Improving Science Project Understanding with Poetry

This summer, I had the pleasure of attending the final presentations by middle school students who attended a summer space science program organized by the Christa McAuliffe Center for Integrated Science Learning at Framingham State University.  As I went around the room talking with each group of students, I was amazed by the detailed information the students knew about the subjects of their displays.  I was fascinated by the range of subject matter, from detailed plans of a planetarium, through a model of the solar system to a recently discovered world made of water.

I figured that the students were space-fans before they participated, so asked each of them whether they had previous knowledge about their subject or had learned it from the summer program.  To my surprise, all but one student responded that they had just learned the material as part of the program.

As I was driving home, I remembered each of the students enthusiastically asking me if I would like to hear the poem they had written about their project. Each poem, short or long, was packed with an amazing amount of rich and colorful imagery!  At first it seemed strange to combine science and poetry, but then I read a 2015 NIH report that states, “Poetry hones critical skills in imagery, metaphor, analogy, analysis, observation, attentiveness, and clear communication. All of these are commonly useful in understanding, problem-solving, and decoding scientific and medical mysteries.”

It’s true what they say, “Poetry can make a topic memorable through the use of well-chosen words and vivid images.”  Kudos to the staff at the Christa McAuliffe Center for Integrated Science Learning for guiding students in an unforgettable experience.  Perhaps, those of us who assist students to get ready for their science fair presentations can incorporate this method to help them better understand their project.

A Hiaku about The Hercules Cluster

Poem about the “Freeze-Burn” planet

Poems about the Orion, Ring, Dumbbell and Crab Nebulae

Don’t Waste the Summer!

School is over for just about everyone, and most of the science fairs have finished.  But, summer is the perfect time to start thinking about and planning next year’s science fair project.  If you get a big head start with your next independent science project, especially if you do research on your topic over the summer, you’re sure to have a much better chance at winning an award than if you wait to start until the week before the project is due.

Have you checked out the Mister Science Fair Facebook page lately?  All year long, our Facebook page is full of useful information, advice, resources, and inspiration to create a science fair or engineering design project. It’s also the perfect place to learn about other science competitions you might be interested in entering in addition to your local school fair.

Many competitions release their rules and deadlines over the summer. You might even find ideas for topics on web sites such as the 3M Young Scientist Challenge, Kid Wind Challenge, the Cybermission Challenge and the Google Science Fair. And, if you’re entering your senior year in high school, the “Nobel Prize” of high school science competitions is the Regeneron Science Talent Search. And, our Facebook page has links to stories about the winners of some of the local, national & international competitions, and information about upcoming science competitions with thousands of dollars in prizes.

Summer Opportunities

On our Facebook page, there’s news about free online courses such as MatLab’s Modeling and Simulation class and the “Hour of Code” projects, as well as fun links to videos including the Zombie College lab safety film.

As the science fair season heats up in the fall, you’ll also see posts such as common Safety Review issues and the Most Likely Questions to be asked by one of your judges.

Facebook posts happen nearly every day. So, check us out at and “like” us on Facebook to make sure you don’t miss out on the information and excitement this summer!

Inquisitive minds must be nurtured

Several parents have asked me over the years, “What did you do to fuel your son’s passion for science?”

As someone who became a math major in college with the hope of someday realizing my dream of working for NASA and the space program, I used to love watching my son develop an appetite for science.  It was deeply satisfying for me to see him explore his personal interests in geology and paleontology – interests that would not only eventually become hobbies and science fair projects, but would also lead him to a career in these and other science-related areas when he grew up.  Don’t we all yearn to have fun at our jobs?

A lot of his interest in science was originally sparked by taking him to the Museum of Science and to the Aquarium and to the Harvard Museum of Natural History, where he was first introduced to the “ooo’s” and “aaaahhh’s” of biology, chemistry, astronomy, oceanography, electricity and… dinosaurs.  What kid (or adult) isn’t fascinated with the Van de Graaff generator, the huge T-Rex, or real sharks in huge tanks?   But most museums also have wonderful interactive exhibits and trained professionals to help explain what your child is experiencing in ways that may help them want to learn more.

The courses my son took at the Museum and Aquarium, on weekends and during school vacations when he was an elementary school student, allowed him to have a hands-on experience in “the art of experimentation” with activities, materials and equipment that I couldn’t afford to supply at home, at an age when it could (and obviously did) make a lasting impression.

When it came time for him to start working on school science projects and his science fair projects, the contacts he had made at the Museum of Science, in particular, were invaluable to opening many doors.  The Museum staff not only helped him develop his project ideas, but helped him to find access to materials, labs and equipment not often available to someone so young.

The most valuable thing you can do to help your child start developing an interest in the fascinating world of science is to encourage regular visits to a science museum.  Encourage them to take the courses there, and when they express an interest in a specific topic, nurture their natural curiosity until it blossoms into their own experiment or project.  A museum course instructor or workshop leader may even agree to become a mentor to your child, and may be best equipped to help your child to expand upon ideas and interests.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

New England Aquarium

Boston Museum of Science

 

 

 

 

Does your school district / region have a science fair? Get one! Even if it means filing your own legislation…

Barnas / aka MisterScienceFair at the MA State House

Barnas Monteith, at the MA State House, supporting bills for science fairs

It can be frustrating to hear from a teacher, school system administrator, school council member or principal that, “Sorry we do not do science fairs here because we just don’t have the budget and we just don’t have the teacher time to deal with it.  Furthermore, our focus is MCAS, SAT’s, or some other form of mandated standardized formal assessment.”   Worse yet, you may hear, “We don’t support science fairs because our union believes they are unfair since most of the time with winning projects the parents do the projects – or they take up teacher time unfairly – or there is simply no budget for things that are not related to formal curriculum!”

I can’t tell you how many dozens of times I have heard this during my time as Chair and Vice Chair of the MA Science Fair.  This uneducated answer is precisely the reason why I have spent so many hours every week, for decades, trying to figure out strategies to help towns & governments see the light that science fairs don’t detract from “real,” “standardized,” “formal,” learning — but rather, they serve as a means of alternative learning that will support not only the Next Generation Science Standards (essentially, the entire section known as “science practices”) but also scientific literacy in the US and other nations for generations to come.

As I went to the MA State House yesterday, once again, (for the umpteenth time – which is apparently not a real number BTW),   to promote a science fair bill I filed in the MA House of Representatives nearly 7 years ago, I met with a group of people who helped me once again believe in what I do.   You see, for many years in the early 2000′s I met with local student councils, city/town councilors, state legislators and governors to try and convince them of the overall value of science fairs (and other forms of STEM inquiry assessment) – from the perspective of teacher unions (learning time, inequity of teaching responsibilities for different subjects, teacher waivers, complexity of ongoing professional development requirments, etc), workforce development, state and local economies, national/international repututation/status, grant opportunities, publicity value at the local level, global partnership/collaboration opportunities — you name it, I analyzed it!  Well, after coming in year after year with powerpoints, whitepapers and speeches/testimony for bills and also serving on working groups and more, I realized that STEM was not yet a popular topic and people did not realize the dire need for better scientists and engineers in MA, the US and around the world.

It turned out the best way to start off in gaining recognition for this need would be to just file my own state bill, or my own barrage of bills (in case you are curious I first filed a bill in 2008 / early 2009, known as H.350 in the MA House of Reps).  In MA, there is a law that allows (private, non-elected) citizens to file their own bills, by themselves (and their State Rep is required to file it “on behalf of” a citizen).  Many other states have similar “petition” laws.  By doing so at the state level, it generates press and it generates recognition from local school, city/town council and other leaders — not to mention your state’s Congress.  It turned out that by filing my bill I also earned a unique distinction of being the one and only person to file a Massachusetts Bill by fax (according to the clerk of the House at the time, by voicemail) — and apparently I still apparently have that odd distinction.

Well, it has taken nearly a decade, with lots of meetings, and my very simple bill (which does not require state or local tax money to approve it, so it does not require a reference to the dreaded “Ways & Means” committee) is still going, with reports, hearings and readings before the Joint Committee on Education.

While it has not yet passed, it has earned attention at the local and state levels, and certainly has people talking (and to be honest although the bill is a statewide bill and has nothing to do specifically with mandating statewide science fairs; it is directed toward allowing local fairs the ability to raise their own, protected funds).  I am proud to say that around the time I filed this bill, Randolph, MA (my hometown) started its own science fair program within the whole school system, after many many decades of not doing so.  (I entered my state science fair on my own as a student, since my state fair allowed 2 students from every school in the state to enter, regardless of whether or not they had a science fair at the school/district level).

So, even if your school says no — and your principal and school council say no — you CAN still have a science fair in your area, if you file a bill, or encourage your local Rep or State Senator to do so!!!  You might even simply bring it up at your school committee/council meeting or town council/town meeting to start off with and see that gains any traction.  Maybe your local PTO/PTSO can try it, or try it on your own, and contact your local paper, and see what happens!  You may be surprised by what you can achieve.

By th way, the group of people I met with the other day were professional lobbyists, from both major parties, who told me that “the science fair is a cause they can rally around – that everyone can believe in” and they wished that they could help us out in some way, as a long-standing non-profit with good intentions that will benefit not just the students and educators of the state, but which would also be a good opportunity for politicians who can rally behind such a wonderful, low-cost but ubiquitously rewarding concept in the world of supplemental education.  Well, we might take them up on that offer.  And in the words of Stephen Colbert: “– and so can you!”

Remember, your government belongs to you, and you should use it as best you can, to improve the education of your children, and that of your neighbors too.  You don’t need to wait to vote for a person who will file a bill you like and hope that other people will vote for it too — you can just file it yourself, and promote it yourself (or better yet, run for office!)!

 

 

What do Bill Gates and Marconi have in common?

I recently read a quote from the most influential physicist of the 20th century, Albert Einstein, and it immediately made me LOL (laugh out loud).  Einstein said, “A person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of thirty will never do so.”( Brodetsky, S. Nature 150, 698-699 (1942).  I don’t know why I thought the quote was funny, but it brought to mind the importance of getting students interested in science and the “wow factor” of scientific discovery, at as young an age as possible.

Research indicates that the most recent Nobel Prize winners made their discoveries in mid-life (late 40s) and, that NIH grants have been awarded in recent years to more established scientists (late 40s), But there are many scientists including Einstein, who made incredible discoveries or who developed inventions in their 20s. Among the youngest of the bunch includes Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of the radio.

James Watson was only 25 when he wrote one of the most important scientific papers of all time about DNA.  Isaac Newton was 23 when he began inventing calculus. Galileo published his first piece of writing at age 22.  Edwin Armstrong, an electrical engineer who was fascinated by radio from childhood, built a 125-foot-tall antenna in his front yard at the age of 20; within two years he invented the continuous-wave transmitter and the regenerative circuit which developed the backbone of radio communications as we know it, and later invented FM Radio.

Younger scientists and inventors also include Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, noted chemist Glenn Seaborg, and Danish Nobel Prize winning physicist Neils Bohr who developed the model of the atom and who’s one of the scientists featured in a book for children from the Galactic Academy of SciencesThe Desperate Case of the Diamond Chip.

The one thing all the “younger scientists” mentioned above, seem to have in common is an inquisitive mind. The story is told about Einstein’s curiosity at a young age about the pocket compass his father showed him, and Einstein’s interest in what made the needle move despite the “empty space.” Bill Gates developed a fascination about computer programming when he was a teenager, and spent countless hours learning how to do different things with source codes and computer languages before anyone else his age at the time. With Glenn Seaborg, it was a high school science teacher that spurred his interest in chemistry, and in college Seaborg learned to ask relevant questions in his dealings with Berkeley physicist Robert Oppenheimer, who later became the director of the Manhattan Project.

Several years ago, Francis Collins, the director of the NIH, stated in a Wall Street Journal article (“Fleeting Youth, Fading Creativity,” February 2010) “researchers in the early stages of their careers tend to be the ones with the fire in the belly. They’re not afraid of tackling the really hard problems.”  As a result, Collins further went on to say the NIH was intending to increase the percentage of grants going to scientists applying for their first grant.

Discoveries by younger scientist may be more commonplace over the next decade as a result of the response by the NIH and because of the Next Generation Science Standards.  These new standards, mentioned in one of my earlier blogs, will result in more teaching and testing of students on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) literacy in elementary, middle and high schools across the USA.

Encourage a youngster you know to get interested in science.

Bill Gates was 13 years old when he developed an interest in the then growing field of computer programming. Within a few years, he found ways to access computer time at local computer companies. By the time he was a college sophomore, he was devising solutions to complex and unsolved math problems with his programming skills. Before his 32rd birthday, Gates had become the world’s youngest self-made billionaire. What most people do not associate with Gates, is the word ‘risk’. But Bill Gates had to go through the same trials and tribulations that most scientists and entrepreneurs have to go through to achieve their goals.

Don’t Attack the Science Fair Project – Embrace It!

I was upset last year when I saw this photo, below, printed in the Huffington Post and circulate through social media.  It seems like every year there is the angst that a science fair project assignment creates for many students and their families. It’s unfortunate that science fairs and independent research projects seem to get attacked this way. As a new school year kicks off, it’s a great time for parents to take a fresh look at what science fair is all about, the role parents should play, and what everyone involved can do to make the process less stressful for all involved and a success.

To start with, attitude plays a huge role in how students approach their science fair project. Maybe you had a bad experience with a science project as a child, but adults need to put that experience behind them and to understand the process so that if they encourage their child with a positive perspective, the end result may not be as traumatic.

For whatever reason you cringe at the thought of a science fair project, you are not alone. But instead of shying away from it you need to embrace it because even though your child may not grow up to be a scientist, the learning that happens by doing a hands-on science project is enormous. For starters, it integrates almost every skill children have been taught and 21st Century skills your child needs to experience from reading, writing, research, math and critical thinking, to computer science, graphic arts, public speaking, gaining confidence and the thrill of discovery. As a parent, you should encourage all this blended learning rather than discourage it.

So before you groan, and before you allow your child to complain about his or her science fair project, realize that your response might have an impact on it being a positive experience and a great learning opportunity.

And, let’s not forget that if your child is selected to go on to local or national competition, it can pay off in cash or other prizes, and may open the doors to internships and scholarships.

What’s the best reaction you can have when you discover there’s a science project due? How about saying something like, “Wow, that’s great, maybe you can do a project about [insert your child’s favorite hobby, interests, subject, etc. here].  Then, help them get started right away.

Elsewhere on this website you’ll find information about how to get started, and how to choose a science fair topic if you don’t already have ideas. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us: info (at) MisterscienceFair.com or via our web contact form.

Make sure you also regularly check our Facebook page for on-going ideas and information about other competitions you can enter.

We know this is not a real science fair project (this never made it to a science fair – it stays permanently in the home of a very frustrated mom who made this project to show her frustrations - see Huffington Post article here).  Don’t let this happen to your family. Don’t start your child’s science fair experience off on the wrong foot!

Help ward off “Summer Brain Drain” and nurture a science project at the same time

Several parents have asked me over the years, “What did you do to fuel your son’s passion for science?”

As someone who became a math major in college with the hope of someday realizing my dream of working for NASA and the space program, I used to love watching my son develop an appetite for science.  It was deeply satisfying for me to see him explore his personal interests in geology and paleontology – interests that would not only eventually become hobbies and science fair projects, but would also lead him to a career in these and other science-related areas when he grew up.  Don’t we all yearn to have fun at our jobs?

A lot of his interest in science was originally sparked by taking him to the Museum of Science and to the Aquarium, where he was first introduced to the “ooo’s” and “aaaahhh’s” of biology, chemistry, astronomy, oceanography, electricity and… dinosaurs.  What kid (or adult) isn’t fascinated with the Van de Graaff generator, the huge T-Rex, or real sharks in huge tanks?

It has been well documented that many students lose more than 2 months of knowledge over the summer.   The courses my son took at the science museum and aquarium, on weekends and especially during summer when he was in elementary & middle school student, allowed him to have a hands-on experience in “the art of experimentation” with activities, materials and equipment that I couldn’t afford to supply at home, at an age when it could (and obviously did) make a lasting impression.

When it came time for him to start working on school science projects and his science fair projects, the contacts he had made at the Boston Museum of Science, in particular, were invaluable to opening many doors.  The Museum staff not only helped him develop his project ideas, but helped him to find access to materials, labs and equipment not often available to someone so young.

The most valuable thing you can do to help your child start developing an interest in the fascinating world of science this summer is to encourage regular visits to a science museum, aquarium, zoo — or even your local library or bookstore where they host workshops, so your child can be introduced to the Science, Technology, Engineering & Math (STEM) subjects that most interest him or her.

When your child expresses an interest in a specific topic, nurture their natural curiosity until it blossoms into their own experiment or project.  A museum course instructor or workshop leader may even agree to become a mentor to your child, and may be best equipped to help your child to expand upon ideas and interests.

Have a great summer!

You can find lots of fun workshops at your local bookstore or library over the summer. 

Unveiling “Dinosaur Eggs & Blue Ribbons” at the MA South Shore Regional Science Fair

 

Barnas & Pat at the South Shore Regional Science Fair

Barnas Monteith, along with Pat Monteith, of Mistersciencefair.com, unveiling the newest version of “Dinosaur Eggs & Blue Ribbons” (DEBR) at the MA South Shore Regional Science Fair, at Bridgewater State University.  This is the very same science fair featured within the book, where Barnas began his science fair winning streak, ultimately ending up with multiple first place International science fair awards.

“Dinosaur Eggs & Blue Ribbons” is a book designed to inspire children to join science fairs, both for the rich adventures and rewards that can be had.  DEBR chronicles Barnas Monteith’s early days as a field paleontologist as well as a science fair participant.

Pat Monteith at Regional Science Fair

Here you see Pat Monteith, who is also a science fair mentor, along with one of her students, Chad, who entered the South Shore Regional Science Fair, with a project about polar bears.  The study uses publicly available data to track long term climate change and its effects on wildlife.

Here you see Barnas, along with another of Pat’s students, focused on a study to help the blind create abstract art via a special tool which is simple to use and yields stunning artwork, similar to Jackson Pollock’s works.

For more information on DEBR, click here.

If you have any interest in becoming a Mistersciencefair mentee, please contact us via our Contact Us page link above.

 

BOOK RELEASE at Barnes & Noble, Prudential Center – Boston

Barnas at Barnes & Noble signingBarnas Monteith’s book launch of “Dinosaur Eggs & Blue Ribbons: Science Fairs Inside & Out” – this past weekend was a big hit!  Be sure to visit your local Barnes & Noble and get your copy today.

You can read more about the event and the book in a recent article by the Boston Herald, to be found here. 

As you can see, there were a number of children, interested in seeing dinosaur and reptile fossils as well as eggs and modern skulls from around the world.  Perhaps future science fair participants/winners, or even paleontologists?

Barnas, at the Barnes & Noble launch event for his book

 

More signing events at Barnes & Nobles and independent bookstores throughout New England to be announced shortly.

The book, which is part memoir, part adventure science, and part how-to-guide, helps children to understand science fairs better, and how to be more competitive.  Unlike many science fair books out there, “DEBR” is written in a story/prose format, and is not full of lists, bulets, diagrams and stuff like that.  It is full of first-hand accounts of working on paleontology field digs, in dangerous but fun conditions, making big fossil discoveries.  It’s also full of first-hand information on how to win local, regional, state and International science fairs – told from the perspective of someone who has won many fairs, and has served as a judge, mentor and fair administrator.  Lots of color pictures, and insider tips!  It’s genuinely good reading for children who may or may not be interested in fairs, children who want to be more competitive, and teachers/parents who want to help their children to succeed in the science fair world.

Barnas, signing books at Barnes & Noble

 

Homeschoolers & Science Fairs

This post can also be seen in its original and complete form at Supercharged Science here.

Guest post by Barnas Monteith

As a recent former Chair of one of the oldest state science fairs in the country, I can tell you that the topic of homeschool student participation in science fairs has been a major discussion point at many board meetings over the years. In the past, many fairs found it difficult to involve students who didn’t have school mentors to assist in the process, or insurance from their local school districts, to cover any accidents while conducting a project. Or, other various complicated legal or practical obstacles. But, things have changed, and fairs have found ways to work around many of these issues. In recent years, more and more fairs have begun to do more specifically to reach out to the homeschooling community.

Often homeschooling parents will be frustrated both with the lack of information and support, and the sometimes overwhelming bureaucracy of science fairs . And fairs at different levels don’t necessarily talk to each other or work with each other (i.e. districts, regions, state and national/international fairs). There are pre-approval forms, science review committees, and various safety checks and other things to do, before even starting your project. Often, fairs discourage parents from “too much” participation in a student’s project. It’s viewed as a way of making things fair for all students; the same policy applies to all parents to ensure that students are doing their own work. It’s understandable why some homeschooling families don’t want to bother with whole science fair process. Well, the climate seems to be changing rapidly, as traditional fairs, math competitions, robotics/maker fairs, virtual science fairs (Google has a great one) and other types of STEM-related informal educational activities have been competing to get more student participation. At the same time, fairs and other competitions have been offering ever-increasing prizes, to attract and reward top science talent. At the MA State Fair, we offer around a half million dollars in prizes, including some full patent awards each year (which can cost upwards of tens of thousands of dollars) to the most patentable ideas. Science fairs are no longer just about demonstrating the understanding of scientific method, as they were in the recent past. Now, science fairs have become a place where real-world science and engineering gets done, where students get their work published or patented, and even as Freshmen, are sought out by the very top research institutions and companies in the world. It’s a very rewarding experience in many ways, andit is wonderful that homeschooling families are participating in ever-increasing numbers each year.

Yet, one of the other major concerns I’ve heard over the years, especially from homeschool parents, is that access to lab resources is sometimes geographically challenging and also, often, costly. It’s hard to find projects where you can do something meaningful without spending lots of time and money obtaining data. This too is changing!

As a student, my own project looked at the evolution of dinosaurs into birds, using both microscopy and biochemical data, with real fossilized and modern eggshells. I would then crunch the data using algorithms I set up in mini-databases. It was very cross disciplinary, and that is where things seem to be heading more and more. The more disciplines you can include in your project, the more your judges believe that you are not just a deep scientific thinker, but a broad scientific thinker, who can link and bridge common ideas from otherwise very disparate subjects. While I did use some resources and materials that had a cost to them, nearly all of these were donated. Getting the data was indeed difficult, but the most innovative portion of my work was really done on computers. Admittedly, obtaining rare fossils and getting access to fancy equipment is certainly a barrier to entry and an impressive feat. But, I do think judges focus on innovation rather than the work done to obtain the raw data.   Now, both as a science fair judge, and an administrator/policy maker, I can tell you data doesn’t win fairs.

Since that time, I’ve gone on to do research and business in various scientific and technical fields. Whether it’s been working on diamond-based solar cells to new types of electrosurgery tools to planarization techniques for semiconductors, one of the key things that I’ve noticed over time is that things have gotten much easier to connect research data to the people who need that data. From simply sharing scientific experiment results / engineering tweaks more freely, to sharing rich data that demands large storage space, to crowd-sourced data, to publicly funded data, the DATA itself is becoming simpler to access. Maybe not entirely trivial to the research community, but for science fairs and the world of inquiry based education in general, it’s becoming less and less important as time goes on. And that’s a really great thing for science fair parents who don’t have funds readily available to contract out lab work, or to set up their own labs at home. There are now very compelling, top award winning science projects (including this year’s very top ISEF winner, who also happens to be from Boston, MA), that require nothing more than an Internet connection. So, if you’re reading this, then you’re all set to go win lots of science fairs.

Read the rest of the article here