A Science Fair Odyssey

Guest Blog by Rozy Patel, 7th-8th grade science teacher and 2014 recipient of the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching, Edgebrook School, Chicago, Illinois

Often times I am approached with the question: “Well, when in the process of doing a science fair project, will it become hard for my child?” My honest reply is, “It’s tough from the beginning.” The first step when doing a project is selecting a topic. Designing a project around an appropriate topic is hard work. Shying away from this challenge ultimately leads students to simply follow a science fair project recipe.

These days the scientific method is the template to do a project for the school science fair. But if all you’re doing is following a template, you’ll have less creativity and less personal investment in the project. No wonder doing a science fair project has become a torturous process for some students and their families. Recently I saw a display board with a parody of a project.

Science Fair Poster Parody

Parody of a Science Fair Poster created by Susan Messina.

The big question was to investigate how much turmoil doing a project causes families.  The results showed that 90% of all parents yell and 75% of kids cry during the process.  The conclusion was “everyone hates the science fair.”

However, this is not the purpose of the scientific method.  The scientific method is actually an approach to problem solving. It is composed of the elements that we must consider for a well-designed experiment.  This is what we must teach our students.  After all, we want our students to present projects that are innovative and ultimately contribute to improving our society.

In a previous blog entry, it was mentioned that if you Google “science fair” an astonishing number of results will be returned. Most of these are templates or already developed projects. A student just picks a project and follows the directions to complete it. It is quite mundane and quite mechanical. This approach is also not beneficial to our students, as it does not challenge them to be the scientists and engineers that are going to develop solutions for tomorrow’s problems.

When I was initially approached to organize the science fair at a school where I had just been hired, I first questioned the process in place at the time. In the end, students were not benefiting from it. Clearly the next step was to redefine the process. I asked students first to select a topic they thought was interesting. Funny, not a single student had a burning desire to study the absorbency rates of various brands of paper towels.

Redefining the process also meant re-teaching the scientific method that students had memorized but didn’t really understand. We started with the difficult questions of “why,” “what,” and “how.” Why is problem solving even important? What must students understand to solve problems? How can solving problems be beneficial to you? How can solving problems benefit others? The answers seem obvious. It is in this very simple discussion that the value of investigative science comes to light in my classroom. Drawing the parallels between solving problems for yourself (e.g. what to wear to school today?) and the world (e.g. how can we improve communication for the hearing impaired?) helps my middle school students see why the work of investigating is important for all. Thinking about science fair in this way is the reason why my students steer clear of paper towels or volcanoes, come science fair time.

Next, I ask my students to identify a problem they see or a curiosity they have about their chosen topic. Every year, I am impressed by their level of brilliance. Yes, there are occasions when students need continuous guidance. There was a clever student who wanted to investigate if a particular vegetable would thrive more if nourished with 20 mL of milk each day compared to 20 mL of water. After a deep breath, I asked him “So what if it thrives more? Are we actually going to start nourishing our world’s crops with milk instead of water? Is that even feasible for our society?” He quickly realized even he could not make it rain milk.

We truly need to emphasize to our students how their work connects to the real world. Students must identify both relevance and significance to society in their investigation.

Like I said, it’s tough from the beginning.

Once the topic and angle to approach it have been established, the rest falls into place. Through discussions and simulations, students themselves are able to identify the elements of a well-designed investigation. Their declarations start, and we compile a list like this one:

  • You need a large sample size
  • Includes a control for comparison
  • Builds on previous research
  • Conduct research to explain why your results are what they are
  • Questions and predictions (a.k.a. Hypothesis) is based on observations
  • Keep all variables – except the one being tested – the same
  • Reproducible procedure
  • Describes all data – quantitative and qualitative
  • Includes precise measurements/observations recorded during experiment
  • Multiple trials
  • Respects test subjects
  • Materials and time needed are feasible to obtain

For me, as their teacher, the joy of seeing students use the language and practice of scientists cannot be matched.

As incredible as these moments in the classroom are, we are on a deadline. Including the above listed (and more) elements in designing your experiment assures fidelity to the process. However, the time to do so is limited.

That first year, the enthusiasm arising in my students to be young scientists and engineers dwindled in the face of time constraints. To address that, we revised our timeline. For the past four years, each middle school student at my school has a finalized project and plan in place prior to leaving for summer break. Much of the work is completed over the summer, and students come back in the fall excited to share what they have discovered during the summer. The fall is then dedicated to teaching students how to communicate their findings. Finally, we are able to showcase and celebrate young scientists and engineers at our schools annual science fair.

Science fair is serious business at my school. Although students are given the option of opting out of competition, each year we only have about 2-3% who choose to do so. Students of all ability levels are proud of their work and eager to share the conclusions their project has led them to. Students become so vested in their projects that they often stick to the same topic year to year.

Implementing a different approach to science fair has led to many of our students being recognized as well. We are a middle school in the Chicago Public Schools. Yet, our students consistently place over high school students at both the city and state levels.

Sarah Papirnik (8th grade) and Christa Ciesil (7th grade) of Edgebrook School. Both advanced to the Illinois Science Fair, where both received gold recognition in their respective categories.

Sarah Papirnik (8th grade) and Christa Ciesil (7th grade) of Edgebrook School both advanced to the Illinois Science Fair this year, where each received gold recognition in her respective category.

This is quite the buzz and visitors to our school are curious as to how this happens. When they hear our story, the initial reaction is amazement. When they talk to our students, it becomes evident how worthwhile it is to transform the process of doing a science fair project into a meaningful and personal experience for our students.

~ Rozy Patel

You can learn more about Golden Apple’s Inquiry Science Institute here.



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Filed under children as scientists, Edgebrook Elementary, science fair, The Scientific Method, Uncategorized

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