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Dominion Blog

Science Fair: The Why

Posted by Sharon Dykhoff on May 2, 2024 12:52:09 PM

Science Fair - two words that bring dread to the minds of many parents.  Apprehension turns to procrastination until the looming deadline triggers a frantic search for some novel idea that will not humiliate your child as he opens his trifold board next to the kid whose dad works for NASA.  Many trips to craft and hardware stores conclude with a grand finale all-nighter and wails of frustration when your child spells “effect” as “affect” with an indelible marker on the last piece of poster board.  

If this was your science fair experience as a parent or a student, you are not alone.  Why do schools put everyone through this nightmare?  Are there really any benefits to doing science fair projects?  

Yes!  Science projects are excellent ways for students to explore their unique interests in science, engineering, and technology.  I have experienced the science fair tradition as a student, a parent, and a teacher.  The moment I began to love science projects occurred while attending a scientific conference where academic and professional scientists were presenting their research to peers and the public.  They even had posters displaying their work - it was a science fair!  

Parental over-involvement is often cited as a main reason that parents hate science projects.  You know what I mean – your 6th grader with his potato battery standing next to the kid who tested new techniques for cold fusion with her beaming father, the nuclear engineer.  This scenario is frustrating for everyone, especially the child who has been pushed to do an experiment beyond his or her understanding.  At Dominion, our middle schoolers are encouraged to choose projects based on concepts they can understand and explain. The goal is learning how to use the scientific method to answer a question through experimentation, not make scientific breakthroughs as middle schoolers.   

A recent trend in science education is to eliminate teaching the scientific method because experimentation in real-life rarely follows this step-by-step method.  This is true.  However, students need logical ways to plan, conduct, and analyze experiments.  They also need to learn the language of science – variables, controls, hypotheses, predictions, and so on – so they can communicate their findings to others.  The scientific method is fundamental to understanding scientific enterprise, and science projects are excellent ways for students to experience first-hand how science works.  

Science projects also cultivate perseverance and resilience.  Scientific discoveries rarely happen without setbacks and struggles.  Edison is reputed to have tried over 3000 designs while inventing the incandescent light bulb.  The greatest learning often comes from unexpected failures which encourage students to think and solve problems.  A Scientific American article published a few years ago proposed that American students are shying away from careers in science because they do not know how to experience and recover from failures.1  However, failure is fundamental to scientific enterprise.     

Support from parents, mentors, or teachers can contribute to science project success for most students.  So at Dominion, we integrate the science project into our middle school curriculum to give our students sufficient guidance to succeed.  They learn time-management skills as they move step-by-step through the process.  They begin by writing research papers so they can propose plausible hypotheses.  They learn how to identify, manipulate, and control variables.  They collect, organize, and analyze their data to draw conclusions.  They write scientific abstracts.  Finally, the big day arrives, and they share their work by giving talks at our own scientific conference.  

If students are evaluated on their mastery of scientific processes rather than overly complex experiments or glitzy show boards, then science fairs can be positive experiences.  When the science project is also part of a teaching and learning process, it can be a valuable, stress-free opportunity for students to explore their own interests in science or engineering.     

1 Whitlock, S. (2017, March 27). One Reason Young People Don't Go Into Science? We Don't Fail Well. Retrieved November 14, 2020, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/one-reason-young-people-dont-go-into-science-we-dont-fail-well1/

Topics: Academics, STEM, Science