Let me start this post with a preface: I am not a scientist. I am not a science fair expert. You can disagree with me. My feelings won't be hurt. I am a teacher and a mother of four. I have seen, graded and helped to construct countless science fair projects. I have gotten frustrated, shed a few tears, done lots of research and learned a few things. I wanted to share my thoughts with you.
Before you assign a science fair project to your class, please ask yourself why you are assigning it. What is the purpose? I am not opposed to science fair. But I think it is important that as educators we have a purpose and a goal for these projects. Otherwise they can quickly turn into parent homework that causes undue stress on the family and fails to teach the student anything useful. I don't want that to happen in my classroom! If you are assigning the science fair project because you think it will be a fun way for parents to spend time with their children- DON"T DO IT! Parents have plenty of things they would like to do with their children. They don't need us sending home more to add to the to do list! On the other hand, if you are assigning a science fair project for the purpose of helping your students to learn about the scientific process, then continue on. But do so with care and always keeping the goal in mind!
Have you seen this picture from Pinterest?
Having 20-30 students completing different projects at the same time can be an organizational nightmare. It is really important to get organized before science fair season starts! I like to get everything that I will need printed, copied and filed in folders. That way I am never running to the copy room on my restroom break.
I break the science fair project up into six different due dates. There is nothing worse than getting a board at the very end and realizing that the question was more of a research project and the hypothesis didn't make sense. I want to be able to check in with my students throughout the process. For most of my third graders, this is their first true science fair experience. Breaking the project into small chunks also ensures that students are not waiting until the last minute to throw together the entire project. I give them all of the due dates at the start of the project. Some families choose to get the project done much quicker!
Since my students are going to be turning in pieces of the project several times during the process, I have them keep all of their work in one booklet. Now they can turn the entire booklet in and I can look back to remind myself what the question was.
After I read their work and approve it, I put my signature on it and they can start the next step. If they need to fix or change something, I write my thoughts and suggestions right in the book. Parents find this to be very helpful.
I encourage my students to keep this book in a page protector in their binder. Some teachers prep a folder for each student to keep their science fair materials.
Since I have six different due dates, I know that my students and their parents will need reminders. I am a parent. I forget A LOT! So, before science fair season begins, I print reminders for each of my due dates. I get them ready for the whole class ahead of time. They are ready to stick in my weekly files so that I don't forget to send the reminders.
I know that some of my kiddos will miss deadlines. It is just a fact that I have come to grips with and even plan for! Before assigning my projects, I make copies of my missing assignment reminders. I keep them handy. Anytime that a student misses a deadline, I write the piece that is missing (i.e. hypothesis, materials, etc.) and send it right home. I think it is critical to keep communication open with parents during this project.
I also keep my handy checklist nearby. This checklist is where I will record my students' names and check off when I have approved a portion of their project. I use a different color pen when part of the project was turned in, but turned in late. This will help me with assigning a grade at the end.
Speaking of grades, while I am in the copy room prepping, I go ahead and copy a rubric for each of my students. If you teach a younger grade, you may just grade based on participation and completion.
Now I am ready!
Let's chat about the question that your students are testing. It must be testable!!! This should not be a research paper! My own children have received suggested questions from their school that are completely impossible for an 8-10 year old to ever test.
How long does a star live? (Are you serious?!! Are they supposed to just stare at one star until it disappears?!)
What makes a volcano erupt? (We don't have a volcano in our backyard to test! This sounds much more like a research paper! Google it!)
What is acid rain? (Again, Google it!!! No test needed.)
Science fair questions should NOT be demonstrations. The scientist should be testing one thing to compare to another. Please know that when you google "science fair experiments," more of the suggestions are just demonstrations! Let me give you some examples:
How many water drops fit on a penny? (Demonstration)
Will a penny hold more tap water or salt water? (Experiment)
How long does it take for bananas to brown? (Demonstration)
Will bananas brown faster in the pantry, on the counter or in the refrigerator? (Experiment)
Questions should also be very specific. For example, my daughter is testing markers to see what brand lasts the longest. At first, she wrote her question like this: Which brand of markers last the longest? Many teachers would approve this question. However, I am the CRAZY parent and I made her go back and make it more specific. Now her question is: Which brand of markers will last the longest: Crayola, Rose Art or Up & Up? Now her question states exactly what she is testing!
I send a list of possible questions home with my students. This helps parents to understand what I am looking for in a question.
They will need to add brands to make the questions more specific. They can also write their own question. HOWEVER, all questions must be approved by me! I only allow one student to do a question. This gives our science fair more variety. I often have to work with a group of students who turn in research type questions or who did not get specific enough in their question. For this reason, I make my questions due very early in the science fair season.
A science fair experiment should have a purpose. What problem is the scientist solving? How will others be able to use their findings? I want my scientists to make useful discoveries, not JUST have fun. I remember doing an experiment in the third grade. We were testing how many drops of water fit on a penny. It was a blast. Clearly, I remember it all these years later! It was a great demonstration, but would have been a poor science fair experiment. Who cares how many drops of water fit on a penny? Instead, a student could test the effect of adding salt to the water. Does a penny hold more drops of tap water or salt water. The findings would teach someone about the effects of adding salt to water. This project now has a purpose.
Going back to my daughter's question, her findings will have a purpose. We will all know if it is worth forking out the extra money for the Crayola markers! Last year, one of my daughters tested different stain sprays to see which one worked the best. Her findings helped to know which product to buy.
Science fair projects are way too much work to not take away something valuable in the end.
I spend time teaching my students how a science fair board should look. I show them samples. We talk about what makes the board look good and what we would do differently. (It is handy that I have children who do science fair, because I can use their old boards!) I also send home suggestions and guidelines to the parents.
-Type everything that is going to be on the board.
-Choose only 2-3 colors for your board
-Make sure all subtitles are large enough to be seen from several feet away.
-Use color pictures and/or graphs in your results section.
-Mat all of the titles and work on black (or another dark color) cardstock.
-Do not doodle or add decorations that don't relate directly to your project.
-Adding a catchy title is fun and can set your project apart from others.
Here are a couple pictures of boards that my own children have put together.
All of the printables that I use for science fair, along with additional resources for teaching the scientific process and awards, can be found in my Science Fair unit in my TpT store. Click on one of the pictures to go directly to the product.