Wednesday, June 10, 2015

One thing I don't miss while homeschooling:

The mandatory science fair project.

But here's a great idea for a project:

Is holding a middle school science fair a worthwhile endeavor? A team of science educators and researchers funded by a $2 million National Science Foundation grant is hoping to find out.

The group is collecting data on science fairs' cost effectiveness, as well as their impact on learning and on students' interest in science.
According to Abigail Jurist Levy, the principal research scientist for the four-year project, "Science Fairs Under the 'Scope," science fairs have "never been really rigorously researched":
"As valued as they are by some, and as criticized as they are by others, we really don't know what they offer students in terms of learning experiences and engendering enthusiasm in science."
(Education Week)
Here's another science project idea, courtesy the Huffington Post:

From Susan Messina, designer of the above poster:
Any elementary school project that requires a lot of parental time, energy, resources, support, cajoling and financial investment is just BAD. Such projects privilege students from higher-income families for all the obvious reasons.
They also privileged the extraverted and artistic self-starters over other types of students (among them, some of our future scientists).


Auntie Ann said...

At our school that depends entirely on the expectations of the parents...which means that our kids take it very seriously and actually learn something. One of our kids wrote an 11 page research paper in 4th grade on the history of clocks, from sundials through atomic clocks. Last year he did a cloud chamber, and I made him do serious research about radiation.

Our other kid had a great experiment in 5th grade that we couldn't find anywhere on the internet: if you drop a soda can, how long do you have to wait before you can safely open it? (Turns out, unless it's 7-up which is extra-fizzy, usually less than a minute.) We talked about how to make the drops consistent and built a device to make every drop the same. She took notes and documented each stage of the experiment, etc. We made sure she learned about carbonation, dissolved gasses, and the effects on temperature on dissolved gasses.


Last year, the crowd favorite was titled: "Will there be pesto after the apocalypse?" (the kid put a basil plant in the microwave among other horticultural tortures.)

This year's hot topic was: hey, did you know tonic water glows in black light!? Which was done by three different 7th graders. One two-person group went the extra mile and made jello with the tonic water, but the other just had glasses of tonic water and a black light.

None of the kids could explain *why* the tonic water glowed.

So, as much as I like the work our kids did on it, in general, our school's newly re-named "STEAM Expo" is useless.

lgm said...

Susan Messina sounds like she does not believe that the unprivileged will ever learn the skills the privileged have already learned. So which is it...poor teaching or students too brain damaged to learn? If it is the former, why do they have a job? If it is the latter, why are they placed inappropriately?

My only problem with science fair in elementary is the cutthroat competitive parents. I want the whole thing recorded, and I want them and their offspring prosecuted when they bully other students physically or verbally, and damage displays.

Anonymous said...

A huge amount of science privileges extroverted self-starters (and artistic matters, too, if we extend it to including good writing and storytelling and presentation).

My issue with science fairs is that in the younger grades they really simulate science, rather than do science. That's fine, if everyone understands that's what they're doing, but not if they think of the experiment as doing real science (which means new discoveries).

Anonymous said...

My kids go to a Title 1 elementary school in California where they do a science fair project in the 5th grade. It is just a school project that is displayed at Open House and that isn't entered in any competition.

Teachers there were frustrated by a couple things:
1.) In the past, there were some parents who just did the science fair for their kids.
2.) The kids who had no help and no resources at home had a hard time competing against the kids who had help and resources at home.

The teachers decided to have the science fair done entirely in the classroom.

I'm happy that I didn't have to do the science fair with my kid, because my experience with the science fair as a child involved being yelled at a lot. There are disadvantages of doing the science fair through the school, though. The school has low expectations and a weak feedback loop, so the quality of my daughter's project was not very good. She and her friend did it all by themselves, with the teacher facilitating, but I'm not sure that she learned as much as she would have if she had done it at home.

S Goya said...

Like everything, the value of a science fair project depends a whole lot on the skills of the teacher.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

As a long-time science fair judge, I disagree with the comment "They also privileged the extraverted and artistic self-starters over other types of students (among them, some of our future scientists)." In my experience, introverts tend to do better at science fair, because they stick with working on their project rather than socializing with friends. (Students who were painfully shy did have some difficulty with presenting at science fair, but this is a different matter than introversion.) Artistic skills have only a small effect on a properly run science fair—a neat job is generally preferable to a messy one, but routine organization is preferred over 'artsy' presentations.

The most serious charge that can be accurately leveled at science fairs is that they privilege the children of scientists and engineers—not because the parents do the work for the kids (indeed, the scientists and engineers tend to be the most resistant to doing their kids work for them), but because the parent know what an experiment consists of, how to set up controls, how to make meaningful measurements, and how to do at least rudimentary statistical analysis of the results. They teach these things to their children, but the children of other parents have no access to the teaching, because their parents and teachers never learned it or never learned to value it.

Katharine Beals said...

@gasstationwithoutpumps, I appreciate your perspective as a science fair judge. However, it's important to recognize that the judging-by-scientists phase is only the final step in the process.

Science fair finalists are often filtered by teachers, and, sometimes, by the popular vote of classmates. As you note, teachers may not value the same things that scientists value. At the earlier stages, extraversion and showiness may be decisive.

Shyness isn't the only factor that causes difficulty presenting at fairs; communication skills are also important, and these tend to be more developed in extraverts (and neurotypicals) than in introverts (and those on the autistic spectrum).

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

Communication skills do matter, and those with serious communication disorders will not do well at science fair, but Asperger's Syndrome (the mildest end of the autistic spectrum) may actually be an advantage at science fair, as some of the judges could be diagnosed with it. The extreme attention to a single subject can be an asset on a science fair project, if the attention is appropriately directed.

Your point about the judging at lower-level fairs is well taken. I've judged at a few school-level fairs also, and have seen some inappropriate criteria being used (social class, gender, clothing, …), though generally only by novice judges who were not given proper instruction. The biggest problem I've seen with science-fair judging is the difficulty some judges have distinguishing student work with mentoring from parental work. I've seen exceptional student work that was clearly done by the student (on close questioning) dismissed as parental work, and parental work treated as if it was the student's own work. The purpose of the verbal questioning at science fair is largely to make this distinction, not to determine the student's performance skills.