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!