A Science Fair Handbook

To help students complete a successful science fair project, break the project down into a series of manageable chunks, suggests Sandy Lautz. See Judie Haynes' Circle Time column, "Time for Science Fair," Essential Teacher, September 2006, pp. 6-7.

Nothing strikes fear in the hearts of students and their parents (and sometimes their teachers) the way the words science fair project do. But you can allay those fears if you approach science fair projects as a series of manageable chunks with predetermined deadlines and rubrics that guide students along the way.

A few years ago, I found myself overwhelmed by the thought of having all my sixth-grade students complete their science projects on time in a way that wouldn't embarrass them, me, or their parents. As a culminating project for my master's program in educational technology, I decided to create an online science fair handbook (see Lautz 2001) to help students, teachers, and parents meet the challenges of completing a successful science fair project. ESL teachers can use the suggestions below as a starting point for incorporating science fair projects into their curriculum.

Create a Timetable

To guide students through the process of completing a successful science fair project, I first create a manageable timetable (using a blank calendar) with due dates for each part of the project. I allot two to three months to the projects. Students create the timetable with me in order to reinforce the fact that they have deadlines to meet. I leave myself enough time between steps to give feedback to each student, either in writing or during a student-teacher conference.

Guide Students through Topic Selection

Many students have a difficult time selecting a topic for their project. I list several sites in my handbook that help students narrow their search, and I keep a collection of idea books in my classroom.

Reinforce the Scientific Method

The students have already been exposed to the scientific method through experiments in class and at our district's Discovery Room (a science center with a full-time teacher). This background knowledge helps them understand the different parts of the project.

Students must submit their proposals to me to make sure that their projects can be completed in the given time frame and that they follow the scientific method:

  • question: All projects must be based on a testable question that students submit to me for approval in the form of a project proposal.
  • research: Students must find some information, either online or in print, that will help them form their hypothesis.
  • hypothesis: Students submit a hypothesis statement, attaching the research that supports their theory.
  • experiment: Students create an experiment plan that outlines what they will do. This plan includes materials, procedures, constants, and variable. I recommend limiting students to one variable unless they are very competent science students. Completed experiment plans are available on the district Web site to ensure that students are familiar with the format.
  • data: Students turn in a table of results of the experiments. They also keep a science journal in which they record the data of their findings. In some cases, where the data are not quantitative, students take photographs to demonstrate their results. The journals, which I check, also include the finished project.
  • analysis: With cooperation of the computer teacher in our school, students learn how to insert their data into graphs. Students who do not have quantitative data may write a paragraph summarizing what they have discovered. I encourage students to put as much data as possible into number format so that the results can be turned into graphs. For example, if students are comparing the cleaning power of various detergents, I tell them to give the results a numerical value (i.e., 1 is the cleanest, 3 is the dirtiest). This kind of information translates easily into a graphic representation.
  • conclusion: In this final section, students make a statement as to whether their hypothesis was correct or not, why they think it turned out the way it did, and what they would do next time to improve the experiment.

Model the Presentation

To get ready for the science fair display, I discuss with the students how to set up presentation boards in logical and eye-catching ways. I model this on a whiteboard and show them examples of completed projects online. The students then each get a checklist and a rubric to make sure they understand what I expect from these displays and to help them ensure that their project is correct and complete. They sign their rubric before they submit it to me; I then use it as a grading sheet.

Monitoring is the Key

This monitoring of the steps allows students to observe how they have completed each part of their project. Thus, what many students originally saw as an insurmountable project is completed gradually over time. Many are surprised when they see their own finished product. Proud parents are relieved that they didn't have to do the projects for their children, and students even admit the project was fun. What more can teachers ask for?

Reference

Lautz, S. 2001. A science fair handbook for teachers, parents, and students. http://www.riveredgeschools.org/Practicum/index.htm.

Sandy Lautz (lautzs@riveredgeschools.org) teaches sixth grade at Cherry Hill School, River Edge, New Jersey, in the United States, and is the Webmaster for the school district.


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