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.

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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 https://www.facebook.com/mistersciencefair – and “like” us on Facebook to make sure you don’t miss out on the excitement and opportunties!

Practice, Practice, Practice! Next Generation Science Standard Practices, Synonymous with Science Fairs…

I recently gave a talk at the 2013 Massachusetts STEM Summit, held at the Foxboro MA Patriots stadium, focused on STEM and innovation/entrepreneurship.  One of the key focuses of the talk was the upcoming Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), following the US-wide adoption of the Common Core Math and English standards.  26 of the 50 states have agreed to be part in the drafting and adoption of these standards, and more are expected to participate as well.

So, in the coming years, science departments across the US will be looking to find new ways to align their curriculum with these new standards, which include more rigorous and deep science content as well as logic processes/methods.  One such method we all know very well in the science fair community is the scientific method.

However, the term “scientific method” appears to have been replaced by the term “practices”, which encompass the very same processes promoted widely by science fairs for the past nearly 70 years.  However, by incorporating the “practices” more concretely into a national set of science standards, we may soon begin to see science fairs institutionalized in the American educational landscape.  Half a century ago, science fairs were ingrained in the US formal school culture, but due to a variety of factors (decreased funding in education across the board, more focus on a smaller subset of frameworks to improve standardized testing scores nationally, fewer school hours and less lab time, etc…) science fairs have become less of a national priority, despite the best efforts of the current administration to highlight the very best STEM students in the US.

Currently, it is thought that less than a quarter of all US students participate in a science fair of one kind or another — however, thanks to NGSS, this number may soon be on the rise as science departments grapple with a way to fulfill the practice standard requirements.  The science fair, was once seen as an innovative way to offer real world experiences to students in the sciences, and perhaps inspire them to become scientists or engineers.  Now, the science fair has re-emerged as an innovative way to

For those who doubt that the NGSS practices are in fact science fairs by another name, take a look at the following slide I presented at the Summit, which contrasts the 8 NGSS practice areas against the typical science fair process:

NGSS Practices & Science Fairs

Looks like for US science teachers and public school students alike, the next few years will be the time to pick up their old science fair curriculum resources and practice, practice, practice!

- Barnas Monteith

3 Great Videos About Entering Your State Science Fair!

Brought to you by the Massachusetts State Science & Engineering Fair, Inc. (MSSEF) – one of the oldest dedicated science inquiry non profits in the nation, started over 65 years ago.  Hosted by WBZ Meteorologist and science education activist, Mish Michaels:

The Anatomy of A Science Fair Project:

This Isn’t Your Father’s Science Fair!

About MSSEF & State Science Fairs

MSSEF’s Board of Directors has been Chaired by MisterScienceFair’s Barnas Monteith for 5 years, recently and he is now heading up a team of people to revitalize the organization’s mission and strategic plan.  One of the new missions of the organization is to spread the word about science fairs through social media.  Help us out by liking this post and tweeting about it.  Every link makes a big difference — thank you!