Sunday, January 18, 2015

Science Fair - Helping Kids Prepare

We participated in the science fair and it was a grand learning experience.

Science fairs are about so much more than just science. Forming a plan, perseverance, writing, revising, editing, presenting and creativity are all important elements. Committing to participate in a science fair is a huge undertaking, but the knowledge gained by going through the process is unmatched. Following through with the entire project can easily count for reading, researching, writing, presentation, math and science.

In our house we do lots of science. The majority of our Cell, Human Body, Astronomy, and Earth Science projects were demonstration based science. Most science fair projects, however, are discovery based. This means that they follow the scientific method by first asking a question, and follow through with an experiment to answer the question.

My son has a passion for science. It's his favorite hobby. He's constantly growing plants from seed, engineering devices, and exploring. When he engages in these activities, he naturally follows the scientific method whether he realizes it or not.

1. Ask a question
2. Form a hypothesis
3. Research
4. Plan an experiment to answer question
5. Analyze data
6. Communicate results


A normal science project may take an afternoon to a few days to complete, but a science fair project can take weeks. One big difference is the way the results are communicated. Discussing results with family and friends is not the same as writing out the entire project for others to read. The latter just takes more time.


Here are some tips for working through a science fair project.

Select a Topic
Selecting a science fair topic is by far the most difficult part. Library books, the internet and the child's natural interests help a lot. It's important to let the child lead the way by helping him/her find an interesting topic. Ask the child what he wonders about. Maybe the child is interested in how things grow. Maybe they want to learn about magnets. Perhaps they are interested in how electricity works. A topic is different than a question. My son was interested in erosion and my daughter interested in crystals. They knew they wanted to explore their respective topics, but exploring one aspect of the topic required much discussion.


Question
Once they decide on a topic the child should write down a specific question to answer through scientific test. When we began work on the science fair project my daughter's question was not terribly clear. She wanted to know what kinds of crystals are the easiest to grow? I asked her what kinds you could grow and how she would determine ease of growth. She could name a few and thought about creating a table with the number of steps required to grow them, but then decided she wanted to know what kinds of grown crystals were the prettiest? I asked how she would determine which were the prettiest. Then she asked what is the best ratio of Borax to water to grow the best crystals?, before asking, Do different ratios of Borax to water affect the quantity of crystals grown?

All of her questions required a similar experiment, but writing down a question to answer provided direction for the experiment.


Here are some other science fair questions that could be explored.
Does adding salt to water affect the temperature at which it freezes?
Does the ratio of water to rice affect cooking time?
What liquid preserves apples the best? water, corn syrup, vinegar
Does color affect the length of time a candle burns?
Does temperature affect how high tennis balls bounce?
Does heart rate change with exercise?
What is the best type of soil for plant growth?
How does smell affect taste?
What metals rust with salt water?
Does the surface area of water affect rate of evaporation?
Does hot water cool quicker than coffee?
How does the temperature of a cake change when its put into the oven?

Scientific Method
The child should be familiar with the steps in the scientific method. Take time to look at examples of science fair projects others have done. Be sure to read all the material on the display boards. The internet is an excellent resource.

Hypothesis
A hypothesis is just a guess. Be sure to have the child write down the hypothesis before beginning research and experimentation. Kids (and adults) like to change their mind as they learn more. An incorrect hypothesis does not mean a project is a failure. It's fun to see what happens after committing to a guess.

Research
Be sure the kids have a good understanding of the problem. After doing research ask the child to write down what they know about their topic. My son really surprised me stating that "erosion is a problem because it sometimes happens right under houses." His writing was unique and displayed a good understanding of why he was performing his test.

Test Plan
Writing a test plan is very important and a step that's often completed after the experiment. Working for an engineering company, before being an educator, we were required to write test plans before any tests. They provided focus, communicated ideas to other team members and served as vehicles to get funding. This step is just as critical in a science fair project. Writing the plan down in advance forces kids to think through the entire process. It ensures the experiment will answer the question, provides direction during the experiment, and gives parents a heads-up if any supplies are required. Kids should plan their own experiment, but be given planning assistance if they ask for help, or if their plan has problems.



Experiment
It's best to let the kids conduct their own experiments. One way to do this is to occupy yourself with an activity nearby, while the child performs the experiment. Don't interfere unless help is requested. If the child had a good plan before beginning, they likely can get pretty far with the experiment on their own and will feel very accomplished by doing so.

Analyze Data
Participating in a science fair project is a great opportunity to practice math application. Means, averages and medians can be calculated to help the results make sense. Tables and graphs often work well to display science fair project results. Suggest the child create such figures and provide assistance if required.

Form a Conclusion
Was the hypothesis right or wrong? Why? What factors could have changed the results? Air temperature? Wind? Answering these questions should provide a good start for writing a conclusion.



Write-Up Results
Let the child write-up their results and help them to organize it in categories. Allow two to three weeks to complete the writing portion as it will need to go from the rough draft phase all the way through the publishing phase of the writing process.


Create Science Fair Display Board
Show the child examples of science fair displays so they can see how each step in the scientific method is represented. Ask them which ones they like the best and why. Bold titles, large font (16 pt or greater), photos, and boarders to highlight the text make for pleasing displays. This step can easily take an entire afternoon of work. Artsy kids may spend three days decorating their boards, so be sure to provide plenty of time for this step.


Presentation
Whether or not the science fair has judges, there are likely to be kids and adults with questions about projects. Just mentioning it in advance helps many kids prepare.




Final Thoughts
Participating in a science fair is a huge assignment and a learning opportunity that shouldn't be missed. Forget about spelling, grammar, writing and history lessons for a few weeks while you prepare. Clear your calendar and don't schedule too many activities. Praise the kids participating and have fun!

Check out these great blogs full of educational activity ideas. 

2 comments:

  1. This brings back memories! I haven't gotten to this type of project with my kids yet, though. I remember the most stressful part about my science fair days was just picking the topic =)

    ReplyDelete
  2. This brings back memories! I haven't gotten to this type of project with my kids yet, though. I remember the most stressful part about my science fair days was just picking the topic =)

    ReplyDelete

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