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General Science and Teaching

There Has to Be Something Other Than a Science Fair

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Netosh Jones Netosh Jones 4680 Points

Hi Adah How are you now? (smile) I can understand why one can become a little overwhelmed with the Science Fair bug due to "that seems to be the only [/color]way to have students come together across the city and share, as well as compete" in a civil environment. However, I really like your thinking about other ways for students to have a great support system (themselves) and share their discoveries and knowledge. Perhaps a museum of sorts would be a good idea, one that can last all year long. I just returned from China with NSTA and science fairs are the true nature of "schools" throughout the universe (it seems). Parents were very excited about helping their child(ren) with their project(s), just like in these United States. Students were excited about sharing with us and I loved their energy!!! I think science fairs can have a negative or positive manner on students. Last year, my school hadn't had a science fair in well over 7 years. My co-worker and I are the science co-chairs at our school because we both have our STEM Certification from NASA Endeavor Fellow/Teachers Colleg Columbia University. Now, it's science, science, engineering, and more green school ideas. For us, science and engineering fair and demonstrations from scientists and engineers (National Lab Day) had a great impact on all of us at my school!! I hope you will find a way to involve another teammate at your school who is as open minded and cooperative with students as you are!! Good Luck.

Netosh Jones Netosh Jones 4680 Points

Hi Adah How ya doin'? Thanks for replying. Have you gone on the National Lab Day site? Do so and register your project for your school or class. You can then (with colleagues) map out a great Science and Engineering Fair. The NLD people will select scientists and engineers for you to choose from and you'll contact them through email. Then ask for phone numbers, office numbers, schedules, and do invite them to become "partners" with your school. Any other help needed, contact me. nj

Kathleen Gorski Kathleen Gorski 9310 Points

Hi Adah,

Via another discussion, Netosh asked me to jump in.... I have to tell you that I am of your thinking about most science fairs; I abhor the ones I've been involved in as a student; and many of the ones I'd been to as a teacher. And for the same reasons you've cited.

That said, I recognize the value of the process, and know that kids can enjoy the ability to show off their work.

So.... My thoughts are, too, like yours to find some workarounds. But I think what has to happen is that it needs a big redesign. I have found that many of the kids who don't like it are those that a) don't have the support at home for school work generally b) aren't interested in science (legitimately or not yet) and feel that the grading/awarding structure does not value their talents c) don't have the resources to present the high polished end product that some of their peers can and d) otherwise struggle with academics.

What to do? IMHO opinion, we need to remove as many of the stressors as we can, and make it about the science and not the competition. How?
1) Make sure there are options (as many as you are comfortable with... robots vs plants vs chemistry type things - building vs experimentation, etc.)
2) Make sure that they get to display and explain their work to a wider audience than just their classmates - and make it independent of who might go to a higher level fair. Consider tapping into local colleges; your own or other school classes - find a display area where boards might be displayed for a while - rotate them if necessary. (your library... school or town... foyer, etc. Get more people involved.
2a) Many colleges around me do a 'hands on science night' through one of the science clubs - maybe you can tap into that.
2b) Contact your local chapters of professional organizations (NSTA, American Chemical Society, etc) and even businesses for your event/display. You won't get hoards, but even a couple of folks who came even though they don't know the kids will do wonders for the kids (and you will reap the benefit in class later on).
3) Make sure everyone gets an acknowledgement of their work and gets to display. As you so rightly pointed out, the kid that had the lousy looking board with not too much flash, just might be the kid who really did all their own work and have a better understanding of their work and the NOS than the kid that had lots of parental input.
4) Let the parents know of your 'less competitive approach' Give them the rubric. If you must have some competition aspect - create a voting ballot and let EVERYONE vote - those who visit and view (give some voting categories/criteria) I think you will be pleased that there will be a fair distribution of 'winners' if you provide the criteria.
5) Make the project as much about the process and Nature of Science rather than just the content and 'success.' In accordance with this, let me say that I have been a judge for the Connecticut Invention Convention for they last 14 years. I absolutely love their approach to the whole 'fair' thing.

A couple of my own examples:
- When I worked at a very poor middle school school, I made sure that they had the materials AND time to do their work at school - I made sure they were helped and coached through the research phase. This had a great positive impact on their engagement. And they felt they really owned the work.
- My school also had midterms and finals for our students (gr 5-8) Before you say 'OMG finals for a 5th grader!!!' - we had designed 'cumulative projects' for 5th & 6th graders, where the kids worked in teams during the 7th & 8th grade exam periods to create a project that demonstrated understanding of concepts and skills used in their classes. (We paired science and math, language arts and social studies, etc.) They loved it; and then we had a 'viewing.' The best attendees were the 7th and 8th graders, because they felt it was such a great experience 'in their day' and wanted to 'give props' to the younger kids.
- I did have by 8th graders exhibit their robots (LEGO mindstorms) from their tech classes at a local college. It was a grand experience for everyone.

Hope these give you some ideas - there have been some good rubrics and links posted on the NSTA email listserves. It'd take me a day or two to cull through them, but if you need them, let me know.

kathy g

Netosh Jones Netosh Jones 4680 Points

Hi Adah see, you are not alone!!!! Thanks for an interesting topic to discuss. netosh

Kate Geer Kate Geer 7865 Points

I am involved in a project that seeks to create more of an inquiry conference than a traditional science fair. Students are still engaged in an authentic scientific investigation, but instead of participating in a traditional science fair at the end, the final product is more of a conference, modeled after a conference that real scientists would go to, with a keynote speaker, poster sessions, and presentations. Here is a link to a book that we have used as a reference:
Beyond the Science Fair

This is a pilot project so I am always interested to hear what others are doing as well so we can improve upon these experiences for our students.

Chauntia Bego Chauntia Bego 810 Points

Hi Adah, You have raised a great point about science airs. It seems what has made science fair successful were the involvement of parents and other stakeholders. I'm in a school where the parents don't get excited about science fair and as a result the students don't either. I really like the ideas that have been given. I am definitely going to try some of these out, they will greatly impact students learning the process of science inquiry. Thank you for the great discussion, Chauntia Bego

Carolyn Mohr Carolyn Mohr 92316 Points

Did anyone catch President Obama's mention of science fairs in his State of the Union address Tuesday night? We mustn't forget that this is one of the ways a few of our deserving students do get some local, state, and even national recognition for their science achievements. Having been intricately involved in the science fair process at local, regional and state levels, I know that some of my students' experiences helped to determine what they went on to study in college. I agree that it has its downside. But for those students who take off on a research problem and see it through to receive the accolades for a project well done, they feel like they have accomplished something very special - and they have! It is nice to have the venue to provide recognition for those students who deserve recognition. I see our jobs as science teachers as including ways to provide recognition for our students who go above and beyond in their pursuit of science learning. ( I agree that many science fairs as we know them, are laiden with problems that muddy the waters, so to speak. We can't throw out the bath water with the baby in it, can we?)

Nancy Bort Nancy Bort 7025 Points

I also loathe science fair BUT I do see its benefit for many of our students in the form of scholarships, internships, recogonition from various societies, etc. I also see a benefit for the student on a personal level of self confidence, job well done, etc. I have actually had a student who failed science for the year but won at our district fair and then went on to regionals in the Intel Science Fair. His mother thanked me profusely for encouraging him to do the fair. There are tons of alternatives to science fair! Everyday I receive at least two announcements about some other sort of science competition. it is mind-numbing and since my district supports the Intel Science Fair, that is where I put my efforts. In the past, there have been suggestions for an invention type competition and a science expo: not necessarily experimental in nature as most science fairs are. Some neat competitions that have crossed my computer: Cybermission, Toyota Tapestry, and several others. I am sure that you could find numerous others if your students are interested. I find it very difficult to motivate students to compete in science with everything else they have going on in their lives. Something that I started about 14 years ago was to change the "spin" on a science fair project. Just the mention of science fair seems to give everyone (me included!) the heebie jeebies!! In Virgiinia, all students at a secondary level have a standard that specifies doing independent experimentation. All my students must do an Individual Research Project (the IRP) which must be experimental, i.e include independent and dependent variables. Only a few of these will go to science fair. It seems to take the worry out of the project. Plus, it has a silly name, "IRP," and students seem to respond to that. I retain veto power over any IRP done. I teach my students something called the Four Question Strategy to help them get an idea for an experiment. This is actually online and you can google to find it. I find it works like magic if it is done and used correctly! We spend time in class practicing how to use it and see how it works in action. I find I also get more original projects than having them do online searches of science fair sites. The other thing I do that seems to help the students, is to collect each little step of what they do so I can make corrections and help them to have a quality completed project. We start on this in September and the experiment needs to be completed by Winter Vacation (December). The hardest part is to come up with an idea. Once they get that, it is pretty much smooth sailing. I also require them to do some background research on their topic which helps them to find out what they need to do and steers them in their hypothesis. Intel also requires them to have 5 outside sources so this gets that out of the way. I think the main thing we as science teachers need to do is to stand in a unified front to stop so many of the stale, hackneyed projects that so many students try to resort to! I veto any project about diapers holding water, which detergent gets the stain out, volcanoes (REALLY??), or putting things like toothpaste on a plant. I try to have them do some experiment that might have some sort of relevance in real life. One of my students (after a great deal of revision with my input) measured the effect of temperature on viscosity of motor oil to relate to winter engine efficiency. This was not her original idea. She wanted to time a marble moving through corn syrup and a few other liquids. I tried to get her to see that she could use the idea of viscosity in a more relevant way.

Carolyn Mohr Carolyn Mohr 92316 Points

I was invited to judge two different school science fairs this month. I was not only impressed by the caliber of the projects, but I also was encouraged by the poise and expertise each of the students demonstrated as they made their presentations to those of us who judged. Thank you to all of the science teachers who, even though deep in their hearts they despise the time and work it involves and the lack of appreciation they experience, get through the process with their students to provide this experience for their budding scientists. Carolyn

Nancy Bort Nancy Bort 7025 Points

Thank you for the vote of confidence. I agree that once it is all done, there are more benefits than drawbacks. Much gnashing of teeth, pulling of hair, but like childbirth, once it is done you forget the pain! Focus on the positives!

Sue Garcia Sue Garcia 42675 Points

Ah-h-h..."to Science Fair" or "not to Science Fair", that is the question. It was asked 7 or 8 years ago in our middle school. The teachers were so upset about the parents (and their participation) that they decided to get rid of the traditional form of science fair. Instead, throughout the entire year, students saved examples of some of their best projects/labs that were created. Then one evening in the spring, each student exhibited their project/lab results during our Spring Science Extravaganza. Each student was required to attend 30 minutes at a table where several other students were exhibiting the same project/lab. During the Extravaganza, parents, siblings, friends, and members of the community got to walk around among the exhibits and ask the students about their findings. The students were asked to present their findings to the many people who came to see the exhibits. It was wonderful. The students were proud of what they were exhibiting because they had a choice in what they wanted to show and because they actually were the true originators of the project/labs-they knew their facts. One comment heard over and over was..."I'm so glad that I didn't have to do another science fair project!"...from the parents. Students wishing to exhibit in the more traditional science fair were given opportunities that allowed them to compete outside of the district.

Dat Le Dat Le 21565 Points

I think science projects can be wonderful if done correctly. The biggest challenge for most students is finding a project idea. Try collaboration between teachers of discipline to provide students support for all components of the project. Math teacher help with analyzing data- keyboarding teacher help with powerpoint slides-- english teacher help with writing research paper, etc.

Nancy Bort Nancy Bort 7025 Points

Absolutely! The hardest part if finding an idea for an experiment. I suggest looking into the four question strategy as it also maps out independent and then dependent variables. I do it with the whole class and then we also have each group sometimes select a "what do I have?" to complete an in class experiment. 4 Questions are: What do I have? What does it do? What can I change (IV)? What can I observe or measure (DV)? You do it in columns across a page. List as many things in the first column as you can think of. Then circle one of them and go on to second column and list as many as you can think of. Continue to the what can I change and repeat with another circled selection. In the last column, you can list as many ways to measure/observe but no need to select only one. This is a good way to set up an idea. It will not provide a plan for the experiment--just a basis. Yes, do involve English teachers and math teacher. Our problem is that we need to do the research section very early in the year and the English teachers cannot do research at that time with our classes. It still all works. The actual research paper part is fairly minor in significance compared with the actual experiment. I have my students turn in each little step of the project so I can correct them and have them make the corrections before the final project. It works great if they do as they are supposed to do and honor due dates.

Katherine Willet Katherine Zimmerman 21340 Points

Do any of you have a committee of parent and community members who advice the Science department? That is what I am fighting against. We have a committee of community members and parents that advise the Science Director about what the science teachers should be doing. Most of these committee members are research scientists, and they enjoyed the science fair. They do not understand all of the background work teachers have to do for a science fair to occur, and that there are some students who loathe the science fair. This committee is wanting to make every students 7th-12th grade participate in their school science fairs. As the science fair director and department chair I am freaked out by that requirement. Organizing and helping students develop projects now is so much extra work, and I only have about 1/2 of my students participating in the fair. Any suggestions of how to help the committee understand the implication of their requests? As is, I do not begin covering my specific topics until 2+ months into school, because the beginning of the year is just getting kids started on science fair.

Nancy Bort Nancy Bort 7025 Points

Wow--a parent committee of research scientists. We fortunately do not have parents involved at that level. I do think every child needs to do a project on their own--it does not need to be judged in a fair. I think that is where we all get crazy! Also, the idea of putting things on a display board! I collect the project in a paper format (not on a board) and in some cases, I have told the student not to put it on a board. The important part of this is to do an individual research project of an experimental nature (variable tested). I gave up calling it "science fair" several years ago and that seems to take some of the angst out of it. We do not have a fair within my school, though, another middle school in the district does. I select which of my student's projects will go on to the district science fair to be judged for further advancement within the Intel system. This seems to work fine. I also then try to work with those students individually to make sure that they have the best project ever.

Katherine Willet Katherine Zimmerman 21340 Points

Nancy, Do you ever have parent push back from you choosing which projects go on to the county fair? That is one thing we have talked about at my school. As seventh grade teachers we require all of the kids to do a project for class, but they do not have to go to the school science fair. The way things are set up now, the top 20 projects from the school science fair go on to the county fair. We have talked about trying to eliminate the school fair (if we can with the committee wanting us to do it!). We would choose the projects to go on as a group of teachers instead. I am worried about the parents questioning the choices of students selected by the teachers. What response have you had from parents? Thanks, Katie

Lara Smetana Lara Smetana 6260 Points

Sue described a key component of her school's fair: 'During the Extravaganza, parents, siblings, friends, and members of the community got to walk around among the exhibits and ask the students about their findings. The students were asked to present their findings to the many people who came to see the exhibits.'
A science fair or science inquiry event can be an ideal opportunity for students to talk about their work, explain and defend their claims and conclusions. I'd love to hear more about how folks involve their students in talking about, explaining and defending, their claims and conclusions. How do you prepare your students for this part of the process?
This is an area I believe the local science fair that I am involved in has made great progress in , but continues to work on. Thank you for any tips you have to share from your experience.

Lara Smetana Lara Smetana 6260 Points

Having been a long-time skeptic of science fairs, I can absolutely understand the frustrations that have been shared in this discussion. My experience with the New Haven Science Fair program has given me new hope for what these events can mean for students, families and the greater community. I invite you to see what we've been up to here:

Maureen Stover Maureen Stover 41070 Points

by Adah Stock, Tue Jan 04, 2011 9:55 AM
Does anyone else have an alternative to the Science Fair?
Hi Adah and all the other posters,

There have been some great alternatives to traditional science fairs presented on this thread! Last year I coordinated a school science fair in conjunction with a Family Science Night at my K-4 elementary school. Students in grades K-3 did a class science project and 4th graders did individual projects. On the project due date, we had a Family Science Night. I put together 20 hands on science experiments that parents could do with children. Each family got a 'Science Passport' that included directions to each experiment and space to draw pictures and record results. Families could work through the stations at their own pace. All of the science fair projects were on display in the library and our science lab was open so the students could show parents where they went to science and their lab journal. It was a great event and the students and parents loved it!

The event was such a success that this year I'm expanding it to include a family egg-drop contest. I attached the NASA educator sheet that details this project. I am also putting together a Family Star Party where parents and students will have an opportunity to learn about astronomy.

Thanks for all the other ideas!



Nancy Bort Nancy Bort 7025 Points

Katie, We have never had parents pushing about who goes to the fair. We almost have the opposite problem! I will select a student's project that is well done and is competitive, but the student does not want to go to the fair. Usually, if I call the parents, it is resolved, but on some occasions the parent says that the student does not need to go. Or, they drag their feet on getting paperwork in and miss the deadlines. We did have a very serious parent problem one year, created by a negligent teacher, in which the student did a project that would never had gotten approval from IRP much less SRC. He was comparing student's weight to their GPA???!!! A real no no. He "won" at a little grade level fair and was going on to the district level when we realized it could not go forward. His mother said that we were being racially biased. She pushed the issue which unfortunately got dumped on our district curriculum person by the administrator. The result was that the student was able to go to the district fair but the judges were warned ahead of time and the project was not "really judged." A real travesty. BUT, caused by a teacher not following protocol. We had a situation this year when we were reviewing the registration forms, that a student had done a project that could not be accepted, BUT they had gotten IRB approval. He changed what he actually did in the project from what he said he would do!! Another issue--projects are approved but then a student changes it. We do have some issues with parents at the one of our middle schools as they are the "hard chargers" and really push their kids. In my school, we do not have this problem. I occasionally have difficulty in which the parent tires to help the child but does not understand what is going on. Not too serious, and can usually be rectified with some diplomacy. My other concern is often with the judges who do not really know what they are viewing. We have had students win who actually did a project different from what they are displaying. I only know this because I was involved. A judge would not know this. Judging also works against the student who might have a really terrific project and did it all themselves, but cannot articulate very well what they did. This often happens with my special needs students.

Lara Smetana Lara Smetana 6260 Points

Maureen, Thank you for sharing your experiences with alternative events geared towards our younger learners! NSTA also has some resources for this age group. One that I have most enjoyed is about a Kinder Science Fair that involves students in not only scientific endeavors, but also reflecting on their experiences. Another, more appropriate for middle and upper grades, is use of the Argument-Driven Inquiry (ADI) instructional model. This article describes the model, as well as how it promotes reading and writing across the curriculum. Both of these examples I like because they give teachers options for encouraging the same sort of authentic, extended inquiry experiences that science fairs ideally promote, but within the regular classroom.


A Kinder-Science Fair (Journal Article)

Jan Tuomi Jan Tuomi 1330 Points

I am a big believer in Science Olympiads. I'm attaching a link to a brochure about them. I first experienced an Olympiad when I was a science supervisor about 15 years ago. They emphasize team work, can be a great parent involvement opportunity, and let creative kids shine. Hosting an Olympiad is also an extremely viable idea to sell to community partners to sponsor. Here is the link to cut and paste if my attachment doesn't work.

Dorian Janney Dorian Janney 10505 Points

This is a very interesting discussion here, and I found myself agreeing with so many sides of what different people posted here. I have been involved, as a parent and as a teacher, in a great many different variations of science fairs. I must say that I really like the apporach that Maureen used:

Maureen wrote: [i]There have been some great alternatives to traditional science fairs presented on this thread! Last year I coordinated a school science fair in conjunction with a Family Science Night at my K-4 elementary school. Students in grades K-3 did a class science project and 4th graders did individual projects. On the project due date, we had a Family Science Night. I put together 20 hands on science experiments that parents could do with children. Each family got a 'Science Passport' that included directions to each experiment and space to draw pictures and record results. Families could work through the stations at their own pace. All of the science fair projects were on display in the library and our science lab was open so the students could show parents where they went to science and their lab journal. It was a great event and the students and parents loved it!

The event was such a success that this year I'm expanding it to include a family egg-drop contest. I attached the NASA educator sheet that details this project. I am also putting together a Family Star Party where parents and students will have an opportunity to learn about astronomy.

I like it on a variety of levels. If our main goal is to educate and inspire cross-generational groups in the wonders of science and engineering- this approach can't be beat! I like the idea of coming together as a community to celebrate exploration and to share in- in a variety of ways; be it standing by a poster or doing a skit or creating robots to perform a task or having students engaged in two sides of a debate; the engaging nature of science. When it becomes an organizational nightmare- for students, parents, and teachers, is where we begin to wonder if it is worthwhile.

Great stimulating conversations here! i love hearing the pros and cons and the experiences of so many different teachers from so many different settings. What a fabulous opportunity we have on this site to share and consider options outside of our immediate realm.

Manuel Vasquez Manuel Vasquez 1950 Points

If you’re looking for something different in science fairs.... Science Scope highlights the next generation of E- Learning Science Fairs replacing the traditional fair using technology integration & innovation with the new E-Learing Science (ELSF) developed by middle school teachers. I provided the journal below.


Carolyn Mohr Carolyn Mohr 92316 Points

Hi Manny, I have read that particular article, too. It sounded intriguing, so I went to the website mentioned in the article. It led me to a Virtual School webpage and then to the U.S. Dept of State. I was unable to access anything that had to do with science fairs. If anyone has any information on virtual science fairs, please let me know. With today's technology available to so many, I would think it would open up a whole new venue for students to get involved. Katherine, I know a little about the stress you must be feeling from the parental pressure of offering science fair opportunities to all the students. In some schools, sponsors are awarded stipends to spend time before and after school to help a group of students. Teacher sponsors did not have to be just science teachers. With a little training, the work load was distributed to other disciplines. Also, some schools integrated science fair skills - in other words, the language arts teachers taught research skills and proofread our students' reviews of literature and math teachers helped with student data analyses. I don't know if any of those ideas are options for your school or not. It is a thought. Jan, I love science olympiads, too. I don't see them as taking the place of a science fair project, but it is another way to get some students excited about doing science.

Donald Boonstra Donald Boonstra 8585 Points

Another very successful alternative to the science fair in a Kids' Inquiry Conference (KIC) developed by Dr. Wendy Saul at University of Maryland- Baltimore County. In her model 5 middle schools participated, but I have seen smaller - one school versions. KIC is modeled after a science conference in which students present their research in concurrent sessions and demonstration/poster sessions. They also invite someone to do a Keynote. I attended several of these and I was impressed. The students did all of the inquiry (research) in the classroom. A Google search will produce the original KIC program and many other web pages from schools that do KIC. You will also find Dr. Saul's book. It is a very dynamic model the reinforces inquiry and collegiality and gets rid of the competition.

Kathy Renfrew Kathy Renfrew 37248 Points

Don, I have read Wendy's book and I held a modified KIC while I was still in the classroom. I would love to have the opportunity to go back and try it again. Although I think the book was intended for elementary students, I would love to see a high school teacher take this on. I think they and the students would be pleasantly surprised with the results. Kathy

Kevin Newman Kevin Newman 610 Points

How is a Science Olympiad different than a Science Fair? My students have issues with even doing a science fair project. Mostly because no one has ever expected them to or even had them write up science labs in lower grades. This has so far been a year of learning with these students what they have been taught before so I can try and get them where they should be. Was hoping that Sciecne fair would help generate interest and drive but so far that has not been the case.

Carolyn Mohr Carolyn Mohr 92316 Points

Hi Kevin,
Science Olympiad has been around for about 30 years. Check out the Science Olympiad website. Some states are more organized than others, but you can find information about your state's participation at the above URL. A school usually has one or two teams that consist of 10 to 20 students. When I was a coach, I conducted it as an after school science club option. Other schools incorporate the activities into their science curriculum. The activities cover many different science concentrations and allow for individual students with specific interests to 'specialize' for an event. I hope you will check out the website. It will answer a lot of your questions. Feel free to ask those questions you still might have. The first year my school did not compete in the regional competition. It is helpful to go observe a regional or state competition if you have one near you. The national site may have individuals nearby that you can contact as well.

Maureen Stover Maureen Stover 41070 Points

Hello Fellow Posters, This has evolved into a fantastic thread with loads of great ideas and resources! I have just been asked to help a friend coordinate a [b]Super Science Saturday Carnival[b] at our local elementary school. We will have "Carnival Games" that all relate back to scientific principles. The kids will have a blast playing and learning! The idea to host this event was just hatched, so we are still in the initial planning stages, but I have visited many of of the websites and used several of the resources shared here to begin coming up with Science Carnival Games. I will let you all know how it goes! Thanks, Maureen

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