Have a committee, and delegate some tasks instead of trying to do everything alone.

3. Give students a sheet of deadlines when school starts, and hold them to it. Spreading the work out over months makes it much more manageable for them.

4. Don't limit the ideas of the students. They will think of topics beyond your imagination!

5. Keep a binder of judges from year to year. Have judges fill out a form each year with contact information, personal interests, and if they would like to be asked to judge again.

6. Place in the same binder copies of all current fair-related letters and communication for future use.

7. Wear comfortable shoes on the day of the event.

8. Expect that something completely unexpected will happen!

9. Laugh. It is okay to have fun. Don't get over stressed.

10. Take notes about recommendations for the next fair event to avoid repeated mistakes.

"Ideally, the student being judged should not have ever spoken to their judge," Farley explained. "We want the students to overcome the fear of speaking, be out of their comfort zone. Students are judged on their level of knowledge, their tri-fold, 3-D project, and presentation skills. Judges are given a rubric, and it is all on a point system. Students are put into three categories based on their score: superior, excellent, or participant. There is not just one great student."

While older students hone their public speaking skills during Interest Fair, primary students aged 6-9 are invited, not required, to take part. Their projects are not judged, and every student who provides a submission receives a certificate of participation.

According to Kathy Kohler, teacher of grades one to three, the students' projects are similar in design to those made by older students, but the written report may contain information, drawings, or anything the child wants to tell others about the project, and may be only a few sentences to a page in length. Bibliographies also are less detailed, and projects often feature books, special people, visits to unique places, or videotapes.

"The children's topics for their Interest Fair project vary greatly," said Kohler. "We have seen projects of all types - projects about cats, dogs, prairie dogs, space, snowboarding, manatees, laundry, mashed potatoes, rocks and minerals, NASCAR, golf, computers, fairies, and favorite children's authors and/or illustrators."


"One year a student did her project on the knee, and she made it very interesting," reported Farley. "She chose the topic because she hurt her knee in soccer and wanted to know more. She also was interested in becoming an arthroscopic surgeon, so for her 3-D project she built the knee joint. She created a working joint using color coated rubber bands to illustrate the different tendons and muscles. She could have easily ordered a pre-made kit to just assemble a knee. Instead she chose to build it from scratch."

Last year, the same student did her project on gangsters during Prohibition. She constructed a three-dimensional model of a speakeasy with trap doors and secret entrances. She also made a still!

"Another student did a project on Dizzy Gillespie and made a documentary about the musician," Farley recalled. "Yet another student did his project on the Roman Army, and more specifically on the Roman Army after the expansion. One great skill gained from interest fair is to learn how to narrow a topic. Every year a student picks a large topic like the Crusades and discovers, once he researches, that the topic is too broad and must be narrowed down. That is a skill some adults can't do."