“I built this and the LED turns on,” said my student.
“What is an LED? What does it stand for? Why is there a resister in the circuit?” I asked.
“I don’t know cause I just followed the pictures in the manual,” replied my student.
Imagine seeing a student’s project at a science fair with blinking LED lights. It works! It looks fancy! But when the student hasn’t even thought through these basic questions, the project only LOOKS fancy. The fanciness isn’t positively proportional to the student’s STEM-ability.
The Purpose of Science Fairs
The real purpose of a science fair is to grow the scientific curiosity, and plant the seeds for computational thinking in young minds, not to show off a fancy project.
Like mentioned in the previous post on how to help your child/student come up with a science fair topic, a science project’s purpose is to answer a question through experiments or solve a problem through an invention. When the thinking component or the curiosity gets taken out of a project, the actual learning is very limited. Then the presentation becomes meaningless.
Cool-Looking Projects Aren’t the Best Projects
The convenience of internet and pre-made STEM kits make acing the science fair easy. Your child can simply follow the to-do list and the instructions, and there he/she has a decent-looking project. Your child might get lots of wow’s from the audience. However, the “wow” is for the LOOKS of the project, maybe or maybe not much for the SCIENTIST.
How do we make sure the amount of experimentation and learning is maximized then?
What Really Matters
1. Being Able to EXPLAIN the Motivation & Application
Every project has a motivation. If your child is able to understand and EXPLAIN the impact of the project in the real world, then the whole process will have a purpose. That’s what scientists try to achieve, being able to understand the purpose and motivation of everything around us, however small it might be!
Depending on the child’s age, it’s worth it to go deep into the background as much as possible. For example, a lot of designs or projects can help alleviate global warming. Don’t stop there at the level of just saying the words “global warming.” Go deeper. Ask more questions. What is global warming? Why should we care? What should we care about? What part of it is the project actually focusing on? The carbon dioxide concentration? How does it impact the climate? What makes the weather unpredictable?
GO DEEPER, BE SPECIFIC!
2. The Ones that Don’t Work
Why do I focus on a failing project instead of a working project first? Because most open-ended science fair ideas from kids should NOT work!
Let’s be realistic. Successful science research or engineering design costs millions of dollars and years to decades to have results. Science fair projects only last maximum three weeks and the students barely have the right tools, materials, resources, precision, guidance and experience needed to call the project successful.
But that’s the beauty of science projects – LEARN FROM THE FAILING ONES.
“Why did it fail? Did most groups have the same variables? Was I really on top of my experiments? Could I have measured something wrong?”
“I had to use aluminum because I couldn’t afford to use gold that is most suitable for the design.”
It is important to know what DOESN’T WORK before knowing what can work, which probably would not happen before the project deadline.
3. Being Able to EXPLAIN WHY & HOW Something Worked
When a project works out as expected, even just a small part of it, it’s an exciting moment! But it’s not the end of it. It is the beginning of the next steps:
“Can I reproduce the success?”
“Can I explain why and how it worked scientifically?”
“What can be the next phase of the project (even though I’m most likely not going to work on it because I’m done with the project for now)?”
Acing a science fair does not mean presenting a fancy-looking product, even though the judges don’t think so. It means experiencing the process of digging deeper and learning how to approach projects and problems, to apply the same mindset in the next projects for the long-lasting curiosity that a scientist should have.