Science fair projects let students learn, use, and demonstrate important science and reasoning steps, and the benefits of hands-on and active exploration compared to more passive modes of learning or rote memorization are well-documented. So why do so many parents scowl at the science fair project assignment? What makes the science project a stumbling block for many families rather than an anticipated and positive learning experience? Is it simply a matter of perspective? There are many steps teachers can take to help transform the science fair project experience, but what does it take, at home, to transform the science project assignment from something parents dread into something parents celebrate as a critical and invaluable step in their student's learning?
Embracing the Science Fair Project
Every year, there are memes that float around social media related to science fair and the angst it creates for many families and, especially, for parents. It is unfortunate that science fair (and hands-on science) seems to get dragged around this way, and as a new school year kicks off, it is a great time for parents to take a fresh look at what science fair is all about, what role parents should play, and what everyone involved can do to make the process successful. Attitude plays a huge role in how students approach the science fair project, so it is important for parents to understand the process so that they can support their students appropriately and encourage them with a positive perspective.
But I am Not a Scientist!
If you cringe at the thought of science fair because you "are not a scientist," you are not alone! Many parents feel that way and might be more likely to do a craft activity with the kids rather than a science or engineering project. The great news is that you do not have to be "a scientist" to do hands-on science at home and to encourage, inspire, and support your student's school science fair project. Your student may or may not grow up to "be" a scientist, but the learning that happens by doing a hands-on science project is immense. As a parent, you want to encourage that, not discourage it, so before you groan about the science fair project, take another look at how the process should go. Who should do what? When should it happen? What went wrong in year's past? What steps can you, as a parent, take to make the experience a great learning opportunity for your student?
Science Buddies Can Help
Step 1 to rethinking the whole "science fair" thing for a parent may be to get familiar with Science Buddies and the resources available on the Science Buddies website—all of which are free. Science Buddies has more than 1,100 scientist-authored project ideas for students, a great "wizard" to help students locate projects of interest, numerous resources for teachers (including classroom activities), an online Ask an Expert bulletin board system for students who need assistance, STEM career profiles, and more.
No matter where students live, what they are interested in, or how much experience they have with science, Science Buddies has resources that can help students discover and do great K-12 science, technology, engineering, and math experiments and projects.
You do not have to be "a scientist" to encourage, inspire, and support the school science fair project assignment and process.
What does it take to turn a standard science fair assignment into a positive, successful learning experience for students and a positive parenting experience for the grown-ups?
Science Buddies and the Student Science Fair Project
Science Buddies has resources and tools that can transform the science project into something students look forward to as a fun way to get really hands-on with a cool science question. The science fair project is not a homework assignment for parents. It also should not be simply a homework assignment for students, something sent home with a due date several weeks in the future. For science fair projects to be most successful, teachers have to ensure that projects are integrated into the classroom learning and monitored with clear schedules and check-ins that help students stay on track and also teach students how to break a big project down into doable parts. Science fair projects should not be done the night before they are due. Ever.
There are a number of ways in which teachers can (and should) help smooth the science fair project experience, but the following reminders for parents and students can make a big difference in how the process goes at home:
- Plan ahead. This is a big stumbling block for many students and parents. Waiting until two days before the project is due to select a project or buy supplies is a guaranteed recipe for disaster (and family stress). Plus, waiting too late in the process limits what kind of project your student can do. The project your student might be most excited by may take weeks to complete. That doesn't necessarily mean it is a more difficult project, but projects in certain areas of science may take more time—plant biology projects, for example, or setting up and testing a microbial fuel cell for an environmental science project.
Proper scheduling of the project and assessing a student's progress throughout the project window is a teacher's responsibility and can really help alleviate science project stress, procrastination, and confusion. When properly scheduled and managed with in-class due dates and timelines, parents should not suddenly learn from a panicked student that the science fair project is "due tomorrow" and has not been started. (See the Science Fair Schedule Worksheet in the Teacher Resources area.) Parents can help students set up calendars and put time to work on various parts of the project on a schedule to help reinforce the time management and planning skills students are learning and using.
- Pick a great project idea. A half-baked project idea should not be the cause of science fair angst. At Science Buddies, there are more than 1,100 scientist-authored project ideas in more than 30 areas of science. Most of these project ideas offer background information to help kickstart a student's research and a full experimental procedure that has been tested and reviewed by a team of scientists.
- Hook into student interests. A student who does a project that fits in with an existing area of interest is far more likely to enjoy the science project process than a student who picks a project because it fits a parent's area of expertise or somehow fits what a parent thinks a science project "should be." This doesn't mean that your student needs to "already" know she is interested in biotechnology or aerodynamics. If she knows that, great. But if she doesn't, what are her hobbies? What does she like to do in her spare time? Are there issues she cares about?
Finding a science project related to a student's individual interests may set the stage for a more exciting and engaging science fair project. Not sure where to look? The Topic Selection Wizard at Science Buddies helps match students to projects they may really enjoy—even in areas of science they might not have initially considered. After a student responds to a few simple statements that help the Wizard better understand her interests, the Wizard will show a set of projects that she might like. From video gaming to sports to robotics and zoology, there are great student projects in every area of science.
- Think beyond the box about what qualifies as a science fair project. Your student is not limited to doing the same project everyone else does, the same project an afterschool program demonstrated, or the same project you remember from your own science class. There are an infinite number of possible questions your student might ask and around which a science project may be built. Students are not limited to exploding volcanoes or seeing whether plants grow better with this liquid or that one. Here are a few examples of great science projects that might not sound like what you expect:
- kicking field goals with a ping pong catapult and mini footballs to learn more about physics on the football field
- picking up M&Ms in a simulation of camouflage and survival in the wild
- using magic sand to explore chromatography by observing how grape soda separates
- making a centrifuge from a salad spinner to investigate how a centrifuge separates glitter from a liquid
- building a LEGO device to see how common household granular materials mix or separate in a tumbler
- learning about circuits by lighting up play dough creations with LEDs
- investigating how the shape of butterfly wings changes how a butterfly flies and what this might mean for aircraft design
Those are just a few of the many, many projects that students might choose, projects that sound like a whole lot of fun!
- Pick a project that fits with the student's grade level/experience. Not every science fair project will result in a Nobel Prize-worthy conclusion or data set. School science projects are not supposed to be equivalent to what adult scientists are doing in the field or in research labs. Instead, a student's science project gives the student the chance to enact the scientific or engineering method and answer a science question. What is learned or observed by the student may be something small, but the student will have learned by doing, by putting the question to the test and gathering and analyzing data. Picking a project that is too hard is certain to cause problems, and choosing a project that is too simplistic for your student will not challenge her to really dig in and get involved in the process and project.
- Understand the role of the parent and the role of the student in the science project process. Your student's science project should not be your own project. Depending on your student's grade and age, you may need to be more or less involved in helping your student facilitate the experiment. But if an appropriate project is selected, your student should be able to work through the steps on her own. Your student needs to come up with the hypothesis (her words, not yours). Your student needs to decide what the project display board looks like and how the information gets presented. Your role may be that of driver (to the library) or buyer (materials, glue, and a project display board). Or maybe your role is to help your student talk out loud about what is happening in the project so that she is better able to understand and articulate what she observes, what problems she encounters, what questions she has, how her variables are related, or what else she may need to do in developing her procedure or analyzing her data. (For more information, see How to Help Your Science Student.)
- Review the basic steps of the scientific method or engineering design process yourself. Your student should be learning and reviewing these steps in class, but refreshing your memory about what is involved will help you feel more confident about the step-wise approach that most projects follow. Bookmark the Science Buddies Project Guide. It is your friend, and if your student is stuck with certain parts of the process, it is a great place to point the student to for examples and guidance.
- Remember that being "right" is not the goal. A science project may not turn out the way your student expects. A hypothesis may not turn out to be supported by the experiment. It may seem like exactly the opposite of what your student thought was going to happen happened. This doesn't mean the project failed. If your student worked through the appropriate steps and learned something by doing the experiment, then the project may, in fact, have been a success. Teachers look to see that students have used and understood the scientific steps, understand what they were testing and why, and understand what the data showed—even if it is different than what the hypothesis predicted. Do not think your student has failed if the project takes an unexpected turn!
- Go to the science fair. Make an effort to go to the science fair to see your student's project on display, one project display board among all the others, and to celebrate the hard work and learning that went on as part of the project. Everyone who completes a science fair project deserves recognition for participation!
Helpful Resources for Parents
The following resources and articles may help parents reconceptualize the importance, value, and process of a student's science fair project assignment:
- The Value of a Science Fair Project
- How to Help Your Science Student
- Parent Perspective: Understanding Your Role in Your Student's Science Project
- Get a Jump Start on the Project Display Board
- Perfecting the Project Display Board
- Putting Things in Perspective: Honest Science
- Giving Yourself the Best Chance for Success
- Science Fair Project Troubleshooting Guide
- Science Buddies Project Guide
- Science Buddies in Action
- Science Buddies Store (convenient kits that make getting the right materials for some of our popular project even easier)
- Sign up to receive Science Buddies' monthly newsletter
Note: post adapted from original Ensuring a Positive Science Fair Project Experience