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End the Torture of Science Fairs

April 23, 2018 / by Liza Rickey

Tch Next Gen Science Squad

Yellow, trifold Science Fair poster that reads, "How Much Turmoil Does the Science Project Cause Families?"As a classroom teacher, I used to require all of my fourth and fifth grade students to complete a formal science fair presentation following the scientific process with a tri-fold board and a classroom competition. I made it a big deal and organized many school-wide science fairs with elaborate themes and events. My intent was to get students and our community engaged and excited about science.

When my own children started participating in science fairs, I learned that my actual impact looked a little less like engagement and excitement, and a little more like torture -- for the whole family! I was definitely not my best parenting self while trying to coerce my own children to finish their projects, and I realized that it’s time for a science fair revolution.

Check out this hilarious article by Susan Messina, creator of the turmoil project

Time for A Shift

The shift from a strict adherence to the scientific process to the Science and Engineering Practices should be reflected in our school science events. There are eight practices and only one of them is Planning and Carrying Out Investigations.

It’s time to broaden our view of a science fair, just like we’ve broadened our definition of the practices.

The "scientific method" makes science into a series of rigid steps -- and can lead students to disengage. In contrast, the Science and Engineering Practices highlight how science is a highly social, creative, and iterative problem-solving process, involving a variety of different kinds of intellectual work.

District Event Approach

Advertisement for a school-wide STEMposium event on February 15, 2018.Issaquah School District decided to start highlighting the amazing STEM work that was happening in classrooms, clubs, and organizations in our community in a district-wide event.

We invited teachers and their students to showcase how they integrate STEM skills and knowledge. In addition to classroom booths, STEM-related industries shared recent work in their respective fields.

Here's a video walkthrough of our first annual STEMposium.

Highlights included student "STEM Ambassadors" presenting at booths using a variety of methods, including videos, boards, and hands-on demonstrations.

The topics ranged from engineering to computer science, environmental advocacy to robotics, and various scientific disciplines. We invited all levels -- kindergarten through high school -- to present. This was our inaugural event and I'm excited to report that there were over 500 people in attendance!

School-Based Approach

Many elementary and middle schools still hold traditional science fairs. This year, numerous schools in my district asked how they could adapt their long-standing science fair into a STEM Fair. There is clearly an interest in change, but not a wealth of resources available.

If you’d like to shift your science fair to a STEM fair, here are some ideas I’ve gathered through research and collaboration with peers.

Science Fair vs. Stem Fair infographic that compares and contrasts the two events.

Broadening Topics

Link the STEM fair topic to units of study already happening in the classroom.

  • Investigating phenomenon
  • Engineering solutions to real-world problems
  • Using computer science and coding to solve problems

Project Characteristics

  • Real-world connection
  • Collaborative
  • Majority of the work is done in the classroom to ensure equity
  • Student voice, choice, and advocacy is embedded
  • Learning focused, not product focused
  • Many opportunities for students to revise scientific thinking and reasoning
  • STEM career connection with diverse representation

Presentation Opportunities

  • Posters or tri-fold boards
  • Digital presentations or videos
  • Coding platforms, such as Scratch
  • Prototypes, inventions, or model

Assessment

  • Formative assessment embedded throughout the process
  • Clear rubric with a few focused assessment standards
  • Standards-based, not percentages or points
  • A celebration of learning, not competitive

This may seem like a lot of change to implement at once, so start small. For example, your first step might be to include engineering or to complete a grade-level engineering project to showcase at the event.

There's not one correct way to plan and organize a great STEM Fair. Be responsive to your students and community. And always remember, the most important thing about this process is that we're reimagining how to authentically engage students and families in STEM experiences and learning.

Four post-it notes: two green, one yellow, and one pink. 1) Instead of creating an erupting volcano, design a safest city plan that is next to an active volcano. 2) Instead of growing plants under different lights, notice some plants live in areas with very little water -- design an investigation to learn about those structures. 3) Instead of comparing breads for mold growth, redesign the packaging to keep food fresh the longest. 4) Instead of testing car speed on various ramps, investigate how different wheels might impact a car's movement.

Resources:

  • STEM or Not STEM: A great article dissecting two different lessons with a STEM lens.
  • Equity: An article discussing the inequities of learning for traditional science fairs.

Topics: Professional Learning, Next Generation Science Standards, Science, STEM, NGSS, Engineering

Liza Rickey

Written by Liza Rickey

Liza Rickey is a science and STEM curriculum specialist at Issaquah School District in Issaquah, Washington. She has taught elementary students for the past 13 years. Liza is a University of Washington graduate with a bachelors in Zoology and a Masters in Teaching, Mickelson ExxonMobil Teachers Academy alumni, and Teachers College Writing Institute alumni. She is currently working on her administration certification and is excited to be a part of Teaching Channel’s Next Gen Science Squad. Connect with Liza on Twitter: @lizarickey.

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