Field notes from the Science Fair

Science is Awesome

In Hawaii public elementary schools, science is a big deal in the fourth grade. It’s the only grade that takes the Hawaii State Science Assessment. So I was encouraged when my fourth grader decided to enter the Honolulu District Science and Engineering Fair this year.

He chose to give up some of his recess time. He chose to stay after school, meeting with other science fair scientists. He chose to spend much of his winter break running trails and working on his display board.

At his school, 9 students started out and 7 students completed a science fair project. At other schools, the projects were conducted by individuals, teams, a class, or entire grade levels. I like the individual projects, because they let students take responsibility for the whole project.

We didn’t push him to participate, but we encouraged him whole-heartedly once he was committed. The science fair was an opportunity to learn more about something that he is interested in. It gave him a timeline and a deadline to meet, so that he could work on his time management skills. It helped him work on his presentation skills, both in terms of graphics and personal interviews. It also let him spend time with other students who were just as dedicated as he was.

At the elementary school level, the Honolulu District Science and Engineering Fair was exciting but a little disorganized. Every student received a “Budding Scientist” button to wear and gathered for a welcome assembly. Schools were assigned to different break-out sessions, with a third session for project evaluations. We walked among the science fair displays, which were grouped by school (not subject).

After months of investigation and trials, here are five notes for parents about science fairs:

Note #1: Ask three questions. What are you curious about? Can you finish within the time-frame? Can you afford to do it?

Note #2: No pressure. Remember that this is an optional project, using their “free time.” When our son was frustrated, we actually gave him the option of not finishing the project. Though we want him to finish what he starts, it’s okay to admit that something isn’t as interesting as you thought. And it’s okay to fail, because you learn something from failure too. His frustration was just temporary, and he resumed with renewed enthusiasm.

Note #3: Show them how to do it, and then step aside. Advise them on the experiment or design project, and then let them do it. Remind them about milestones, and then trust them to follow through. Teach them to use presentation software, and then let them do the writing.

Note #4: Do a mock interview. Before the judges come to the school, ask students a few practice questions. This will make them more comfortable being interviewed and give them time to think about their answers.

Note #5: What’s next? During and after the science fair, ask them how they could extend their project further – and which projects inspired them.

Have you ever participated in a science fair? Do you know and encourage a “budding scientist”?

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