Science fairs can evoke either excitement and anticipation, or dread and anxiety in students. Those with a knack for science, or at least a strong interest in science, tend to view science fairs as fun opportunities to learn and explore. However, students inexperienced with science and reasoned inquiry may fear them and dread science fair projects. This unfortunate outcome can be avoided with a few thoughtful interventions by science teachers.
Overcoming Science Fair Fears
Pursuing science can be an emotionally challenging endeavor. It requires questioning personal beliefs and boundaries, accepting (constructive) criticism by peers, and being comfortable with uncertainty. The emotional element of practicing science is not typically taught, but if we are to help students overcome any dread, it is imperative to make the emotional elements explicit to them. Class time dedicated to exploring frustrations, fears, and concerns can foster a collective sigh of relief when students realize that such emotions about science and science fair projects are normal. And if students can develop an emotional maturity about science and science fair projects, their parents will also relax, and the whole experience can be more fun and educational.
Helping students, parents, and other teachers understand that science fair projects build on many diverse life and academic skills—including reading; listening; observing; problem solving; logical, critical, and creative thinking; and communication and editing—is an ongoing activity for science teachers. But this message must be expressed often and in multiple ways. Science teachers may tire of this repetition, but it is important not only to assuage students’ fears, but also to restore science’s place as a core academic subject.
Some schools have reduced some students’ fear of science fairs by replacing traditional competitive science fairs with a “science expo.” For example, the Cottonwood Montessori School in Corrales, New Mexico, requires all students to develop a science project each year that is shared with the school and the greater community. Projects are “judged,” but no winners are announced. Scores and comments are shared only with the student and teachers. This “judging” is an important element of the process because peer review and evaluation are vital to science, but the lack of competition provides a less stressful, more educational experience. In addition, as an annual required element for every student, the science expo (fair) becomes an integral part of the science curriculum and ensures exposure to hands-on science for every student.
Students’ potential dread can be further relieved by emphasizing that simple science fair projects can often benefit students more than something complicated. Even “canned” projects, such as carnations absorbing colored water or the optimal launch angle for projectiles, can be very effective. Regardless of complexity, key elements are required to elevate projects from demonstration or engineering activities to genuine science projects. Helping students avoid common mistakes, which can result in a low score, reduces dread and decreases the potential for long-term negative associations.
Common Science Fair Project Mistakes
Even at the highest science fair levels, many projects miss a key scientific element. Projects are often relegated to at-home-only or after-school activities, but science teachers must play a central role in helping students incorporate the required scientific elements.
Science and scientific methodology are the framework, and when used correctly, provide “reliable knowledge” about the natural world. A science fair project should help students develop a sense of what “reliable knowledge” means and a set of tools for assessing this reliability. This scientific approach provides a basic tool kit:
- Observe and collect descriptive information about a phenomenon.
- Develop a hypothesis or an “educated” explanation for the phenomenon.
- Make a prediction that can be falsified by experiment.
- Perform an experiment to test the prediction.
The experiment can manipulate physical phenomena (variables) or simply acquire additional facts (observations).
Repeat for verification.
- Use the experimental results to assess the validity of your hypothesis.
- Incorporate the knowledge into the larger framework of science.
Unfortunately, the core steps (4, 5, and 6) are poorly executed (or even omitted) in many science fair projects. Variables are a common issue because they are not adequately isolated or the project has no control group for comparison. Repetition is also important for reliable knowledge, but is seldom emphasized.
The final step—incorporating knowledge gained from a project into the larger knowledge framework—is crucial, but commonly overlooked in both science classrooms and science fair projects. Students need to ask and be asked: “What new predictions can be made? What could be done differently, and why? How does this new knowledge relate to other knowledge? Why is this important?” When teachers help students clearly understand how science produces reliable knowledge, and how this knowledge fits into their everyday world, science fair projects become more meaningful because students can close the experiential loop, see the next steps, and recognize broader applications of their work.
In addition to including all of the steps of the scientific approach described earlier, projects must also be presented neatly with a flow of information that is sequential and easy to read. This may seem obvious, but enough projects lack these basic elements that it would be remiss not to emphasize them. Naturally, some students will have weak handwriting and organizational skills, but the science fair can be a fun opportunity to practice and improve these transferable skills.
Science teachers can also play a key role in helping students elevate projects to excellence. Key elements that distinguish excellent projects include
- originality (includes taking a “canned” project to the next level);
- broad application or demonstrated extension of a student’s personal experience;
- demonstrated understanding of fundamental principles;
- display of verbal and writing skills;
- identification of potential errors and discussion of their impact on the results;
- acknowledgement of other possible explanations for the results; and
- discussion of subsequent research to answer questions that emerged from the experiment.
Competition in science fairs is a necessary ingredient for many monetary awards (e.g., scholarships and industrial prizes). However, a poorly implemented science fair can adversely affect students, especially those not pursuing science-related careers. Winning the science fair, while potentially rewarding, is not the main point. Teachers should emphasize that the real prize is the student’s newly developed skill set that will serve him or her for a lifetime, along with the joy of participation.
Stefani D. Hines is assistant dean for assessment at the University of New Mexico College of Pharmacy and has been a special awards judge at the Intel International Science Fair since 2005. She has also judged local, regional, and state science fairs for the past 10 years; taught high school science; and conducted research in the environmental sciences and science education.
Dean C. Hines is an astronomer and senior research scientist with the Space Science Institute. He has more than 20 years’ experience judging science fairs at local elementary and high schools and at the state level in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, as well as serving as Grand Awards Judge at the 2007 Intel International Science Fair in Albuquerque, New Mexico.