Science fairs aren’t actually preparing your kids to do anything

Rebecca Wilkins, a New York City mother, thought she would finally be spared the pain of helping her daughter make a project for the science fair now that she was in 6th grade. Unfortunately, Sofia recently told her mom that she would have to do it again this year. This would now be her fourth year doing a mandatory science fair project at her public school. No doubt, she will have to follow the scientific method again which has never been easy, even though Sofia has always earned good grades in school.

As the interest in science and technology education continues to grow, you would think parents like Wilkins would welcome the opportunity, but instead she dreads it.

“It’s the kind of project that really needs parent oversight to make sure data is collected properly,” she said “and some nagging,” she added.” And then it’s hard to back off. You have to be careful not to help too much.”

Wilkins believes that school science fairs, as they are conducted today, aren’t the great learning experiences that they are meant to be. “It’s hard for them [the kids] to really figure out what is realistically doable, what projects will give you good hard data, what project won’t make the kids and parents crazy!”

Particularly painful for Wilkins was guiding her child to follow the scientific method which was a mandatory part of the assignment. The scientific method, is widely known as the process used to ask and answer questions. It’s a procedure that begins by doing research to create a hypothetical answer to the question and then collecting and analyzing the data to draw a conclusion. Lastly, the findings must be communicated clearly. As science fairs in the US are organized as early as elementary school, parents must ask if children are even ready to do such projects independently at home. Wilkins tried to help Sofia search at the library for project ideas but, even Wilkins, a former librarian could barely find anything would help Sofia execute her project through the scientific method.

Whose project is it anyway?

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(ScienceBuddies.Org)

Science fairs can credit their origin with the efforts of a zoologist named Willam Emerson Ritter and Edward W. Scripps, founder of Scripps-Howard Newspaper Alliance and the United Press. The two men created Science Services as a nonprofit news service in 1921 with a goal of keeping the public informed of the latest advancements in science. Later, Science Services collaborated with Westinghouse in 1942 to establish The Science Talent Search for high school students, a competition intended to encourage students to pursue a career in science or engineering. Science Services, now known as The Society for Science and the Public still organizes this competition today, which has been renamed Intel Science Talent Search since 1998.

Clearly things have changed since 1942 when only high school students were presenting their experiments. Now, in some elementary schools, students are required to execute projects strictly using the scientific method. Additionally, the stress may be even more compounded as sometimes science fair participation means that students must enter into a mandatory competition because placements or ribbons would be awarded at the end.

ScienceBuddies.org, a website that has been assisting students in selecting and executing science experiments for over 14 years, confirmed that sometimes the science fair is a competition and sometimes it is just a requirement. They estimate that 10 million students from grades K-12 participate in science fairs every year. ScienceBuddies.org founder and CEO, Kenneth Hess, believes elementary school students would especially need a lot of support. “They are going to have extraordinarily limited experiences doing anything hands-on. As you know, our society has become so virtual.”

Hess contends that science fair projects can be a great learning experience even for elementary school students but emphasizes that teachers should require students to bring in one phase of their project at a time and have each of those steps graded. “It is teaching students how to do a large project and also avoiding, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s Friday and the science fair project is due Monday!’” he said. “Breaking it down is absolutely the most important thing a teacher can do to make it a good learning experience and to reduce the incentive for a parent to step in and do too much.”

To be sure, some students are definitely not supported this way. I spoke to one mother of a 3rd grader in a New York City public school, Marylynn Miller, who called the process, “agonizing.” Her child’s experience was clearly not supported in the optimal way that Hess suggested. She thought that her child was supposed to be submitting parts of the project periodically but he wasn’t. “My impression of it is they just send the paperwork home and they don’t discuss it at school or anything.”

Wilkins recalled how uncomfortable the fair was for her as a parent when her child was younger and presented her projects in the 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades. “There was such a range of projects: ones where you could tell the parents did so much of the work. Ones where you could tell the parents didn’t speak English and they had their kids run quotes though Google Translate.” Wilkins felt this was unfair even though she knew that the teachers would likely take those factors into consideration. However, she knew that just having good art supplies, a color printer, and high speed internet already put her child at an unfair advantage.

No one knows what to do

Unclear expectations appeared to be the main source of confusion and frustration. Parents I’ve talked to had mixed experiences and opinions including: whether or not science fairs were mandatory, if science toys could be used to submit a project, and even if science fair projects needed to be conducted solely through the scientific method.

I contacted the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), the nation’s largest organization of science teachers with 55,000 members in over 100 countries, to clarify the confusion about strictly using the scientific method for science fair projects and whether toys can be used. An NSTA spokesperson replied to Quartz, “Unfortunately, I think this might be a little out of our scope. Perhaps Lego Education might be able to assist.”

If the largest association of science teachers feels that clarifying expectations about the science fair, especially with regards to science toys and the scientific method was “out of their scope,” how could we expect parents to know how to help their kids?

Parents look for ideas online and in their kid’s toybox

Many families appear to be seeking solutions online. Education.com’s co-CEO Rich Yang told Quartz, “Science Fair is the second most searched for and viewed content type on Education.com, losing out narrowly to our printable worksheet content, which is much broader in scope since it covers subjects like math, science, history, reading, writing, and more.” There, the most popularly searched project titles included: How to Make a Lemon Battery; Balloon Rocket Experiment; Does Mint Actually Cool Things Down?; Why Doesn’t the Ocean Freeze?; Microwave Candy: Do Some Colors of M&Ms Melt Faster than Others?

Jenn's son 4th grade science project The Makey Makey
The author’s son’s 4th grade science project using the Makey Makey.
Jenn's son at 4th grade science fair
Setting up the demo was the easy part, explaining it was a whole different story.

My son’s experience at his former school revealed how science toys and online education sites can help make more academic sense of their playful science experiences. As a 4th grader, with the help of YouTube, my son managed to use the scientific method to make a science fair project using his science toy, the Makey Makey, a kit that allows kids to turn anything conductive into a key on a keyboard. He turned many heads that day, as students and judges played music on his computer using fruits of varying acid levels. Setting up the demo was the easy part but when his principal stopped at his tri-fold board and asked him what his project was about, he replied, “It’s complicated.” Unfortunately for him, presentation and communication is part of the grade. The only formal feedback he received was a small trophy for having participated in the fair. Every child received a trophy.

Science teachers stress inquiry above all else

Science educators whom I’ve consulted had strong opinions about the kind of support students are given for the science fair. I told David Wells, manager of creative making and learning at the New York Hall of Science—the children’s science museum where the World Maker Faire is held every year—about how my son responded to his principal. Wells pointed out that if reflection was incorporated into the learning practice from the beginning, children would be able to better express what they know. “To expect that to be an intuitive thinking process is absurd!” said Wells.

Growing Crazy Crystals Kit (1)
This set is an easy way to demonstrate the science of crystals while thoughtfully exploring the process of the scientific method. (Young Scientists Club)

Another science teacher at Rollins Place Elementary in Louisiana, Breigh Rhodes, was critical of how the scientific method is being taught today. “I mean you go into a teacher supply store and you see posters on the wall that say ‘Question, Hypothesis, etc,’” she said. “It’s not this rigid set of steps that really defines what a scientist does.” Rhodes likes to focus on how scientists work in the real world rather than concentrating on the steps of the scientific method. “It’s overused,” she stated. “It’s not actually giving kids a real authentic picture of what science is because it’s too overly simplified.”

ScienceBuddies.org’s Hess said there was a way that children could fulfill science fair requirements without doing a model or using the scientific method. Students could use the Engineering Design Process, which is similar to the scientific method but instead students start out with a problem and find ways to solve it. None of the parents I spoke to had any idea this could be done . Fortunately, this process appears to be important to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), a set of standards released in 2013 that was derived from a framework of in-depth research examining science education. In addition, the framework stated that the impression that there is a singular scientific method common to all of science is mistaken. To date, NGSS has been adopted by just 12 states as well as Washington, DC but a spokesperson said that many schools and school districts have independently adopted the standards on their own​.

Shubham Banerjee’s science fair project: a braille printer built using LEGOs. (Neil Banerjee)

Celebrated kid inventor Shubham Banerjee used the engineering design process for his science fair project at Champion Middle School in San Jose, California when he built a working Braille printer that cut the costs of the average printer from over $2,000 to $350. How did he do it? Quoting from the abstract he wrote, “In this experiment, I relied on my love of LEGO and readily available Mindstorms EV3 robotics kit to build a D-I-Y Braille printer and program the device to print in Braille.”

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Shubham Banerjee showing his braille printer at the school science fair. (Neil Banerjee)

Since presenting his project, he has received investment from Intel and his family has created a company to manufacture the product. His mother volunteered to be the CEO since Shubham is still in middle school.

How can we help students think like scientists or engineers?

“Science isn’t like memorizing vocabulary words in a textbook. It’s this active endeavor of learning about the world around you,” said Rhodes. Still, Rhodes admits that it is not easy to provide the right level of support when giving kids guidance whether you are a science book author, a toy company, a web-based resource, or even a parent. “It’s like an art form in how you convey that information.” Some kids may think they are limited to certain examples if the information is too specific—but if it’s too open-ended, then kids may have a hard time getting started.

Both Rhodes and Wells suggested that toy companies could create guides on how to be inspired. “If a science company put out a ‘how to’ approach to science thinking then it could apply to all their products to inspire their users to play with the science toy but also seek out their own ideas or hack other people’s ideas,” said Wells.

It seems to all boil down to ideas. Hess said that the hardest thing for kids was choosing a project. This is why his organization created the Topic Selection Wizard. The Google Science Fair, an event of which Science Buddies is a partner, also has an Idea Springboard to help students choose a project. Kids are given ample ideas and other supportive information as long as they answer a few questions about their interests and how much time they have. Some projects will cost almost nothing and for those that do require materials, suggestions may be offered. However, kids can also search projects that involve their favorite toys in Science Buddies. Searches on “LEGO” turned up 18 project ideas and interestingly enough, “video games” produced 73 results.

If anything, using toys can save time, money, and reduce stress. It’s very possible that a child will have science toys in their home as the Toy Industry Association reported that spending on building sets alone increased by 13%, totaling $1.85 billion. Like Shubham Banerjee, if a child were encouraged to solve problems with what he loves and is most familiar, who knows where it could lead him? An Intel spokesperson told Quartz that Banerjee made and broke seven models before settling on a final one. With only five days left before the deadline, Banerjee finally solved a problem affecting millions of people around the world with his favorite toy.

Jenn’s blog is Toys are Tools. Follow Jenn on Twitter @toysaretools. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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