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Making the Science Fair Mandatory?

2Pic 011.jpgLast week I completed a huge item on my "to-do" list: Co-Chairing our school's Science Fair.

As expected, there were little glitches here and there. We will learn from our mistakes and the process should be much smoother next year. Things such as night janitors being forced to take furlough (so not available to open the gym for us) because of budget cuts were not under our control, but at least we know which questions to ask next time.

I knew there would be bumps along the road, but what I didn't expect was a couple of parents whose attitudes about science brought up some challenging questions and potentially frustrated some children.

By way of background, our Fair is held in two parts: the first is during the day when each classroom has an opportunity to visit. Parents serve as "Guest Scientists" and ask each student about his or her project. All students - whether they did a project or not - are then encouraged to see the other experiments in the room. The second part is the official "Fair" that is held in the evening. Parents come with their students. Several exhibitors present hands-on science-related demonstrations.

During the school-day classroom visit time, two women shared their dissatisfaction with what they saw as a lack of emphasis on science instruction at the school. While I can agree with some of their observations, they took it overboard.

One woman decided that it was appropriate to write notes on students' projects, telling them to google certain terms to get more information about their subject matter. She laughed as she told us that one "clueless" student didn't know why growing flowers in coffee grounds worked so well. This student's project involved different growing medium, such as adding milk to dirt, plain dirt, and the aforementioned coffee.

"Obviously adding coffee grounds works, because that's what people do when they garden!" this mom laughed, "We add egg shells and coffee grounds to plants..." and she kept going.

But an elementary-school student is not necessarily going to know much about gardening. Her curiosity in the subject should be encouraged, not mocked.

A second woman - who quickly identified herself a Civil Engineer so that we'd all know that she must be smart - declared that the students didn't know how to do "proper" science projects. "Their hypotheses are wrong," she snorted, "And once the hypothesis is wrong, the project makes no sense."

(Unfortunately, she didn't express her opinion just to the other parents. I overheard her telling a student he was wrong and that he should have done x, y, and z.)

She continued her rant, expressing how these kids would essentially be doomed to a lifetime of not learning the Scientific Method should it not be corrected right this instant. She and the other woman asserted that the Science Fair should be mandatory and graded. She even suggested that as part of the Science Fair, parents take a class in the Scientific Method so that they could "properly" teach their children.

The bit about the Scientific Method class stunned me into near silence. There is so much wrong with the underlying assumptions there that I cannot even begin to express my frustration.

Of course there is the assumption that parents are so uneducated that they need instruction themselves. There is an assumption that all parents want their children to participate in the Science Fair, or that they are able to take the time out of their schedules to have a heavy hand in the production of "their child's" experiment. There is the assumption that someone such as me would willingly teach such a class (or, do they suppose they will pay someone to do it -- from where would this money come from?)

A scientist should know that different people think different ways. While learning the Scientific Method and its particular line of reasoning and logical thinking is definitely of value, it doesn't come easy to everyone. People have interest and talent in other fields. At the elementary school level, it is important to spark interest so that when the more challenging instruction comes, the student rises to the occasion.

If a student with kinesthetic intelligence wants to pit boys and girls against each other in a test of balance and flexibility, she is engaged in her project. She might not know exactly why she supposes that girls might be better at the tasks than boys, but she's having fun. As she takes biology later, she remembers her project and tries to figure out the why behind her observations. There is a big reason that so many athletes end up becoming interested in sports medicine! When something is relevant to natural interests, it becomes exciting.

But if that student was chastised for an "improper" hypothesis, the experience becomes negative. Why bother working hard to learn all that "boring" science stuff?

The way I see it, having a fun Science Fair in elementary school where the students wonder about things, brainstorm ideas, and examine and explore puts a positive spin on science. The "rules" of how to "properly" conduct an experiment can come a bit later.

While it would be fabulous to have a huge chunk of time devoted to the Science Fair and its associated method, the budget is not there to support it. The curriculum is tied to the standardized test material. We're lucky to have an art and science foundation separate from the school to support enrichment instruction. And yet these women want more.

I'll pause to say that one of the women had a good idea about doing a "hypothesis check" earlier in the process to help focus students' ideas. If this is done in an encouraging way, it might make completing a project easier and might provide some instruction in a non-threatening way. I'd love to provide support to those students who want it (see Jaelithe's comment on her science fair experience.) I wouldn't mind asking teachers to hold back on heavy homework assignments the weekend before the Science Fair, too, to facilitate participation. There are certainly things that we can do to encourage and support participation in the Science Fair, but I still believe it shouldn't be graded (or mandatory.)

It would be terrific to spark interest in everything: art, literature, science, history, social studies, and so forth. But the time and resources are not available to do it all simultaneously.

This year, my third-grade son has a teacher who loves literature. She loves drama. She loves art. As a result, he has many at-home "presentation-type" projects to complete. Because of his workload there, he was unable to do a Science Fair project. But - I expect he'll do one next year. This year, I think it is terrific that he's memorizing scenes from famous plays, encouraging me to purchase him sequels to books his teacher has read in class, and finding ways to be creative.

Last year, my son was too nervous to read aloud much in class. This year, he enjoys trying on different voices for different characters, the way his teacher does. In the previous two years, the teachers kept telling him to use more "feeling" when reading or to speak louder. But this year, his teacher showed him how to do it.

It made sense to me, then, to encourage him to do his best work on his classroom assignments this year, rather than pushing him to do a Science Fair project. Of course, had he come to me with an enthusiastic experiment idea, I would have happily supported him.

If the Science Fair had been mandatory, and if his hypothesis had been scrutinized after he had finished the project, I think he would have been turned off from science. Instead, he attended the "exhibitor" portion of the Science Fair with me and had a blast, He enjoyed doing bottle-rockets, extracting DNA from strawberries, and building contraptions to test on an earthquake table. He asked to go to science camp this summer.

Interestingly, it appears that neither woman who believed the Fair should be mandatory showed up at the main event. Perhaps they would have been encouraged to see the glee on the student's faces as they explored. Or, maybe they would have scoffed that the kids were just "playing" with building blocks. But in a few years, perhaps those kids will remember which-shaped buildings lasted the longest on the earthquake table. Maybe they'll remember the pattern the building made as it shook, illustrating engineering and mathematical principles. Or maybe they'll just remember that science is fun.

Comments (3)


As the daughter of two scientists who played very active roles in elementary science education programs, I agree wholeheartedly with your frustration.

Not only are elementary school students not at a stage of development to be able to understand many of these concepts, being "told science" is never a good substitute for experiencing it oneself. How did we (as a species) come up with the scientific method in the first place? It took hundreds and hundreds (maybe thousands) of years to establish. Why? Because it is not intuitive. Sure, for many scientists it has become the obvious modus operandi, but that only happened through extensive education. Although I can't cite my source, I've been told that preteens aren't good at giving directions because they have trouble visualizing abstract concepts. The brain doesn't even finish growing until mid 20's - maybe even 30's. How then can we expect elementary schoolers to have college-level experiments using theories that they can't yet grasp?

As for making the science fair mandatory, I can only guess at the conflicts of belief and parental competition (or even peer pressure) that might ensue. However, offering some benefit of participation might help get kids involved. You've probably already thought through all this, but I think it bears repeating. Lots of kids have trouble coming up with ideas that interest them. (Lots of adults do, too.) If there were a way to work with kids to develop their ideas so that they wanted to find the answer, that would likely give them more long-term benefits than the science alone. As they get older, the science will come. At this age, learning creativity and curiosity is foremost.

Sorry for the rant - this is an excellent post that really struck a chord with me.

Way to kill a child's curiosity. Kudos to you for doing all this work. I love what you said about your son...at this age the things they are interested in should be encouraged and celebrated, we can't cram it all in now. In a perfect world we'd expose all kids to everything, and have the resources to give them all individualized help, but we don't live there. I tried to give my son some suggestions, ask him why he's picked his project, and scoffed and basically told me he knew what he was doing and what the science fair was all about. I'm glad he stood up to me and hope the other kids can do that with those parents :) Our science fair packet comes with a few sheets about choosing projects and the scientific method, but nothing elaborate.

I feel like there are a lot of people who have to prove how smart they are or how savvy or how whatever, but cutting other people down and criticizing them. It is a shame that they did it to children as well as adults in this case. Very poor behavior on their parts.

Also, kudos to you for running a successful science fair!

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