High School Science Fairs

Years back, our high school held an annual science and technology fair. Honors students were required to generate a project, and it was optional for other students. Then the state high-stakes (you won’t graduate unless you pass) science MCAS exam came online with it’s added curriculum content and it’s consumption of class time, and time for guiding students through long-term individual projects was erased. Our Superintendent’s office is now, however, thinking of reinstating the science fair at the high school. Of course, there will be no compensation for time out of school for this, nor will any of our other responsibilities be removed.

What does a high school student gain from generating a science fair project that is beyond what they get from class? I asked this of my Twitter Professional Learning Community and these are the types of responses I received:
“Students doing science fair projects gain experience on whole project lifecycle, from planning to publishing results @amoroso
“It helps them see that good research doesn't mean your hypothesis is "right". And after doing projects, students have no trouble identifying variables. Also see that doing on experiment leads to more ??'s They learn how to solve problems scientifically. Another perk: they can study a branch of science that may not be covered in the current year's curriculum.” @janellewilson
Learning how to actually come up with a testable hypothesis. I've seen too many high school students who can't do it.” @sumrtime
Ownership of learning. Problem solving skills.” @AltEdAdventures
“They can learn how to find their own answers to things they wonder about and how the scientific method works.” @flyingjenny
"Confidence that who they really are is OK. Like the girl I wrote about who doesn't like sports, music or clubs - but LOVES spiders." @jerrybattiste
Alternatively, this type of remark was also received:
“Sci. Fair- the politics of science, science as competition, style over substance. Sorry if I sound cynical. I'd rather be doing "good" science in class rather than "good looking" science for a competition.” @jeffmason
And the following when I asked about the pros and cons of science fairs at the high school level:

“I have never met a 7-12 science teach who ever liked science fairs.” @SciTeach3
“Con: kids with more money sometimes have unfair advantages which can affect self worth in some children. Pro: allows for connection between education and creativity. The children who actually do try get the experience.” @cbcurtisTTL
“Con: 2 much focus on fictional "scientific method". Pro: kids doing self-selected projects.” @science_4_all
“Con: parents often still doing the work!” @berrendsci
Many of the comments can be summed up by this:
“Can’t you convince your admin that your students 'do science' as part of your classes? If so, may be less waste of time on lame fairs.” @chrisludwig
Does holding a science fair demonstrate that good science is being taught? In my opinion there is very little real creativity in many science fair projects as a quick google search will result in countless already-created projects. So if we cannot convince the overlords that our students “do science” in class, and they insist upon a science fair show,
  • How can we ensure that the students’ time is spent effectively?
  • How do we make sure the “pros” outweigh the “cons”?
  • How do we remove focus from the fictional “scientific method”?
  • How can we ensure the science fair is at the high school level of inquiry, and not embarrassingly elementary or middle schoolish?

The thing to do is make sure we, the educators, give the students the guidance they deserve. Careful thought needs to go into the direction and documents we give them. As high school science educators we must ensure that our science teaching does not drift into the fictional or easy.
Figures in this post are from the document A Miniature Guide to Scientific Thinking by Dr. Richard Paul and Dr. Linda Elder.


nashworld said...

I'm afraid I'm going to have to come down on the side of "pro" as difficult as it may seem from a standards/time perspective in 2010.

I understand the elements of scientific thinking. Students in classrooms where these elements are carefully attended to will gain much insight into the many related processes of scientific thinking. However, considering that my ultimate goal for students is to empower them as independent thinkers and operators within the world of science... I'd say without a research component our kids never get to see the full nature of science in it's most complete context.

For ten years I taught a 10-12 course entitled: "Science Investigations." This program was a science elective that truly embodied the spectrum of independent scientific research in a chosen field. That said, I think a crucial thing to hone in on here is the word "independent." My kids were independent researchers somewhere along the way... but not during the first week after laying out the goals and processes of the course. For students to independently succeed at this -the richest set of events of our entire field of study- they need to be scaffolded through a continuum of released responsibility.

The advantages of that high school program are simple and clear. The “curriculum” IS the scientific process, and other than these processes themselves… the content of the course was student-generated. No state exam, no screwed-down curriculum. But can you imagine how these experienced transferred back out of this class into the compulsory courses? Our most successful students in post-secondary nearly always went through this program. When I was engaged in that program in the high school across town during those ten years, we easily helped more kids score full-tuition scholarships to research universities than all athletic programs combined.

Now- so that you realize my head isn’t completely in the clouds… I’ll step down from the “best-case scenario” for a moment. Prior to those ten years, I spent three years teaching 7th grade science at a middle school in the same town. Yes, this was prior to the NCLB testing train, but we did have a rather full curriculum nonetheless. Still, our school (and district if I remember correctly) required the “science fair” as part of the curriculum. This culminated in a minimum of a school-level fair as well as the regional fair. Students also had the opportunity to participate in academy-style presentations of their work to be judged separately. The top presentations in both events went on to state competition.

The two most important things I took away from these years were: the importance of the integration & modeling of science and the difference in how “competition” is viewed. Both of these rely directly on the strength and commitment of the individual classroom teacher.

For the first- I believe the reason so many teachers dislike incorporation of ind. research is that so few have figured out how to build the required instruction into the daily yearlong schedule- donating small amounts of classroom time, assessing, assessing, assessing along the way. In short, too often “science fair” is assigned as opposed to instructed of better yet… coached.

(have to split this in two, sorry...)

nashworld said...

(continued) I know... I know:

Secondly, several above mentioned the “competitive” nature of such fairs as being a big negative. In my opinion, this too is dependent upon the individual classroom teacher. To me, the reason the “fair” is such a crucial component is that this is where each individual student defends his or her work to the scrutiny of a professional judge and/or the public. This IS science. To make the entire experience complete, the teacher must paint this final communication and sharing piece as something that transcends competition. Sure, they give awards to a few presentations… but that shouldn’t be the focus of the entire event. A skilled coach can help build the true mission.

I constantly stressed during the study formulation period that what we were trying to do was to seek out and find “holes” in what we know. It is really tough for kids this age to even find these gaps. To them, everything has already been previously discovered and communicated. Once students find even the smallest gap in what we currently know… they are on the cusp of developing a research focus. Plugging the holes in human knowledge is one of the ultimate goals in the natural sciences. The only thing left to weigh after finding such a gap to shoot for is feasibility. Can the type of experimentation required be done in the school? Could it be done cooperatively in a local business or university? In the middle school, our science budget was poor. I enlisted my parents to help raise funds so that we didn’t have a gap between kids of differing economic backgrounds.

I like “science fairs.” I hate the term, because it also embodies all of the negative connotations that were mentioned by your Tweeps above. However, a structured and real immersion in student-owned research followed by defense and sharing of that work, is to me the pinnacle of a student’s science education.

Reflections of a Science Teacher said...

@nashworld: I think the key here is that science classes should incorporate independent investigations. You have been fortunate to teach a course that does not have a prescribed curriculum to meet a state high-stakes test. Even with a high-stakes test, though, a science course should be incorporating inquiry and the elements of scientific thinking. Given adequate advance planning, a classroom teacher should be able to work in adequate time for guiding students.

Reflections of a Science Teacher said...

@nashworld: What I hear is that the success of a student's project depends on the abilities and expertise of the classroom teacher to guide the student through an authentic investigation.

Ben Wildeboer said...

My gut reaction to the science fair is pretty negative- for many of the reasons quoted in your post.

However...being able to independently identify problems that can be tested, design the appropriate tests, effectively perform those tests, deal with the real-life variability, and publicly explain/defend their results is pretty darn valuable.

I'd agree with nashworld this really is something that we should be doing as a part of our science curriculum instead of having it be "extra-curricular."

Is it more important for students to recall discrete facts or have a framework through which they can interpret the world around them? I'd be thrilled if students came out of my classes with that framework even if they can't recall the various types of chemical reactions.

I guess what I'm saying is that if I'm choosing between including an independent research component into my class or covering everyone of the standards, I'd sacrifice some of the standards.