I’m moving on up to teach Middle School next year, so this will be my last 5th grade science fair for the foreseeable future. After 8 years of overseeing these fairs, I’ve generated a ton of schedules, forms, letters, worksheets- all the structural stuff that I’m going to be passing on to my replacement next year. Unfortunately, no matter how much I want this transition to go smoothly- I realized today that the most important element of the entire fair can’t be forwarded in an email or printed out in a binder: it’s the careful coaching that I do with students in short face-to-face meetings over the course of the science fair preparations.
Thinking about it now, I probably should have recorded some of these conversations, because it would be much more interesting and informative than just sharing my recollections and impressions- but that will have to be another project for another time! To give you an idea of what this kind of science fair coaching looks like, here’s a recreation of a typical conversation that I had with a team of students who were investigating how different liquids affected the amount of rust that forms on steel:
- Teacher: So what are you going to measure to compare the amount of rust?
- Students: How long the rust is.
- T: What tool are you going to use to do that?
- S: A ruler. With centimeters.
- T: OK- so let’s say your blob of rust looks like this (I draw a blobby shape on a piece of paper). How would you measure that?
- S: Like how long it is. From here to here (pointing at two ends of the rust).
- T: Why not here to here? (pointing at different ends of the rust). You see how this is going to be tricky? What if the rust looks like this (draw another blobby shape, smaller but longer)? Which blob of rust is bigger?
- S: This one. (pointing at the first blob)
- T: But the second one is longer, right? So what else could you measure?
- S: We could do how long and how tall maybe.
- T: Length and height… so you would be figuring out area then instead, right? So instead of just measuring centimeters, you would be measuring square centimeters, like this (draw a square centimeter). But are your blobs of rust going to be perfect squares?
- S: No, but we could estimate it.
- M: OK, that’s a good idea, you could try to figure out how many square centimeters each blob of rust. So how would you figure out this blob (pointing at the first blob on the paper)?
- S: Like this (starts drawing square centimeters inside the blob), and count how many fit inside.
- M: Good thinking, but won’t that take a long time? Instead of drawing square centimeters yourself, is there a way you could use something with the squares centimeters already drawn on them? Like a piece of graph paper? How could you use that to make your measurements easier?
- S: (after some thought) We could trace the rust on the paper- and then just count them up! …But what about if only part of a square is full?
- M: Hmmm…. what do you think you should do?
- S: What if we only count the ones that are mostly full.
- M: That sounds like a good rule for estimating. I think you have a good plan now, why don’t you try it out and see how if it works?
And now for some “post-game analysis”- here’s what I think makes these kind of coaching conversations work so well:
- Leading from behind: The most difficult thing for me to learn as a science fair coach was how to lead a team of students without… err… leading. It’s a tricky tension: we want our students to be active learners and experience inquiry-based learning, but our students don’t have the skills or understanding to go the distance independently. So yes, the teacher still has to take the lead to guide students through the process, but it’s a subtle kind of leading puts the students out in front so they have a feeling of ownership and an opportunity to make decisions (and mistakes). In the example above, obviously the students are going to run into problems trying to measure the length of several irregular shapes, and there’s no point in having them waste hours of time doing that to “teach them a lesson” (if students spend hours collecting data, they will cling to it for dear life no matter how “bad” you may explain it is later!). Instead I have them think it through beforehand and come up with a better solution. Notice that I’m while I’m driving the conversation towards this solution the entire time, it’s the students that are actually making the decisions. The best analogy I can come up with is driver’s ed: the students are at the wheel, but all the while the teacher is there to keep students focused on what’s important, and if necessary you have the ability to slam on the brakes.
- Just right and just-in-time: My science fair coaching style is not a constant peppering of students with questions and suggestions- if you coach that way students will tune you out as faster than a nagging parent! Instead I pick 3 critical points to have these face-to-face conversations: when students have brainstormed their experimental questions, when students have written a rough draft of their procedure, and when they have collected their data (before analyzing it). That’s it. In between these points there’s plenty of modeling with exemplar science fair reports and example experiments in class, but the actual science fair work along the way is done without anyone looking over their shoulder. This way students truly do have ownership of their experiment, and have the opportunity to make plenty of mistakes! For example, the rough draft procedures are almost universally terrible when we meet- but that’s OK. As a teacher I can hone in on the most important issues to address, and lead from behind to guide student’s learning to improve their procedure before they start experimenting.
- Student-centered learning should be… STUDENT centered: The last important aspect of successful coaching is more of a philosophy than a strategy. As science teachers we can’t help but have an idea in our mind of what a perfect science fair experiment looks like… the kind that impresses the judges, wins the Google Science Fair and gets our name in the paper. Part of us would love to stroll through our science fair and see table after table of these perfect clones- wouldn’t that be a successful science fair? Maybe in a teacher’s eyes, but of course our real goal is student learning, and that will only be successful if that students actually have a chance to learn! In my mind the most successful science fair experiments are the ones that inspired the most learning and sparked the most interest in scientific inquiry. These may not be the ones with the most polished poster or the most “scientific” topic. In fact often these will be the experiments where the students ran into the most problems with their procedure or data. At the end of the day though, with careful coaching these students will have learned far more than by following someone else’s directions on ScienceFairProjects.com, and they will be able to demonstrate that learning by explaining the problems they overcame (and the ones they could not).
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Today I finished meeting with my last science fair team of students, and I’ve gotta say that I’m pumped about their ideas for experiments this year! It’s definitely the most creative and interesting bunch of experimental questions I’ve ever seen from 5th grade students. But it wasn’t always this way… after running a 5th grade science fair for the past 8 years, my ideas of how to guide students through this challenging endeavor have evolved quite a bit. Nowhere has this evolution been more apparent to me than this first critical phase of the science fair: choosing what to do for an experiment.
For one, I don’t use the word “project” with my students… ever. Any science fair “project” worth its salt is an experiment, and the word “project” makes it sound like anything will do as long as it takes a lot of time and effort… Build a realistic baking soda volcano? Create a scale model toothpick Eiffel Tower? Not in my science fair! I want to make clear from the get-go that these projects won’t do, that our science fair is about doing an experiment.
Even with this clarification, choosing what to do seems like such a basic step, and yet there are many pitfalls to watch out for that can undermine the whole shebang if you’re not careful:
- Killing creativity: There’s a plethora of resources out there on the web and in print aimed to help students choose a science fair “project”. I know I’ve been tempted in the past by Science BuddiesTopic Selection Wizard… “Answer a short survey and the Topic Selection Wizard will find you the perfect project!” What could go wrong?? Actually a lot. As soon as students start looking at lists of pre-made experiments their brains kill the creative juices of curiosity and instead begin an analytical process of finding the “perfect project”. If students are confronted by some confusing vocabulary they are unfamiliar with (bacteria? refraction? air resistance?), they simply ignore that experiment and look for another. This process of elimination and path of least resistance will naturally drive most students to the same boring and undeveloped ideas that all science teachers will recognize: how do different drinks affect the growth of plants, etc, etc.
- Ending inquiry: As I wrote about in my last post, one of the saving graces of the science fair is the opportunity for students to engage in more open and less structured inquiry learning. Even the first time I ran a science fair I know I stressed how important it was to have students choose an experiment that was interesting to them. But I kept ending up with student’s doing experiments that sounded like they would be more interesting to their parents. How did this happen? For one, 5th grade students don’t really know enough about the different fields of science out there to know what interests they might have. Maybe they’re interested in sports or music or video games, but they can’t connect these interests to science, so they get frustrated and just cave in to the advice of their “helpful” parent. Students’ views of science (and their parents’ views) are usually extremely narrow, so the chance for true inquiry often gets shut down because of this disconnect between their interests and what they view as an “acceptable” science experiment.
- Dead-ending development: Even if you can get students past the lame lists of pre-made projects and the pressure of their parents, 5th grade students can’t be expected to come up with a developed idea for a scientific experiment if they lack the background knowledge about the topic. And they almost always lack the background knowledge! I was talking to a group today that wanted to do an experiment with water evaporation, but they didn’t actually know much more about evaporation than “the water goes up to make clouds”. How can I expect them to choose an interesting manipulated variable for their experiment, if they don’t know the basics of what makes evaporation happen in the first place? If I don’t give them enough time to figure this out and develop their idea, what happens is they’ll cling to the first idea they can think of, no matter how simple or doomed for failure. Rushing this phase of a science fair will stunt the growth of students’ learning big time.
So after having plenty of first-hand experience learning what not to do, here’s some solutions that I’ve come up with to avoid these problems:
- Brainstorm in baby steps: To begin our fair, students do a science interest survey to find out what fields of science appeal to them. In a lot of cases they may have never even heard of some of these areas of science, or realized that science was deeply connected to sports, engineering, and health. The survey helps students connect things they like to do with scientific fields or topics of study. Only then do students begin brainstorming experiments.
- Scaffold student choice: Students are then tasked with brainstorming experimental questions, not just a vague “project”. All of their experimental questions must be phrased in the form: “Does ______ affect ______?”. This simple scaffold is awkward at first, but with practice it makes sense to students and it ensure that all of their questions will be experimental in nature. It also forces unconscious thinking about their manipulated and responding variables. Even if they don’t know what a variable is, their questions in this form will naturally include their variables “Does (manipulated variable) affect (responding variable)?”
- Coaching is key: Just because I’m wary of parent involvement at this point, doesn’t man I think this is a laissez-faire phase. In fact, I would say that my learning how to better coach students to develop their experiment ideas is the single greatest factor that has improved the science fairs I’ve done over the years (although I have no data to back this up!). Using the experimental question scaffold above, it’s very easy to take questions in this format and improve them, simply by challenging students do think of other possibilities for the first blank (the manipulated variable) or to get more specific about the second blank (the responding variable). Even the famous “different drinks on plants” can be coached into scientific legitimacy with this string of probing questions: Why do you think different drinks will affect plants? These drinks have lots of different ingredients, so which ones are the ingredients that you think will affect them? Do you know that gardeners use fertilizers with certain ingredients to help plant growth too? What ingredients do these fertilizers have? What about investigating some of these ingredients in drinks and fertilizers to see which help a plant grow the most? You get the idea!
- Take your time: Very often my students will lack the background knowledge to choose an interesting manipulated variable that will yield understandable results… and that’s OK. I let them leave that part of the question blank, or keep it as a list of the possible manipulated variables they’ve brainstormed. The next phase of the science fair is researching their topic, so I give them some pointed research questions (there’s that coaching again!) that will enable them to help figure out a manipulated variable. By giving the students the opportunity to “let it ride” and learn more about their topic, you open the doors to many kinds of experiments that students might run from if pressured to craft a perfect question too early. This year I’ve got groups of students investigating refraction, car lubricants, memory, earthquake building design, weed killers… they know basically nothing about these topics right now, but they are interested as heck in them! So their questions just look like this for a while: “Does ______ affect how well a person can remember numbers?” “Does _____ affect how much light bends?” “Does _____ affect how well a building survives an earthquake?” Once they’ve done a little research they’ll be able to fill in the blank themselves, and they’ll end up with a much richer experiment in the long run.
Next week the students will dive into the research, and I’m looking forward to seeing how their thinking and questions develop. Then of course it’s off to the next big thing: designing their experiment and writing a procedure… so stay tuned!
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The discussion about educational value from my previous post has me thinking like a teacher-economist lately, analyzing the cost benefit of all the kinds of choices teachers have to make every day. One of the most important choices we make is what to include (and exclude) in the curriculum (although the amount of choice teachers have in this matter varies greatly depending on the school system!). Since today I held a kick-off event for our 5th grade science fair, I’d like to put that classic bastion of science education on the chopping block, and explain why, for all its flaws, I think it should be saved.
“Science fair” conjures up many familiar images: tri-fold posters, plants grown in different kinds of light, judges peering over clipboards, and anxious students (and parents) milling about a gymnasium. Science fairs have been around for ages (according to a science fair poster manufacturer, since 1921!) and in a lot of schools I bet today’s students’ science fairs look strikingly similar to their parents’ science fairs (except with fewer experiments about nuclear radiation). In other words, the traditional science fair has become too… traditional, and as teachers we know we shouldn’t just keep on doing something because that’s the way we did it last year. What’s wrong with the good ‘ole science fair? Here are a few of the faults the pose the most trouble:
- Conflict with the standards-based shift: Since students in a traditional science fair have the choice to pursue all different kinds of experiments, doing the science fair as a unit doesn’t check off any content from your standards. And in our age of bloated science standards, we barely have enough time as it is to “cover” everything, so how can time be wasted on something devoid of content?
- Competition gets ugly : The student’s main goal in the classic science fair is to win, and often there’s a big deal made of the winners: ribbons, trophies, going on to regionals, etc. With that kind of competition, the pressure to succeed is high, causing stress for students and causing some parents to become way too involved in their “child’s” project.
- Same experiments every year: I’m willing to bet money that if I went back in time and attended a 1950’s science fair the experiments would be nearly identical to the experiments kids come up with today. Why so uncreative? Because conducting original research is hard for students who have been told what to do year after year. So they turn to books and websites for guidance and end up shopping around for something to do from the same tired list of experiments.
With these flaws, why bother doing a science fair at all? Does a science fair have enough education value to justify the large amount of time teachers and students must invest in it? I think it does, and here’s why:
- Open-ended inquiry opportunity: You can’t pick up a current book on science education without being bombarded with the word “inquiry”. And yet, for all the talk about inquiry, from what I can tell, the amount of actual inquiry taking place in science classrooms today is pretty small. When inquiry does occur in the classroom, it’s almost always on the “guided” or “structure” end of the spectrum. Truly open-ended inquiry is a scary prospect for most teachers- because God knows what the students will do! How will I plan my lessons every day? What does a lesson even look like with open-ended inquiry? This is one of the saving graces of the science fair: in their ideal form, science fairs are meant to be open-ended, a chance for students to decide to investigate something that they are curious about, and figure out how to do it. Of cours it takes work to avoid the temptations of http://www.LameScienceFairProjects.com, but with the right amount of support and emphasis on creativity, student can come up with something better than moldy bread. As long as the teacher makes sure to stay true to the ideal of student choice and originality, science fairs can be the perfect piece of open-ended inquiry that’s missing from so many current curricula.
- Scientific skills, the long lost standard: If your science standards document is like mine used to be, you will find at the end of it something like a “scientific inquiry skills” standard, along with a few generalities about drawing conclusions and thinking critically. One unfortunate side-effect of the standards-based movement was a hyper focus on content knowledge, to the detriment of skills. As I discussed earlier, scientific skills are in some ways more important than factual content. When my students are 40 they may not remember that carbon dioxide insulates the earth by trapping radiated heat, but if they can weigh the evidence presented in a scientific piece of journalism and draw a reasonable conclusion, I’m a happy teacher. This is another plus for science fairs, they offer teachers and students a chance to focus on these often-ignored skills. Even if everyone in your class is experimenting with different content, the scientific skills will be the same. So a science fair allows us the freedom to actually put content aside for the moment and emphasize skills.
- Collaboration, not competition: Science fairs don’t have to become an ugly my-kid-is-smarter-than-yours fest. There are many ways to save the science fair from this terrible fate by emphasizing collaboration instead of competition. Have students work in teams instead of on their own. Have teams create a website for their project, so others can collaborate virtually like high school student mentors, or even students from another school. If you do things like this, your student’s experience will be a lot more like real scientific research, and they will learn more of the kinds of collaborative skills they will need in the future.
This post is hopefully the first of many as I navigate the waters of what will be now my 8th science fair as a teacher. Along the way I’ve learned a lot about the opportunities and pitfalls of doing a science fair, but I’m always eager to learn more. If you have experience with science fairs- bad or good, please join in the discussion, I’d love to hear from you!
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