Jump to main content

Teacher Tools BlackBox

The Black Box of Project Improvement

Submitted by Barbara Messmer, a fifth-grade Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) teacher at Crestmont Elementary School in Roseville, California.

Key Objective

Develop a system that encourages students to improve and continually revise their projects, based on provided rubrics.


Grades four and up


The Black Box tool is a system of giving students assignments related to their science projects, grading them according to set rubrics, and then offering students the chance to improve at each step. The name, apart from appealing to students, refers to a file box that is the repository of all graded rubrics and assignment drafts. The chance for improvement models the scientific process in the real world, where projects are never graded and are never completed without the opportunity to make improvements.


Target the Black Box approach at two key project phases: when students are researching and writing their background research papers, and when students are compiling their final science fair project reports. If you are following the Student Science Project Schedule found in the Teacher's Guide to Science Projects, the background research paper phase begins in the third week of the project, after students create a testable question. Set a fixed due date for students to turn in their first drafts. Conduct the first round of project improvement by reviewing each draft using a Grading Rubric over a one- or two-day period. Photocopy each draft and rubric to document improvements and include them in the student's Black Box file folder. Share the documentation with the students.

At this point, let students decide whether they'd like to improve their scores. Give the students one or two days to complete revisions, guided by your comments and the rubric, which shows where students are missing points. Repeat the review steps above for each student submitting corrections. Students should be permitted to choose how many times they want to submit improvements, as well as the target points that they want to earn for each submission. This process encourages students to become accountable for their own results.

Conduct the next phase of project improvement one week before the fair. Ask students to bring in all of the sections of their final reports. Review all reports for completeness and identify any missing sections, such as materials lists and conclusions. If most students have their documents on their computers, give students just one or two days to provide missing items or fix deficient items. You can even offer students a short amount of time after the fair to provide final corrections.


Use the following Science Buddies resources for this Science Project Enrichment Tool:


The following case study of how Barbara Messmer's students improved their background research papers early in the process illustrates the effectiveness of the Black Box.

Students fell into three groups. One group of students primarily made mechanical errors in grammar and spelling. Those same students often failed to create the single, most overlooked item of first drafts: a "math plan" for data analysis. For example, a math plan should indicate:

In the second, most typical group, students persevered through up to three attempts at their reports over a one-month period. In a first draft, one student within this group had conducted detailed research on his topic, the effect of temperature on the bouncing of tennis balls. He had not made the leap to connect his research to an actionable experiment. The teacher determined that although the student had done research on what makes balls bounce, he did not have an understanding of how to design an experimental procedure to test this.

Through second and third drafts in the Black Box process, the student grounded his experimental procedure in research. After discovering that temperature would probably have an effect on bouncing, he wrote a second draft proposing a more-thorough procedure. He would heat and cool the tennis balls and then drop them from a consistent, controlled height. When planning data analysis, he decided to measure bounce height in a reliable way by creating a measuring board with lines. He set a goal to compare the data from three trials and calculate a mean. In a third draft, he perfected his writing and source citations. In the end, he improved his score by two letter grades, but more important, he was given the opportunity to persevere in order to more fully understand the topic.

In the third group, a small number of students had to revise their work significantly. These students had trouble picking questions that they could answer through investigation. They could not conceptualize how the data they were gathering would lead them to conclusions. After Black Box checkpoints, all were able to start with new topics and succeed in their second tries.

Apart from giving the students room for improvement, the Black Box records established to outside judges that the students really did their own work. As additional evidence of its worth, all five fifth-graders who went to the district fair received medals. Two of the five fourth-graders received medals. Going forward, teachers who've put Messmer's Black Box method to use in their classrooms plan to refine the process by putting more emphasis on students' initial experimental procedures to ensure early on that the experiments are practical and doable.


Messmer, B., Smith, S.W., Storm, B., Weaver, C. "Four Tools for Science Fair Success." Science and Children. Vol. 45 No. 4. Dec. 2007.

Free science fair projects.