Updated: Jul 19
It's getting to be that time of year when teachers are starting to discuss the annual science fair and asking their students to start generating project ideas. I started running science fairs in my first year of teaching when I had no idea what I was doing, but now that I've judged and organized science fairs for more than 10 years, I have a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn't. In order to pass that wisdom on to everyone involved, I'm breaking this blog post down into three separate sections - advice for teachers, advice for students, and finally advice for parents. Consider this a beginner's guide to a (hopefully) stress-free science fair.
What is science fair for?
At its heart, the science fair is an exhibition of scientific understanding, or at least it should be. It is often intensely competitive, but this is not by any means a requirement. Some studies even indicate that science fair competitions can be detrimental to the students and to their scientific understanding.
Much like a drama production or a school sporting event, students show off their progress for entertainment and to display what they have learned. In those cases, however, there is a general understanding that most of the students will not become professional actors or athletes, but with a science fair, there is a very real possibility that you are looking at future scientists, engineers, and doctors. Awards and scholarships are on the table, raising the stakes considerably and resulting in the kind of stressful, parent-involved competition that has caused some to question the 'fairness' of science fairs around the world.
"No matter what kind of fair you plan or participate in, when learning is the primary focus, everyone wins."
At their best, science fairs can be a way for hardworking or academically gifted students to display their knowledge and skills to the school community and beyond, an opportunity they might not otherwise have. With the right amount of guidance and preparation, authentic learning takes place and students get a small taste of what being a scientist is all about.
Advice for teachers
Prepare students to conduct their own experiments
For many students, the science fair is the first time they have been asked to design and execute an experiment entirely on their own. Unsurprisingly, this results in confusion, disappointment, and ultimately, mediocre science. You can set your students up for success by giving them opportunities to practice using the scientific method and developing scientific inquiry skills in the months (and years) leading up to a science fair.
Instead of having your students perform cookie-cutter investigations with predictable outcomes, get them to plan their own experiments and analyze the results with progressively less guidance from you. Start with a step-by-step template, and then gradually give them more autonomy for each phase of the experiments they conduct. Give them constructive feedback along the way, and they will quickly learn what good science looks like. The great thing is that this can be done in any unit at any point during the year. The content is irrelevant as long as they are learning experimental skills.
Plan out the phases of the project in detail and provide a calendar of dates for students. This will usually include brainstorming time, project proposals, data collection/experimental time, data analysis, a final draft, class presentations, time to work on display boards, and finally the fair itself. The format and dates you include will depend on how you or your school plan to organize the fair. Give students enough time for each phase, but not too much. Younger students will probably need more class time, but older ones can be expected to do a lot more on their own outside of school.
As for the fair itself, consider your audience. For many years I held science fairs in the gym or cafeteria for a few hours over 1 or 2 days, typically after school. This allowed interested students and teachers and most parents to attend, but there were always some who couldn't make it. Then I tried daytime science fairs which allowed whole classes of younger students and their teachers to attend, but fewer parents. During the pandemic, I took inspiration from the art department and decided to present student projects as a week-long exhibition that anyone could view at their leisure. I also made a project highlights video that I shared with parents who couldn't be at school. Now that the risk of Covid has declined, I'm tempted to do a hybrid fair involving one day of student presentations and a long-term display of some kind.
Make assessment expectations clear
Decide before you introduce the science fair what your expectations will be. Are you going to assess the project? Is it summative? Will students work in groups or individually? Will you assess each part of the process, only some of them, or just the final project? Are students going to be keeping a progress or reflection journal? What is your policy regarding late submissions and deadlines? All of these decisions need to be clearly communicated with students, preferably via a one-page handout, digital post, or email. You can hang it somewhere with high visibility in your classroom and refer to it often as students work through their experiments.
You will also want to create or select a rubric for feedback and grading so that students know exactly what you are looking for. Decide whether you will focus on the process or the product (or both) and how you will assess these two components. If the science fair is competitive, how will the winners be determined? I haven't done competitive fairs for a number of years, but when I did, the winning projects were determined by a combination of parent/student feedback and my own assessment of each project. I recruited grade 11 and 12 science students to ask questions and fill out a simple form for each project to help me assess the 30+ projects students worked on annually. The winners received a recognition award but no incentive beyond that.
Internal project grades were determined based on a combination of class presentations, a final written report, and the science fair presentations/displays. Students also wrote self-reflections based on the entire experience.
Ask for help on fair day
I remember running my first few fairs on my own, and it was chaos. I felt bad asking other teachers for help and thought I had everything under control, but it was always too much for one person to handle. I also made an extremely complicated rubric that took more than 15 minutes to complete for each project.
Needless to say, I made better decisions in the future and eventually got student and teacher volunteers to help me judge projects on the day of the fair. I knew that their assessments would be somewhat inconsistent and that not everyone has a science background, but I made sure that every student project got assessed by at least 3 judges, and never more than 1 student judge per group.
Once I got things under control, I began enjoying science fairs as an observer and stopped assessing my students altogether. I still graded their projects in class, but I left the judging to other teachers and students. I think this actually improved the quality of student work because they knew I wouldn't be the one judging them on the day. Instead, I used my fair time to take photos, talk to parents, and solve emergency issues that inevitably pop up (bring lots of tape!).
Communicate with parents
You may disagree on this point, but I would encourage you to make your parental expectations clear to families from the start, and by that, I mean asking parents or guardians not to help students with their projects any more than is absolutely necessary. Remind everyone involved that this is a student event, and stress that it is about growth and discovery, not mastery. You are not lowering your expectations by making this point clear - you are raising them by requiring students to be responsible for their own work.
To be clear, parents aren't forbidden from taking their kid to the library or helping them purchase materials, but they shouldn't be writing their presentations or using their work and family connections to give their children unfair access to advanced technology and laboratory facilities.
Be sure to send updates and reminder emails to parents during the planning and experimental phases of the project, and also to invite them to the fair. Then thank them for their attendance and support afterward.
Advice for students
What makes a good science fair project?
A lot of students spend weeks or even months trying to come up with a good project idea, wasting a lot of time that could be better spent researching, testing designs, or collecting data. Don't fall into this trap.
In general, science projects fall into four categories, but they are not all equal in terms of quality or scientific merit. Every year I get proposals and submissions of each type, but there's only one that I try to guide my students toward, and I'm going to assume that your teacher would prefer the same. I've described each of the project types below to better explain what they involve.
Research projects - In these projects, students find out about a topic of their choice and write a report on their findings. Crucially, no experiment is conducted, so there usually isn't any of your own work to comment on or analyze. Research reports have a place in science class, but they aren't really appropriate for a science fair project. To be fair, scientists sometimes conduct research where they analyze dozens of studies and perform mathematical comparisons on them. This is known as a 'meta-analysis', but it requires access to professional journal articles and statistical knowledge that is probably beyond the scope of what most students can handle. Avoid this type of project unless you have exceptional mathematical skills or a very unique question you'd like to analyze.
As an example of a successful research project, I once had a student who wanted to create a system tourists could use to compare malaria risks in various countries. He used climate statistics, population data, healthcare quality data, and malaria infection rates to come up with an index to compare each country.
Demonstrations/Designs - Sometimes a student will ask a question like "Is it possible to _____?" or "Can I make a _____?" Notice that these questions have yes or no answers, but no room for a range of possible solutions. These often end up being engineering projects that involve creating inventions or new products, and they can be very interesting in terms of the learning that takes place and the problems that can be solved. The problem is that if all you are doing is answering the initial question, you haven't done very good science. When I was in grade 7 I won my school science fair by cleaning buckets of pond water using a homemade purification system. It wasn't until I went to the regional science fair that I was eviscerated by judges who pointed out that I hadn't really done an experiment. Even though I had accomplished my goal of making clean water, I had no data and hadn't measured anything. Oops!
The good news for this type of project is that it isn't hard to convert the research question into something that can actually be measured and compared quantitatively. You just need to identify an independent variable that can be used to test your designs. These are ambitious projects that have the potential to be quite successful if done well, especially if you go through multiple phases of experimentation and improvement.
Prescribed investigations - In these projects, students are essentially following a plan they have found online or elsewhere. This is like baking a cake by following a recipe. You can do the whole thing perfectly without any understanding of the process! The results of the experiment are known, and there is little to no creativity or problem-solving involved. Being able to replicate the results of another experiment is a useful skill and an important part of science, but this is mainly used in science class to help you practice specific techniques and is not appropriate for a science fair project.
As a general rule, if someone else has done the experiment you want to do, it's not a good science fair project. Don't let this discourage you, however, as there are a nearly infinite number of ways you can tweak an existing experiment to make it your own. For example, a few years ago one of my students wanted to compare how drinks affect the structural integrity of her teeth. She decided to use eggshells to represent tooth enamel and immerse them in different beverages. This is a VERY common science project, so to make it more interesting, she instead changed the project to compare how different beverages would neutralize acidic substances like cola and grapefruit juice. She also did a very good job recording and comparing her results, with a detailed method and lots of replication.
Exploratory experiments - These are the true science fair projects that your teachers are expecting, based on novel ideas that haven't been tested before. Unsurprisingly, it is very difficult to come up with projects like this, and even harder to carry them out because you have no plan to follow. Guess what? That's when you learn the most!
Here are some general tips on how to make the best science fair project possible.
Keep it simple - It's far better to do a straightforward project with very accurate measurements than it is to plan a convoluted experiment with a long list of materials and a complicated procedure. Minimize the number of things that can go wrong and control as many variables as possible.
Repeat, repeat, repeat - I can't tell you how many times my students have had weeks to do an experiment and yet only make time for a small number of trials. Unless money and materials are limiting factors, you should perform as many trials as you can in the time that you have. Want to see how fertilizer runoff affects aquatic plant growth? Don't grow just one plant for each treatment!
It's okay to be wrong - Students are often horrified when their hypothesis turns out to be incorrect, to the point where some of them will change their predictions to match the data, and others won't even write one until the data starts to come in. This is totally counterproductive. Rejected hypotheses are the reason science moves forward, and at no point will you be penalized for failing to predict your results accurately. As long as your hypothesis is logical and based on scientific reasoning, you can rest easy.
Don't test products - Inevitably, some students will want to test how long batteries last or how effective laundry detergents are at removing stains. These projects are attractive because they're very easy to set up and control. They also have obvious real-world applications. The problem is that they're not really about science. They're about products. You may not even fully understand the differences between the products you are testing. For these reasons, it's best to leave these types of investigations to Consumer Reports.
Do what interests you - Don't plan projects that you think will win. Instead, find out about things that interest you. You'll be more motivated to learn and experiment, and your findings will be more relevant to you.
Do it yourself - In every science fair, it's obvious that some students had a lot more help than others. Maybe someone in the family is a doctor or scientist and has access to resources that other kids could never afford to use, or maybe the parents were heavily involved in the project. In either case, it's crystal clear to teachers and judges that you didn't do this experiment on your own, and even if the end result is very impressive, it's not really fair to others if adults worked on your project.
You are going to be questioned on your experiment, and it will be immediately apparent if you don't know what you're talking about. Furthermore, your teachers will be pretty skeptical if you are an average student and then suddenly create an exemplary science project. The bigger issue, though, is that you are representing someone else's work as your own, which is among the worst offenses you can make in science. Just do the work yourself and be proud of the result, even if it isn't as professional looking as someone else's. It might not feel like it, especially if you don't win, but the knowledge you gain by doing a project yourself is more valuable than any prize.
Advice for parents
Be supportive, but don't get involved
As a parent, I understand that you want your child to perform well, but resist the urge to take the reins by trying to control the outcome of their science fair project. You may think you are steering your child towards success, but in reality, you are preventing them from exploring, problem solving, reading, and developing new skills. It's true that the finished product will almost certainly be worse without your help, but you have to be ok with that.
Below are some tips to help your child have an enjoyable and productive science fair experience.
Help your child generate ideas
Ask them what topics they are interested in, and then point them in the direction of useful books on the subject. A trip to the library is invaluable, or a bit of internet research (don't do it for them!). Help your child organize his or her thoughts, keep notes, brainstorm, and so on. You're here to provide suggestions, but they are the ones doing the legwork. If at any point they resist your attempts to help, back off.
Be positive and encouraging
Science experiments can be frustrating. Most fail, and even the best procedures will have issues that take trial and error to get right. Instead of solving your child's problems for them, simply provide encouragement in the form of positive affirmations. Of course, just listening to their problems helps too. Remind them that it's okay to get unusual or unexpected results. Sometimes those are far more interesting anyway.
If you can, attend the science fair, but give your child some space to present their work and explore the other projects without you. Just knowing you are there will help them feel secure and cared for. Check in on them occasionally but don't hover.
Finally, if your child is struggling and you are unable to point them in the right direction, encourage them to send their teacher a message or ask for help in class. Put the responsibility on your child, however, and please don't ask for them.
Provide a safe space for experimentation
I've seen kids do a lot of dumb things in the name of science, and it can be even worse when I'm not around. Find out what your child's experiment is all about, and then give them a safe place to work on it. Allow them to explore and fail on their own, but don't allow anything unsafe to take place, especially if fire or chemicals are involved. Bad decisions seem to get even worse when it's a group project, so keep that in mind when supervising.
Accept the outcome
It may be hard to hear, but your child is (probably) not a genius. No matter how the fair turns out, trust the process and congratulate your child on trying their best (assuming they did). Depending on their age, they may have a chance try again in the future. Hopefully, they learned a lot from the process and made some positive memories along the way. If they are still interested in learning about the topic of their experiment, encourage them to keep exploring it for themselves.
Science fairs are a memorable experience for many students and have the potential to inspire the next generation of scientists, but teachers and the organization of the fair itself can go a long way toward making that a reality. Everyone involved in the process should do their part to make the science fair fun, equitable, and inviting for all students and community members. No matter what kind of fair you plan or participate in, when learning is the primary focus, everyone wins.
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