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. 

You can’t fail doing a science fair project!

What is a science fair project? Too often, students and parents look at a science fair project as just another class assignment the student must complete in order to pass a course. But in fact, a science fair project is really more like an independent study course to develop a student’s interests, special talents, abilities, career training or more.

A child is naturally curious. A science project can nurture this curiosity. If a teacher understands this and can get this message across to students, a science fair project can be an exciting learning tool, and a challenge and discovery experience that will last a lifetime.

In most cases, a science project will be the first time your child isn’t being told what to do, how to do it, or that there is only one correct solution to a problem. It’s a unique way for your child to pose questions for which they must find answers to satisfy their own curiosity about the world around them. Your child gets to choose his/her own topic, and decide the best way to approach the project on their own. In fact, it’s okay for their hypothesis to not turn out as they predicted.

In the case of an engineering design project it’s also quite acceptable to fail and try to re-design it another way, often several times before success is achieved. I’m reminded here about the story of Thomas Edison, who is said to have tried 700 different ways to make a light bulb before making one that worked.  This is a valuable lesson we should allow our children to learn on their own. Imagine if Edison had stopped after 600 tries!









The role both teachers and parents can best play in a science or engineering project experience is that of a facilitator, helping students come up with an idea that’s of most interest to him/her and helping them find the resources they need to complete their project.  Science is all around us and can be found in the most unlikely places. Almost every interest can be turned into a science project, from cooking and gardening to cosmetics, music, gaming, engineering, sports and even candy – yes, there are several very interesting and fun experiments with M&M’s.

It’s helpful to remember that an eighth grader is not being asked to conduct a Nobel-winning experiment – students should always select an age appropriate project. Help the student realize the importance of always using the scientific method or an engineering design process. For instance, if a student wants to build a hovercraft, help him or her to create a real science experiment — building five different small models of a hovercraft and testing how well each of them works with a different type of battery is an example of this approach.

As an adult, the most important thing you can do is to leave the experiment in the hands of the student. While you want to be a sounding board or a chauffeur, the safety officer or the cheerleader, it’s their experiment. Whether the hypothesis is proven or disproven, there are results to be analyzed and conclusions to draw.  Even if the wheel fell off the cart, discovering why, and how to prevent it next time, is one step forward in the scientific method or in the engineering design process. This means the goal of the project – to be an independent learning experience – was met.  Success!

It’s time for all students to become more science literate

Informal science education, such as the type of learning a student gets outside of the normal classroom environment by participating in a science fair, provides kids with an in-depth and hands-on look at “real world” science.  While it’s possible that participation in a science fair can open doors for students who have already discovered their abilities and passion for science, it can also help students develop an interest in science which could be important to them no matter which career they choose.

Some of the most important arguments for the Next Generation Science Standards are: 1) American students are falling behind in math and science, performing at levels below students in competitor nations on international tests. In the most recent results, the United States slipped from 25th to 31st in math since 2009; and from 20th to 24th in science; 2) fewer students are pursuing careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) disciplines, and 3) science is profoundly important to address the problems we’re now facing such as preventing and curing diseases, maintaining supplies of clean water and addressing the energy crisis.

Source: Programme for International Student Assessment, OECD, 2012.

Our collective futures are dependent upon students being interested in science.  The purpose of more science education, broadly expressed as ‘STEM literacy’ is to motivate all students (not just the parents and students who are already a fan of science) to fully engage in the very active practices of science and engineering. Aside from the movement to provide 100,000 STEM teachers over the next decade, the other important reason to help your child become interested in science is that through the Next Generation Science Standards, students will be tested on STEM literacy in school.

As your child passes through all grade levels, the new Next Generation Science Standards testing will be evaluating your child’s skills and capabilities in areas such as:
1. Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)
2. Developing and using models
3. Planning and carrying out investigations
4. Analyzing and interpreting data
5. Using mathematics and computational thinking
6. Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)
7. Engaging in argument from evidence
8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

In essence, the new standards recognize that “science, engineering and technology permeate every aspect of modern life” and that by the time a student graduates high school they “should have sufficient knowledge of science and en­gineering to engage in public discussions on science-related issues, to be critical consumers of scientific information related to their everyday lives, and to be able to continue to learn about science throughout their lives.”

Scientists are no longer just a bunch of old men in white coats with goggles, pens in pocket protectors, grumpy attitudes and an inability to talk about anything other than research.  Elon Musk, at 36 was named Entrepreneur of the Year. Why? Because by then he was already the CEO of Telsa Motors and Solar City, was co-founder of Paypal and was the then head-rocket-designer for SpaceX.  38-year-old Mayim Bialik who plays a neuroscientist on The Big Bang Theory has a PhD in Neuroscience in real life!

A non-scientist – but someone who has an interest in, and an understanding of science – might be the salesperson at the appliance store who can help you select the most cost-effective furnace, or the grocery store clerk who understands the potential for botulism if meat isn’t properly refrigerated, or the politician who’s fighting for a clean-energy policy.

Science is all around us, and it benefits everyone at every age, to become more science literate.

How to create a great…and winning science project

You’re probably at this website because you (or your child) has been assigned to do a science project this year. This is NOT like your other school work and definitely should not be treated the same way.

Doing a science project doesn’t have to be anything like school work. In fact it can be great fun if you choose a topic or project on something that’s really interesting to you like plants or food, or computers or sports? Do you enjoy roller coasters, computer games or dinosaurs? Have you ever asked yourself why something works the way it does? Do you care about the environment or forensic investigations?

Science is all around you. What’s great about a science fair project is you get to create your own question – and, find the answer to it. You can do a science project on anything that interests you. You’re only limited by your own imagination!

It doesn’t matter if you’re in elementary school, middle school or high school, you should go through the same process to pick a topic. The most important thing is to choose a subject that’s interesting and fun for you — and your science fair project won’t be mind-numbing like some of your other schoolwork might be. It will only become a chore if you wait until the last minute to try and get it done.

If you’re genuinely interested in the subject of your science project, then your interest will come through in the quality of your project and, in your interviews with the judges.

Come back and visit our web site over the next several weeks and months, as we create the step by step process to not only survive your science fair experience – but thrive with it.  Next time – help in choosing a topic.

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

Don’t Waste the Summer!

School is nearly over and most of the science fairs have finished, but summer is the perfect time to start thinking about and to plan next year’s science project.  To get a big head start with your next science fair project, plan to select a topic and do a lot of research on it over the summer. Your judges will be really impressed if they see the first entry in your science journal back in June or July of the previous year!

And, just like athletes who work hard to train over the summer so they’ll be in shape for fall sports, science fair students who begin working on their next project the day after school gets out for the summer will have a much better chance at winning a prize than those who wait until the week before it’s due to start working on the project.

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 on-line science competitions you might be interested in entering.

Our Facebook page has links to stories about the winners of some of the local, national & international competitions, and information about upcoming science competitions and webinars.  Many competitions release their rules and deadlines over the summer. You might even find ideas for topics on web sites such as the Kid Wind Challenge, Operation Firefly, the Green Electronics Maker Challenge, the Cybermission Challenge and the Google Online Science & Technology competition. 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, you’ll also see posts such as the Ten 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 excitement and opportunties!

Visit us on Facebook for valuable ideas & useful info

Whether you’re a student, teacher, parent or mentor, if you’re one of the growing members of Facebook, you should visit our new Mister Science Fair Facebook page.

If you “Like” us on Facebook, you will get exciting ideas and useful information, advice and resources about creating a science fair project and/or an engineering design project. You’ll also find out news about science fair competitions around the world for students, teachers & schools, and much more.

Mister Science Fair is constantly evolving and changing, and we have lots more exciting developments in store soon, both on Facebook and on our website. If you have any thoughts or comments about what you’d like to see on our web site or Facebook page, please get in touch with us at

A dream comes true — Adrian wins 2nd Place Silver Medal at the Nationals!

Adrian Niles at the ACT-S0 National Competition in Orlando, FL (Photo, Charlene Greene)

Congratulations to Mister Science Fair mentee & Boston NAACP youth science & engineering competitor Adrian Niles, who won the Silver Medal at the national competition of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO) on July 14, 2013 in Orlando, FL.  Adrian is a resident of Brockton, MA and will be going into his senior year at Southeastern Regional Vocational High School in Easton.

Adrian’s creation of a self-balancing, two-wheel, personal transportation device took second place in the category of engineering.  His vehicle, similar to the more commonly known Segway, is called the “People Mover” which he modified to include new safety features designed for ease of use by the elderly and disabled.  He’s been working on this project for the last two years, and winning a medal at the ACT-SO nationals was a dream-come-true for him.

ACT-SO is a yearlong achievement program designed to recruit, stimulate, and encourage high academic and cultural achievement among African-American high school students. “The ACT-SO competition is a work of love for the countless volunteers who work with these young people throughout the year to get them prepared to compete,” said Michael Curry, Boston NAACP President.

Mister Science Fair hosted ACT-SO information on its web site for the Boston Branch NAACP, and our staff mentored Adrian with his project.

(Here’s the article about Adrian’s win at the Boston ACT-SO competition earlier this year, along with pictures of his homebuilt segway.)

Two Keys to Understanding the Scientific Method: Curiosity & Observation

    It pretty much goes without saying that curiosity comes naturally to kids! How many times has your child asked the question, “Why?”

But, observation, and the ability to focus are also both skills that are fundamental to learning about the scientific method, and something you can help your child learn.  It’s never too early to start, even before your child goes to school.

The first thing to do is to buy your young scientist an “Observation Notebook.”  This is where they will write descriptions and draw pictures of what they see. These types of notebooks are extremely important to scientists.

Really good scientific documentation in a notebook captures the development of the scientist’s thinking, how the research was done, and first impressions of what was observed by a scientist. This is as important as the data itself. Capturing data is not the same thing as observation. What made Sherlock Holmes a good detective was the ability to notice details…large and small. If you’ve never thought of it this way before, scientists are really detectives.

Some of the most successful scientists in the world learned to use a notebook at a very young age. Getting a middle school and high school student to learn the importance of maintaining an on-going notebook from the very early concepts of a science fair project through its conclusion is usually a challenge, and I know many science fair students who waited until the last minute to “catch up” with completing their notebook the last few days before the competition.  It’s difficult enough for students to remember everything they did for their project if they haven’t taken good notes along the way, and it’s near impossible to recall observations that may have happened months ago. This is not good science!

 While younger scientists may need help writing things down in their Notebook, older students usually need to constantly be reminded to do it.  Pictures, photos & drawings of observations are perfectly legitimate to include but notebooks that include written observations enhance literacy skills; studies have shown that writing down observations helps to improve focus, memory and retention.

Figuring out what to observe is only limited by your child’s (and your) imagination. For instance, take a walk around the house and write down or draw everything you see that’s green.  Make sure you date the day of the observations and what room you were making the observations in; consider doing the same thing a month or two later so you can compare the changes. Or compare the number of green items in one room versus another.

If you do the same thing on a car ride, you might want to keep track of how many blue cars you see.  If you do this as a game every Saturday on the way to soccer practice, you can even chart the results after a few months to see if there are any changes. If your child likes cats, have them create a Cat Observation Notebook.

While observation plays a major role in the steps of the scientific method, it’s also a skill that will help your child in so many other areas as he or she gets older.

A high school science fair project…about dinosaurs!

Let’s go back to what I consider to be the most important part of creating a great science fair project, and what might be the really hard part of doing a science fair project – choosing a topic. Most students dread the thought of doing a science fair project, so I really can’t emphasize enough the importance to parents of helping a child find a science fair topic that they are interested in.

Let’s look at things from your child’s perspective. Unless your child likes to fertilize the lawn, a project comparing the effects of different fertilizers on sections of your lawn will be boring, uninteresting (may make your lawn look funny) and will not spur them on to enjoying the science fair experience. How about a project which compares the growth of plants when you play different types of music to them? This might be a fun experiment for your child, especially when he or she will have to play rap music every day for several weeks… loud enough to hurt your ears; but it’s been done at least a thousand times. And, unless your child is a musical prodigy and will be able to answer the judge’s questions about specific differences that may have affected the results between the various genres of music, then this might not be the best topic to choose.

Helping your child choose a science fair project topic that he or she is interested in is important, not only for them to develop an interest in doing the project and to learn from it, but it also might be an opportunity for you to learn something about your child you may not have known before. If you have a child in elementary school, you might want to have them gather their favorite story books and sit down together to see if there are any commonalities between the themes or subjects in the book, and choose a science fair topic based on some of those subjects.

With a middle school or high school child, ask questions about their interests, favorite subjects in school, or what things they’d really like to know more about like “How does a bridge stay up and not collapse under the weight of all those cars?”. Brainstorm possible project s with them. Unless you’re an expert in one of those areas, encourage your child to call or write someone who is an expert on the subject, to give them some ideas about how to narrow the idea down to an experiment.

No subject area should be considered absurd. My son’s passion for all-things-dinosaurs as a 6 year-old led to a week-long Paleontology camp in Montana when he was 12. After some encouragement and advice about doing a science fair project on dinosaur eggshells from the scientists he met at the camp as well as from staff at the local science museum where he took a summer workshops on how a Scanning Electron Microscope works, he then set out to research the subject at our local university library. With funding from his high school physics teacher for stamps, he then wrote letters to curators of museums and zoos all around the world describing what he wanted to do with his project, and asked for samples of fossilized and non-fossilized eggshells.

We were all quite astounded when he started receiving packages with pieces of eggshells, and in one case – an entire emu and ostrich egg! With eggshells in hand, and a more refined idea about his project, calls to local science equipment companies and college professors allowed him access to some incredible equipment. This eventually turned into four years of high school science fair projects comparing fossilized eggshells with those of modern day birds (he was hoping to find a missing link between dinosaurs and birds).

Some of the more interesting & fun science fair projects takes time to develop (most of my son’s eggshell samples didn’t arrive for about 2-3 months after he first sent out his letters), so it’s never too early to start the process of coming up with a topic, to figure out the best way to approach the subject or, to make contacts with experts (or in my son’s case, egg-sperts) to get the guidance to make it a fun and valuable learning experience.

Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) photos of fossilzed eggshells from Barnas Monteith’s 9th grade Science Fair Project

Is there anything left to discover?

Large Hadron Collider

A 2007 photo of the tunnel and dipole magnets of the Large Hadron Collider, a particle accelerator, nearly a year before it opened. It’s said to be one of the greatest scientific inventions of modern times.

I remember reading an article several years ago in Time magazine about a debate between Paul Hoffman, former editor of Discover magazine & past president of the Encyclopedia Britannica and John Horgan, author of a controversial book, The End of Science (Monday, April 10, 2000).
In the debate, Horgan tried to convince Hoffman that “…we’ve discovered all we can realistically expect to discover and that anything we come up with in the future will be pretty much small-bore stuff.” If you buy this line of thinking, then there is no reason to have any more science fairs, and the new national Next Generation Science Standards for school kids should be thrown out the window.
Let’s look at the evidence of some of the biggest scientific breakthroughs and discoveries over the past decade…since the article was released:
• The human genome project was completed
• Two teams of scientists, one in Wisconsin the other in Japan, announced their discovery of a way to make stem cells without using embryonic stem cells.
• The first self-replicating, synthetic bacterial cell was created.
• An artificial liver was developed to be used as a bridge for the liver transplant, minimizing the chances of liver failure.
• A vaccine preventing cervical cancer was developed.
• The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was built, a 17-mile-long looped track located an average of 300 feet beneath the Earth’s surface under the Swiss-French border, which accelerates two beams of particles to 1.2 trillion electron volts (TeV) and then smashes them together. It’s said to be one of the greatest scientific inventions of modern times.
• Scientists at the Genome Sequencing Center report that they have sequenced all the DNA from the cancer cells of a woman who died of leukemia and compared it to her healthy cells. In doing so, the experts found mutations in the cancer cells that may have either caused the cancer or helped it progress. It is the first time scientists have completed such research.
• Scientists have created a vaccine that seems to reduce the risk of contracting the AIDS virus.
• Scientists have published the first comprehensive analysis of the genetic code of the Y chromosome.
• The Hubble telescope has detected the oldest known planet—and it appears to have been formed billions of years earlier than astronomers thought possible, 12.7 billion years ago.
• Two new solar systems were discovered.
• The world’s first vaccine was developed against the malaria parasite, which has been shown to be effective against even the most deadliest strains.
• Jadarite was discovered; it is an essential component in the production of batteries for cellphones, computers, and electric or hybrid cars.
• Exoplanets have been confirmed to exist revolving around distant stars similar to our sun. As a result, we may begin a rethinking of the universe and our place within it.
• Then, there were the inventions of the iPod, the iPhone, hybrid cars, the Segway transporter, 3-D printing, augmented reality, and using water as fuel.

If there’s any question about where I stand in the debate between Horgan and Hoffman, let me state unequivocally that I do not support Horgan’s claims that “…we’ve discovered all we can realistically expect to discover” and anything else will basically be small-potatoes.

If anything, the above evidence illustrates how important it is to train and support the next generation of scientists.