Making the Grade
Even if you don’t have a young Albert Einstein on your hands, encouraging your children to participate in a middle school science fair just may be one of the best things you can do to ensure their future academic (and even professional) success. Experts agree that today’s science fairs are giving students more than just a passion for the science curriculum—they are giving students the opportunity to take leadership of their own learning experience, build lifelong skill sets and learn how to effectively handle mistakes.
And, with more and more projects incorporating subjects such as art, photography and writing into the scientific mix, science fairs are definitely taking students outside of the traditional classroom science lab. "The experience kids gain by working on a science fair project is unique and compliments the more structured classroom experience," says Tom Shea, current staff member at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and former science fair participant at St. Joseph School in Downers Grove. "Like competitive sports, science fairs can also motivate kids to perform. Given the recent reports on science and math performance in the US, anything that motivates children in this area is a good thing."
Quest For Knowledge
In many middle schools, the science fair experience is a volunteer project in which students are encouraged to set their own path and expectations. Toward that goal, picking a project or idea is one of the first—and most important—steps in the process. For some students, this is the first academic opportunity they have to take the lead in their own educational enrichment. "Students can pursue a science topic of their own choosing and feel the personal satisfaction of making a discovery," says Diane Snider of The University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. "They experience the beauty and value of the scientific method as a tool of inquiry."
Students are responsible for everything from research to implementation to presentation and while educators and parents are there to lend support and guidance, it is the student that continues to play the lead role—a role that will help them with future academic projects. "Participation in this type of learning activity develops in each student the ability to initiate a quest for information/knowledge, create a plan to acquire the information and the follow through of implementing the plan to its conclusion," states Debbie Sullivan of Northside Catholic Academy in Chicago.
It is this quest for knowledge that helps students move beyond the academic benefits of the science fair experience and actually attain something much more valuable. "They learn to pursue a question for their own desire to know rather than for a grade," states Snider. Adds Shea, "In my own experience, coursework was always more interesting when I could see how the knowledge could be applied."
More Than Science
There are numerous stories of how today’s top doctors and scientists all got their thirst for science knowledge by participating in a science fair. Yet, at today’s science fair, you will find participants with future goals of becoming everything from biologists and chemists to writers and private investigators. "Science fair projects often involve reading, writing, mathematics, statistics, computer science, logic, using scientific models and, most important, critical thinking," says Erin McCune of St. Joseph School in Wilmette. Regardless of their future profession, these skills are bound to come in handy along life’s journey. "Buying a new car or television, selecting a college, relocating to a new home—all of these processes involve some sort of problem or question and require decision making," adds McCune.
According to Cathryn Ilani of Einstein Academy located in Elgin, science fairs also give students a leg up on the competition in college and business by giving them ample opportunities to perfect the art of public speaking. "Oral presentations are a key component of the science fair experience and give kids the opportunity to polish their public speaking skills," says Ilani. "It is always good for kids to get as much experience as possible speaking in front of others. That way, when they get to college and out into the real world, the exposure is no big deal."
It is often through science fairs that students do find their passion for a future career. After creating a very extensive project on animals for her eighth grade science fair submission, a student at St. Joseph School in Downers Grove went on to pursue a degree as a veterinarian. And the career success of Tom Shea can also be traced back to his first science fair project. "In retrospect, this project was my first experience with the entire process of electronic equipment development. Later in my career, I was responsible for multimillion dollar research and development projects that incorporated electronic components from those same vendors," says Shea.
Adds McCune, "Students have a great opportunity for discovery—not just about their topics, but about themselves."
As with many school projects parents are often eager to lend a helping hand and educators caution there is often a fine line between helping and hindering the scientific process. Educators agree that the role a parent plays is more about managing the child’s experience—not managing the project. According to McCune, "Parents should provide support, encouragement, guidance and a sense of humor. Be vigilant that the child stays on task and doesn’t procrastinate." Procrastination can lead to students feeling overwhelmed and frustrated. "Encourage them to get an early start to allow time for exploration, dead ends, broken equipment, and all of the other things that make a science project such a unique and valuable experience," states Shea.
In addition, parents are often a great resource when it comes to helping prepare students for their project presentations. "I encourage parents to ask their student questions which challenge the student to look at the project with "new" eyes," says Sullivan. "It is easy to assume outsiders know all of the little details the student has learned throughout the investigative process, but in putting the project together there needs to be an assumption that the audience knows little or nothing about the investigation and ALL pertinent data needs to be included in the display and explanation of the investigation and results."
Unfortunately, mistakes are a part of life and the science fair experience gives students the opportunity to learn from and live with the small failures they will undoubtedly encounter. "It is not important if your hypothesis is proved as much as it is the act of seeing the project through to the end. This skill will serve them well in business projects as an adult as well as in future academic projects," says Sullivan.
Educators remind us that not all mistakes are bad—and some can even turn out to be sweet successes. "Scientists deal with mistakes every day," says Ilani. "I encourage my students and parents to try and look at the positive—sometimes, even though your intended outcome didn’t fit its original purpose, it can serve another need. The chocolate chip cookie was invented because of a mistake."