EduSpeak: Why ‘Working’ Parents Dread Science Fairs
…….and what can be done about it
It’s that time of year again. Time for the dreaded, science fair. If you work and have children who are in middle or high school, they (and you) may be saddled with an academic project that ought to be fun, and exciting, but instead it is stressful for schoolchildren and their parents.
— unless. One or both parents have:
A. Too much time on their hands.
B. Too much money.
C. Too much time and money.
D. Are absurdly competitive and living vicariously through their children.
Science Fairs are supposed to be what we call in academia, “authentic assessments,” a type of evaluation that measures whether or not students understand what they are being taught at the conceptual level by virtue of their being able to apply that knowledge in real life.
But, instead of this being an opportunity for children to be curious and creative, most parents end up building the volcano for their child with $100 of supplies purchased from the local craft store or Home Depot, while their child watches anxiously from the couch. Sunday evenings couldn’t be made any less fun — or any less educational.
And, for those children whose parents are not as available or don’t have $100 to spend on a volcano, they go on YouTube and copy an idea for building something out of junk from around the house. They cheat, and they do it because science fairs are not, in fact, “fair.”
Though educators might think that the point of a science fair is to teach students how to conduct an experiment, you wouldn’t know that from looking at the projects in your local middle school auditorium. These experiments are always successful. The volcanoes erupt. The marshmallow cannons fire, and the rocket always launches.
Science fairs are not an inherently bad idea. In fact, done well, the science fair is a project-based cooperative learning activity and, at the same time, an authentic assessment. It has the potential to teach the process of discovery we know as the scientific method in a dynamic and sustainable fashion. It could be experiential learning at its best. But often, the potential of the science fair not only fails to be realized but becomes a burden to students, teachers and parents.
Sue, a parent of five, whose youngest, a seventh grader, is working on her science fair project now, recently described the annual event like this “The science fair is that one project in school that proves competition is not helpful in schools.” Another parent called it “homework for parents,” and a third parent I talked to said that “the science fair was the single most stressful school assignment his family must tolerate every year.”
Why does this happen?
There are three reasons. The purpose of the science fair is often not clear. The directions are not simple, and the scientific method is obscured.
Most students, parents and even teachers do not understand why they are participating in a science fair. Students and their parents typically say they are doing it to win, or that it looks good (only if you win) on a private school or college application. On the other hand, some say they do it simply because it’s required. And, teachers will tell you that their bosses make them do it.
“It is simply expected by the parents,” one science teacher told me.
Many science teachers believe that it is a way to make learning fun, but often students do not have fun and learn very little from science fairs. Sometimes students even learn bad habits like cheating or taking short cuts, because learning objectives have not been fully formed nor clearly stated.
The goals of any science fair could be:
•that students will understand and be able to apply the scientific method,
•that children will develop intellectual curiosity about how things work,
• that schoolchildren will become aware of how science is relevant to the real world
• and that schools will bring public awareness to the field of science.
Unfortunately, these goals are often lost in the process.
A science fair could be a low stakes competition between students where they present both what they knows of the scientific process they used and what they learned from that process. Their evolving understandings of science could be highlighted and the results of their experiments could be on display. Children could become excited about how things work, what things are made of and about life itself.
Instead, school cafeterias are filled with cardboard trifold displays of information that students copied off of the internet, or with prototypes or models that their parents designed, financed and constructed. I was at a science fair once where the blue ribbon was placed on a 3D printer that the boy’s dad bought for him. As he printed small objects from templates he had downloaded from the internet, a crowd of bedazzled parents looked on in amazement. 3D printers were new back then, and the crowd of parents along with the judges were so amazed about this new machine that they failed to ask the boy what he had learned. He didn’t invent the 3D printer, he just learned how to use it.
Why do schools hold science fairs?
The main motive of a science fair should be for students to ask a question about something they wonder about, and to explore ways to discover some new understanding about that question. But, instead, because they are competitions, because they are judged seemingly on objective performance criteria, the entire focus is on outcomes instead of processes, and without attention to processes, the opportunity for education is utterly lost. Instead of conducting a number of experiments, the short amount of time allocated to this activity and the lack of proper supervision, the questions and the curiosity become secondary to the product that students hope will impress judges as well as the general audience.
Dramatic presentations and animated models are extolled, while the thinking, the questioning, the process of discovery are sidelined. What happens to the student who chooses a science fair question, builds a hypothesis and then conducts an experiment to find that his or her hypothesis was not supported? In a lab, the scientist would start over again and design a new experiment without considering the previous one a failure. To that scientist, the first experiment is data. To the seventh grader that event is understood as failure. So, how does a student proceed? They cheat. And there are a few ways of doing this. He or she can conduct an experiment that has already been done — one he or she saw on YouTube, yielding no insight. He or she can get significant help from a parent, adding only familial anxiety to his or her experience.
Then there may be one or two students who actually do have authentic questions, but whose experiments yield unexciting results, so he or she rigs the experiment to look impressive and successful, which teaches the student the value of gaming the system, instead of the persistence that the scientific method requires.
Under normal circumstances, scientists usually keep working until they either find what they are looking for or discover something else that was unexpected, the way Flemming discovered penicillin or how it occurred to Spencer that a magnetron could cook food.
Whose idea was the science fair?
The concept of the science fair started when oceanographer, William Ritter, and journalist, Edward Scripps, initiated a science contest for high school students in 1942 in Washington D.C.. It was like an American Idol but for science nerds, where exceptionally creative high school seniors competed to win $600 scholarships. Seventy-five years later, this competition is sponsored by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals and is called the Science Talent Search. Applicants do NOT work in teams as they often do in local science fairs, and they compete for prizes of up to $250,000 in various categories.
Over more than seven decades’ winners of the contest have gone on to win Nobel Prizes, Fields Medals and MacArthur Genius Grants. Many have PhDs from prestigious Universities and prominent positions in the field of science.
So, why do schoolchildren and their parents tremble in fear when local science fairs are announced?
1. The typical middle or high school science fair provides vague directions. The instructions given students in a one middle school directed students to “Identify criteria that you want your device or program to address,” but provided neither an example, nor a description of how to do this.
2. Students receive practically no support from teachers or mentors. They are instead expected to complete these projects at home. They must navigate the scientific process alone or with their parents. The have no access to laboratories and need to improvise materials from around their homes or the local craft store, if their parents are available to drive them.
3. Research on the educational benefits of science fairs shows that when science fairs are both mandatory and also include competition, which most do, that the educational benefits are significantly lower than science fairs that are not mandatory or high stakes.
In fact, with the exception of children who are confident and have a record of success in school, most children are anxious about the science fair, because they believe it holds the potential for public humiliation.
4. Science fair projects often do not have clear purposes and offer little instruction about hypothesizing, and no explicit teaching of independent vs. dependent variables.
“Students are often taught that the scientific method is linear, but it is actually circular. The outcome of real science experiments would not satisfy the kind of conclusion teachers require in science fair reports. Authentic science experiments rarely produce definitive conclusions, and instead created a whole new question or set of questions for lab scientists,” explained Tami Allen, a Chemistry teacher at Groton-Dunstable High School.
Science Fairs should be fun, but they are often stressful, causing friction between students and their parents who end up doing most of the work for their children. This creates a high bar.
What is a science teacher to do?
1. Students should NOT be required to participate in science fairs. Forcing children to do science fair can have unintended negative consequences for their attitude toward science. Science fair could be extra credit, but science fair works best if grades are de-emphasized, so students will not be restricted by structural limitations imposed by external standards. Dr. Eliza Bobek, an assistant professor of science education at The University of Massachusetts Lowell suggests that science fair projects not be graded. “Presenting in front of peers, parents and faculty is motivation enough. Of course, teachers will evaluate and grade students written reports, but that’s not part of the science fair.”
Such limiting standards as grades frequently put a lid on what children can do. They narrow the imagination and stifle innovation. Too much of experiences related to school are about force. Science fair should be the exception.
2. Students need to work on their projects in school or in off site partner institutions, not at home where they will cut corners. Science fair projects always make bad homework assignments. Such project-based learning requires supervision, oversight and continual assistance. “The work should take place at school, with the help and support of peers and teachers. Family involvement can be terrific, but is not necessary and should not be expected,” explained Dr. Bobek.
3. Educational objectives need to be clear so that the energy and focus for such an intensive project will be transparent. Unless the purpose of science fair is stated and restated, children won’t know, won’t remember and won’t learn. But, teachers must first themselves KNOW what they want their students to TAKE AWAY from doing this before they even start.
4. Expectations for students need to be clear with clear protocols, criteria for evaluation and with examples and models of successful science fair projects from the past available to students on the internet. These directions need to be explicit and accessible so students can continually refer back to them throughout the project.
5. Formative assessment is necessary, otherwise children may get off track, misunderstand the directions and cheat. Teachers need to ask questions of students or student teams throughout the various stages of the science fair experiments, especially the early ideation stage.
6. Process should be emphasized over product. It matters less what students’ final project looks like than what they learn from making it. And, people learn from processes, not products. Unless teachers state that process is important, and use formative assessment to check student processes, children will hyper-focus on outcomes instead — thus missing the whole point of the science fair.
7. Failure should be allowed and accepted. Not only is it important to explicitly state that students’ attempts at understanding phenomena through experimentation is the whole point of the science fair, but it is essential. Trial and error is a natural method for sustainable learning. But, if error is demonized, then children won’t take the risk to do the “trial” part, because there is an inherent gamble that it will often result in error. Attempts are very important in education. All children who make attempts at understanding anything need to have those attempts positively reinforced.
8. It should be fun. Science fairs, like most learning ought to be playful and exciting. Otherwise, children will procrastinate on the project, leading to cut corners, stress and cheating. Even if they don’t cheat, the lessons they learn will not be assimilated unless they are cognitively present during the experiments. The key to making them fun is the attitude of the teacher. The teacher needs to smile, to be calm, and to not pressure students to go in one direction or another or force them to rush.
9. Every project wins a prize. This is not hard to do. There can be various categories, like: Most Original, Most Relevant, Most Marketable, Most Rigorously Scientific, Most Socially Significant, Most Environmentally Important, Most Scalable, Most Beneficial to Human Health, Most Technologically Advanced, etc. Instead of having first, second and third places with runner ups and then dozens of losers, each project should fit into a prize category instead.
10. Parent involvement should also be voluntary. Some parents are scientists, engineers or have enough training to help as in-school parent volunteers who, with some guidance from teachers, aide students in the formation of research questions, the design of experiments and the collection of data. Some parents may end up working with children who are not their own — not a bad thing. Others may decide to help their own children, which is also fine. The ideal scenario is where parent volunteers are available for a few days to assist a number of children with their projects by simply using an Inquiry-Based methodology. All they have to do is ask the children questions that might cause them to think about their work in a new way.
11. Allow enough time for students to do something meaningful. When Dr. Bobek used to teach science, she set aside six weeks for what she called her “Science Research Project.” This was like a science fair project, but it did not involve a dog and pony show where children were trying to create the flashiest, crowd-pleasing spectacle. Instead she allowed students to choose their own projects and freely investigate their curiosities during school hours.
What can parents do?
1. Parents can volunteer to help with the fair at school. There are numerous ways to do this, even if you don’t have a background in science. You could supervise students during lab time, representing a mature, adult presence. Or, you could assist teachers and students when the day of the fair comes, by baking brownies, promoting the event on social media or email, helping to direct traffic in the parking lot, setting up tables in the cafeteria, greeting visitors as they come in and then cleaning up afterward.
2. You could donate materials or funds to the school for the explicit purpose of the science fair. Dr. Bobek suggests that “Budgets need to be available for the purchase of supplies, particularly consumables.” This can help to eliminate the possibility that some students might buy their science fair projects with their parents’ money, while others are embarrassed by lackluster homemade prototypes.
3. Parents with backgrounds in science and technology could become mentors to specific projects, sponsor field trips to their workplaces or serve as judges for the final event.
4. You can simply attend the event, buy some baked goods at the door, walk around, looking at all the projects and ask students questions about their projects. And smile while doing all this. Then, thank the teachers who were involved for putting the whole thing together. These curriculum units and culminating events require significant effort, and WAY MORE work to do so in a meaningful way.
5. It’s best if parents significantly limit their involvement in their own child’s project. It’s ok, for parents to inquire about them, to encourage their ideas and their work, but children should not need their parents to successfully complete the science fair project.
Science fairs can be positive, meaningful and educational experiences, but often they are not. With minimal planning and reflection, with purpose, with simple communication and coordination, pitfalls can be avoided and this project-based-learning activity can enhance science education, instead of being a burden.