Further Confessions of a Science Fair Judge (and a Very Cool Resource)

It’s that season again. Many teachers, anticipating science fairs later in the year, are beginning to think about making their science fair assignments.

If you’ve been following this blog at all, you probably know that I am not a big fan of science fairs as they often play out. One reason for my antipathy is the fact that I often find myself discussing a science fair project with a student who doesn’t have any real personal connection to the work. Invariably, the student has found the project on the Internet and it seemed quick and easy to do. The problem for me in that is that without real engagement, a specific personal connection, the whole process seems more likely to turn a student away from science than generating any long lasting enthusiasm for doing science. Based on those experiences, I’ve tended to dismiss the Internet as a resource for students to use in developing a science fair project, leaning more toward having students build on scientific investigations they’ve done with their teacher but exploring a new variable or investigating something about which they’ve become curious through personal experience.

But ideas should be revisited in the light of new evidence. And students sometimes do need help in coming up with an interesting topic.

Enter Science Buddies’ Topic Selection Wizard. And with that, I’m confessing I was wrong about Internet generated science fair topics.

The Wizard begins by asking 3 questions with pull down menus. How much time do you have for this project? What grade are you in? Did your teacher assign you a specific area for your project? I responded as a 5th grader, said I had a month to do my project and that I could pick my own topic, rather than a teacher assigned one in physical science, or life science, or engineering/invention, for example.

I then answered 26 question about my own interests with either Yes, Sometimes, or No, and 3 demographic questions. I didn’t make up these interests, by the way. When I hit the Make Recommendations button, I was presented with 459 project ideas matched to my preferences.

A simple fun questionnaire gets students to projects that reflect their individual interests.

A  fun questionnaire directs students to projects that reflect their own interests.

Here’s the thing: As I read the recommendations, I could feel my heart race (yes, I’m a geek) because they sounded genuinely interesting to me! Paw Preference in Pets: I have three at home I could test right now, and I really wonder about what I would discover. Are Merlin, Cacie, and Elvis right or left pawed, and what, if anything, does that mean in terms of other aspects of their personalities? Movie Music: I’m a lifelong movie buff and have bought my share of movie soundtracks, beginning, when I was a teenager, with the lush Max Steiner score for Gone with the Wind. Pedigree Analysis: A Family Tree of Traits: I joined Ancestry.com a couple of months ago to see where the Wilsons came from, not to mention the Tkachs. I never thought to look at photographs to check ear lobes to find if our tend to be connected or not. But the first project idea I opened was Testing Ant Repellents because, guess what?, I just went into the kitchen for a hot cup of coffee and noticed that the ants were back, after I thought the coffee grounds I had tucked around had worked to drive them away, garlic to their relentless, aggravating vampiric march.

Another thing I love about this tool is what happens when you open up a topic that has captured your interest. There is so much there to draw on.

The tool provides a summary, which includes an abstract and a citation of the project in either MLA or APA style. The “Background” tab includes a bibliography and terms. There are also tabs for “Materials” and “Procedure,” which includes a sample data table. “Help” connects you to “Ask an Expert,” along with related links, and “Learn More” suggests science careers you might like if this type of project appeals to you. My favorite tab is “Make It Your Own,” which offers ways to adapt the project or extend it.

Science Buddies’ Topic Selection Wizard solves one problem I find with science fairs — that they fail to engage students in ways that are genuinely relevant to the student. They are also really good science, and the “Background” page does an excellent job of teaching important concepts. You could get lost for days exploring this site and learn a great deal of science in the process.

But I do have a caveat. While I think the Wizard is a good starting point for students new to science fairs, students who may not have found their science investigation chops quite yet, Science Buddies’ thoroughness in providing all the parts of the typical science fair project requirements, even down to the proper MLA or APA citations, could lead to it becoming a crutch and to outright plagiarism, the student simply copying the abstract, for example, if the teacher is not on top of the assignment and aware of the tool.

I think we would want students to use the Wizard suggested projects as models that they would eventually grow beyond, once they’ve had the positive experience of investigating something in which they are genuinely interested. Then they could simply apply the model to their own topics. Also, as teachers, we would want to facilitate and guide their experience with the Wizard, using it as a means to have substantive conversations with students about the topics that fascinate them. This borders on personalized learning. Used appropriately, Science Buddies Topic Selection Wizard is a great resource and if it’s new to you, it’s definitely one you should explore so that you can decide whether or not or how to share it with your students. Guaranteed, you will have fewer of the same project, fewer formulaic projects, and, mercifully, no more testing of paper towel absorbency. And those will be blessings indeed, at least to this science fair judge.

Which Paper Towel is Best? Do you really care?

Which Paper Towel is Best? Do you really care?

A big thanks to Mary Bianchi-Chlada, one of our amazing STEM Institute coaches, for calling my attention to this great resource.

~Penny

You can learn more about STEM Institute here.

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Filed under children as scientists, resources, Science Buddies, science fair, science fair projects, teacher resources

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