Tips for Parents

Science Fairs Inside Out

Science Fair Tips & Thoughts for Parents

Unless you’re a scientist or have a science background, the idea of your son or daughter being assigned to do a science fair project can be a pretty terrifying thought. But it really doesn’t have to be so scary…for your child, or for you.

Science is all around us, and you probably don’t realize how much you use it every day. How do you know whether or not to bring an umbrella to work? Meteorology tells you if the weather predictions if for rain. If you don’t like to use chemicals, or spend lots of money on name-brand products, how do you know which house-hold products will do the best job of clearning your windows? Chemistry provides the answers. If prices go up for gas or electricity, you hope geologists will help find new or alternative sources of energy.

The first thing you need to do if your chid is assigned a science fair project is stay calm and not put any negative thoughts into your child’s mind. Whatever you do, don’t say something like “Oh, I had the worst experience with my science fair projects” – even if it’s true. You need to put a positive spin on the assignment, and use it as an opportunity to have your child get involved in learning something more about an area that he or she already an interest.

Help your child choose a project he or she will enjoy

Quite honestly, the single most important thing you can do to help your child be successful with his or her science fair project is to guide them to choose a subject or project they already enjoy.

a.       Does your child like sports? There is lots of science involved in every sport or physical activity you can imagine including hockey, baseball, race cars, swimming, fishing and skate-boarding.

b.      If your child likes animals or plants, there are many different potential projects involving biology or zoology.

c.       Every child likes money…and dirt. Have you ever wondered what’s dirtier – the money in your pocket, on your kitchen sink sponge, or the paws of your dog when he tracks it in from the yard? The comparison would make a great project! You can get a Bacteria Experiment Kit to figure the answer out for only $28.95 here:

d.      Is your child into dinosaurs? One high school student won two grand prizes at the International Science and Engineering Fair by doing comparisons of dinosaur and modern-day bird eggshells!

Ask questions to make sure it’s a “real science” project

Unless your child has specifically been assigned to do a “demonstration project” make sure he or she is doing “real science.” A demonstration project basically only explains or demonstrates how something works.

A real science project has your child:

a.       come up with a question

b.      do some basic research about the subject

c.       pose an hypothesis based on what they think will happen after they conduct an experiment

d.      conduct an experiment, with a variable

e.       gather and compare data

Elementary and middle school projects can be simple and inexpensive

You don’t have to spend lots of money or have a big fancy experiment in order to have a great science fair project. If your child is in elementary or middle school, it’s okay to use common materials around the house and to keep the project simple. The most important part of the science fair project, especially at these levels, will be if your child can demonstrate that he or she did the background research, understands the basic elements of the scientific method, can explain what happened during their own experiment, and can discuss the results.

It’s also very important to make sure your child is not just copying a project out of a book or from the internet, but is finding his or her own “twist” to what makes their project different from other similars ones that may have been done.

High school projects should be unique

At the high school level, science fair projects can be more competitive, especially if your child has the opportunity to enter the project in a regional or state-wide competition. But again, you don’t necessarily have to spend lots of money on the project.

One of the most important things you can do to help your child with a high school science fair project is to help try and make sure the project is unique, or comes from an angle that no one else may have considered.  This means a lot more time is spent in the beginning of the project to do the reseach and talk with experts about what might make the project unique. Many scientists, business owners and college professors are flattered to be asked to brainstorm about a project and to provide ideas about how to approach it. They may even end up opening doors for your child to be able to use fancy equipment such as a Scanning Electron Microscope.

Help your child stay on schedule

It’s all about time management.

In your child’s world, all he or she knows is that when it’s time to eat, the food is on the table. They don’t see all the time that went into thinking about what to cook for dinner, the ingredients that had to be purchased, the preparation work that went into pre-heating up the oven or cutting up the meat or peeling the vegetables. In much the same way, most students don’t understand the amount of time it takes to think up a project, figure how much research needs to be done. Then, there’s who to contact, what items need to be purchased, and how to actually design the experiment. There’s the time to turn the results into charts and graphs and time to design the presentation board and write the report. Oh – and don’t forget that the oral presentation needs to be outlined and practiced.

You can help your child realize all the part of the science fair project and to come up with a reasonable schedule to get it done. Where the major elements of an elementary or middle school project might be able to largely get done in a few weeks, a really good high school project can take 3-4 months. And, it will probably have to be done in between other school work, sports, hobbies, friends and video games.

Ask lots of questions

Whether you know the answers or not, asking your child lots of questions about their project, their approach to the experiment and the results, helps to develop their critical thinking skills. They’ll also be more comfortable and be better able to answer questions from judges if they had to first think about those answers when you asked the question.

Scientist don’t just guess at answers to their problems, but they prove what they believe to be true by doing lots of experiments and by using scientific reasoning. You might want to ask questions like “Why did you do it that way?” or “Was there another way you could have done the experiment?” or “How do you know that?” These types of questions helps your child with critical thinking and reasoning.

It’s not just about science

You may not fully understand this concept until years after your child has excitedly and enthusiastically participated in a science fair – but, science fair projects and science fair competitions are not just about science. There are so many incredible skills that your child can learn through their project from research and making connection, to experimentation and creativity. They’ll learn about charts & graphs as well as designing and giving presentations. And, if they’re lucky enough to impress the judges, it may lead to travel, building lasting friendships, college scholarships and career opportunities.

It’s important for parents to take the time to help create a meaningful and fun learning experience. If you’re interested and excited about your child’s science fair project, they will be excited about it too!