Discover the why

Have you ever had to speak in front of a group of people, or in front of a class in school? Some people get sweaty palms and dry-mouth when they have to speak to others in similar situations, and it ends up being a terrible experience for them. This is the part of the science fair project experience that can be most scary for your child. It’s never too early to start preparing for your child’s science fair oral-presentation and judging experiences, even though the science fair may not be happening for several weeks or months.

One of the ways to help your child get ready for that dreaded day NOW, is to start asking questions about the project as your child is working on it, and then have them write those questions and answers down in their notebook (don’t forget that your child needs to maintain a written journal to record everything they’re thinking and doing about their project) so the information sticks with them better. There are many studies showing that when we write things down, we create spatial relationships in our brains between the various bits of information we are hearing, saying, thinking and writing down. The process of writing things down usually means we are putting some thought into evaluating the information we’re recording.  The relationships between these spatial tasks are handled by another part of the brain that allows us to then remember a higher proportion of key facts.

The questions don’t have to be complex.  Have your child explain to you what they’re doing.  Are they measuring something, are they making observations about the status of something?  What differences are they noticing from yesterday to today with their project? Are they thinking about an expert in the field they might want to talk with about their project?  Are they thinking about a photograph they might take to capture what they’re doing?

Remember when your child was “at that age” of always asking “why?” You need to do the same thing. Ask your child a lot of “why” questions. “Why did you decide to use that particular chemical or brand?” “Why do you think the liquid changed to a purple color?” “Why do you think this trial didn’t work out like the other ones?” These are the same types of questions judges will ask your child. If your child has been asked the same questions by you, then this means they’ve already thought about the answers and have a good understanding of their project.  They are less likely to be nervous when you let them know that these are the same questions they’ll be asked by judges.

Nurturing inquisitive minds

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? They can all be kind of scary when a child is very young!  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.

What are your ideas for nurturing kids and getting them to develop a greater interest in, or appreciation for science ? Share your thoughts below.

15 year old Barnas Monteith was able to get access to equipment at Yale University as a result, in part, of the credibility he obtained by taking courses at the Boston Museum of Science