I saw this on Twitter the evening after I got back to my office from Dalat’s 2014 Science Fair. It made me sad because we just had a FANTASTIC time at our science fair!
For those who hate science fair and may need some fresh life, let me offer some ideas about what make a science fair valuable for learning and just plain fun.
- CHOICE. In our science fair at Dalat, students have had choice in the last two years for what work they want to do to enter the science fair (at least in high school). So far we have offered two options: (a) participate in the construction/engineering contest or (b) do an experiment in your current subject. Student who are frustrated with the tedium of data collection and mathematical analysis can do the kinesthetic learning of a producing a product designed to achieve a certain goal. On the other hand students who find manual work tedious and love the elegance of data can collect and process numbers to their hearts content.
- SCAFFOLDING. For the engineering competition this year in grade 9 for example, ALL the students build a paperclip trebuchet and then all the students build a drinking straw trebuchet. After this students could choose the classic experiment route or engineering for science fair. “Builders” had additional time in class to design and work on their trebuchets. This developed skills over time (each trebuchet had increasingly challenging requirements. (i) first paperclip trebuchet had to throw a distance equal to the width of the base (easy!) (ii) drinking straw trebuchet had to shoot more than one meter. (iii) Science Fair trebuchet had to throw a distance equal or greater than 12x the length of the arm.
- ORGANIZATION. There are a LOT of details for a science fair! If you want to start one start small; begin with one class or one course (if multiple sections.) Making rules for competition is challenging and requires multiple iterations to get them right – especially if you always change your events (like I like to do). This year, my 5th or 6th science fair, my original rules for Trebuchets were unintentionally super-challenging. At the 11th hour we had to revise the scoring; literally days before the event. But it worked! And kids had a LOT of fun and made memories with each other.
- ASSISTANCE. We have an amazing team at Dalat. My principal is incredibly supportive of science generally and this event specifically. I have a brand new colleague this year who jumped in with both feet. It was hard for him to let the curriculum go a bit while he focused on the challenge of running engineering preparation and experimental work in his classroom at the same time! for a couple weeks! He did it well – as he does nearly everything! Another teacher picked up the ball and helped me with scoring details, made a competition-bracket scoring system and showed me how to program spreadsheets to produce scores and data. Lastly, this event took 2 days of occupying the gym the WHOLE time. Our athletic department was fantastically patient and moved everything into the very hot, sunny heat of Penang in the dry season – just to help our event run well; which, of course, it did.
I hope if you have an ailing or tedious science fair that you are able to turn in around and have a lot of fun. Ours is a TON of fun! Come and see next year!