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An Insider's Guide to Surviving the School Science Fair

A scientist-educator-mom shares top tactics for success, from choosing a great project to helping kids work independently and more

Published on: February 22, 2016

Science fair season begins with high enthusiasm and good intentions but — all too often — parents and kids end up stressed, competitive and unhappy. Is it even worth it? Absolutely! This is the one opportunity your kids have to experience the active process of science, the same process that ignites the passion of scientists around the world.

As a scientist, science educator, science-fair judge and mother, I've been asked many science-fair questions over the years. Below are answers to some of the most common questions, aimed at helping families not just survive the school science fair but also to truly enjoy it and even learn something.

Why do science fairs matter?

Science is not a collection of facts or even a hands-on demonstration. It's an activity — a process for asking and answering questions about the world around us. And science fairs are often the only time kids truly do science. Through their projects, students get a taste of what it’s like to be a scientist, from the highs of learning something new to the challenges of explaining complex logic to the frustrations of lost notes, broken equipment and confusing results. It’s both hard and fun!

Science fairs are an opportunity to foster a love of science and an understanding of how the scientific process can be used to study absolutely anything.

This is the one opportunity your kids have to experience the active process of science, the same process that ignites the passion of scientists around the world.

How can I help my student choose a good science-fair project?

A good project is one your scientist is excited about. Great projects I've seen at science fairs include: 

  • “Is there a difference between how fast I can ski with ski wax and without ski wax?”

  • “Do kids who have read Harry Potter do better on vocabulary tests than kids who haven’t read Harry Potter?”

  • “Is there a difference between the height of grass grown under a regular light bulb versus a green light bulb?” 

What makes these great questions is that they are low-tech and kid-generated through sincere curiosity. They also make one explicit and interesting comparison. In each case, results will be one quantitative measurement per observation: time in minutes to ski down a particular slope, score on a vocabulary test, average height in centimeters of the blades of grass in a small cup. Replication is easy and the project will not be too time-intensive.

Notice that these questions weren’t found in a book; they aren’t trying to answer a complicated question and they aren’t intended to demonstrate something everyone already knows.

High school students could work on similar but more complex projects with more replication and control of nuisance factors, perhaps more sophisticated measurement systems, and a stronger connection to well-known scientific concepts.

How can I make sure that science learning happens? 

First, remember that science learning tends to happen through the process, not the content, of the project. Simplicity wins. 

Harness your child's finely tuned sense of fairness to understand and use the scientific method. With regard to the projects listed above, they could consider questions such as whether it's fair to only collect ski data during night skiing, or whether a regular light bulb can be fairly compared to a green light bulb if the regular one is hotter. Before your child begins, brainstorm “what if” scenarios to talk about fairness. No need to sit down and grill your student, just chat casually in the car, at the store or at bedtime.

Let students learn from their mistakes and report their results honestly. Your scientist doesn’t need to discover gravity or unearth the secrets of photosynthesis. A successful project is when kids walk away wishing that they could have measured more ski runs or readers and when they finish with a clear understanding of how they could have been less biased or more accurate. 

How do I help my kids complete their projects (relatively) independently?

Again, keep it simple and fun. If they don’t understand it, they can’t do it independently. And if they don’t care about it, they won’t want to do it independently.

Similarly, avoid the competitive urge. While complex projects do impress some judges, kid-driven, thoughtful projects are the ones kids can complete themselves.

As in real science, there is often a maddening amount of tedious work, from cutting to recording data. Offer to work under your child’s leadership to make the boring parts more manageable. This is not to be confused with orchestrating the project for your child.

Help your child break the project into manageable chunks and choose a schedule that fits with your child's personality and your family's schedule. Dedicating an entire weekend is a great fit for some families; others may choose to work in short bursts over several weeks. In either case, leave plenty of time.

How can I help my child have fun the night of the event?

Be positive and enthusiastic. Talk to your students about their projects in advance so they feel confident and ready to talk with the judges. Ask questions that help them think about what they've learned with respect to both the process and the topic.

At the fair, ask other students questions and encourage other parents to jump in as well with supportive, enthusiastic questions. Most importantly, be proud!

What if my child's school doesn't host a science fair?

You can always do a science project just for fun! If your child is young, you could even host a science night with just a few other families. There are also plenty of regional science fairs, such as Bellevue College Science Fair or PLU Science Fair.

In Washington State, anyone can attend the Washington State Science and Engineering Fair (WSSEF) held in Bremerton each spring. 

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