As a first-year teacher, I was told that my high school students must all participate in our school’s science fair. Being a new teacher, I simply gave my young scientists the assignment and expected them to complete it and turn it in within three months. I reminded them about it and answered any questions that they had. Needless to say, I was surprised when only half of them turned in a project! Of those turned in, very few of them were appropriate to their grade level. I even had one teenager turn in a project that he had originally completed in fifth grade!
Finding Your Groove
For me, the difficulty with science fair projects was compounded by the fact that the projects did not directly align to the state standards that I was expected to teach. The school required the projects, but the state required scientific understanding. My students just wanted to enjoy learning science, and I was stuck in the middle.
Through the years, I discovered that scaffolding the project and allowing class time for its completion dramatically improved the outcome. I also began to allow pupils to work in groups of their own choosing. I tried to model our class work after the manner used by professional researchers. Here’s what worked for me.
Pair Them Up!
Allow learners to work in pairs or small groups of their choosing. Scientists rarely work completely alone because they have a team of collaborators. Explain that the group choice is theirs, and that they are responsible for making the team work. It helps if each team member has a specific task in each step of the project and is held accountable for his work. Team work and breaking the project into understandable steps will also help low-achieving learners find success and improve their outlook on schoolwork.
Schedule time to work on science fair projects in class. You may want to devote part of one day each week to the science fair. Give groups a concrete task to complete every time you allow them to work on the project in class. Hold them accountable for completing that task during class time. By breaking down the project into smaller pieces, the teams will be better able to meet their goals and complete their work. For example, use the first block of class time for research and brainstorming. The next time you work on the project in class, have the teams develop their hypotheses and experimental designs. Then, groups work on their experiments in class or after school. You can offer your classroom and supplies as a lab site. They may use this lab site during class or scheduled extra hours; perhaps one lunch period or after school time per week. Later, have a class period devoted to understanding data and drawing conclusions. Finish the projects with time devoted to preparing displays or PowerPoint presentations.
Relate to the Standards
In my experience, guidance is needed to help teams conduct grade-appropriate experiments. You can guide them by requiring them to complete projects that relate to the state standards of your course. Provide a list of possible topics and let each group choose which one to pursue. Giving concrete examples will help teams thoroughly develop their projects. Guide them to use experiments in their textbooks that will not be completed as a class. By linking the projects with the standards of the course, and providing parameters that will enhance classwork, you will see the projects as an asset, rather than as a distraction from your goals.
By embracing the science fair as a way for students to hone and display their scientific abilities and their cooperative learning skills, you will find it to be an enjoyable learning experience for yourself and your class. After all, there is no better way to learn the scientific method than to use it!
More Helpful Lessons:
Here is an approach to help teams select their science fair project. A helpful handout is included.
The concept of teamwork in the science fair is extended in this resource, which is aimed at younger elementary learners. The class works through the scientific method together by rotating through learning stations. Ideas can be adapted for higher grade levels.
This resource helps teachers manage the details of their science fair. It includes registration forms, progress reports, evaluation checklists, and more.