The science fair: what’s a parent to do (or not to do?)

This started out in the comments to Janet’s conundrum about what to do regarding her child’s upcoming science fair:

I’m very committed to the idea that a science fair project is the kind of thing a kid should control, from start to finish — conceiving the project, formulating some clear questions and some promising strategies for answering them, doing the experiments and making the observations, adjusting the strategies as necessary, setting up more experiments, looking at the results, figuring out what they might mean, flagging the questions that remain unanswered, and then figuring out how to communicate it all to kids (and teachers) who weren’t right there with you doing all the research.

If a parent does this stuff (or acts as PI to the kid’s lab tech), I think the parent may learn a lot, but the kid will not get the same experience.

Having attended many science fairs over the past few years (from elementary to high school level), I absolutely agree. It’s all too obvious when the parent has carried out the project, and the kid has taken a backseat (or in the worst cases, just ends up being a spokesperson for the parents’ project.) My experience with my own child below…

First, I think Janet’s strategy and goal of getting the child to spearhead the project as much as possible is great, but for elementary kids, a bit more guidance might be necessary. My daughter has done science fair projects for the last 2 years (since she was in 1st grade) and each time, we hit on an idea together. She’ll ask a question about something, and I’ll tell her, “y’know, there’s a way we could find that out.”

The first year we did toothbrushing and germ growth (spawned from a “mom, why do you rinse with that nasty stuff after you brush your teeth?” question). So we talked about how she might investigate germs in the mouth. She ended up swabbing my teeth and tongue before brushing, after brushing, and after mouthwash. I asked her what she thought would happen, and then she got to do all the plating, and “analysis” of the growth (counting colonies, ideal for a first grader). We also discussed what pictures she should show for her poster, and she put that together.

Long story short, though she did most of the work, it was still a team effort. I helped guide her through it but made sure she was doing what I deemed the important stuff for a first pass at a project–helping to figure out a research question, formulate hypotheses, analyze the data, draw conclusions, figure out additional experiments leading from this research. Now, 4th grade and 1st grade is a world of difference, and Janet’s Sprog the Elder probably could do much of this with little guidance–but I’d be wary of trying to swing the pendulum a bit too far away from the HoverParents and make her responsible for everything on her first project. Get one under her belt, let her see what works and what doesn’t, and she probably won’t even want Mom’s help for next year.

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  1. Maybe I missed it in Janet’s post but… I didn’t get the impression Sprog the Elder had any interest in Mom helping. Just that, you know, Mom had an interest in doing science fair projects.

    I think it’s the charactersistics of the kid that determine appropriate behavior within some healthy range.

  2. I’m expecting to have an interesting time as a volunteer at the science fair at my daughter’s school this year, but I hadn’t even considered the issue of ‘how much of this was done by the parent’. Though I’m fully expecting some creationist nonsense.

  3. Wait, what? Schools really /have/ science fairs? I thought that was just on TV…geez, my schools must have sucked.

  4. Becca,

    I re-read the post, and I’m not sure either way about elder sprog. But yes, I agree with your comment.

    Andrew, mine never had a science fair either. My kids’ school, on the other hand, is similar in many aspects (tiny rural public school), but as noted kids as young as kindergarten can do projects, and last year in K-4 alone there were almost 100 kids with displays. By middle school the kids are practically professionals at it.

  5. I have judged science fairs at the school, local and the regional level (I have judged about 10 times in the Regionals/Provincials and have done more local and school level fairs than I can remember) and I can assure you that parent involvement is top-of-mind for judges and one of the required points in an interview is to discuss the acknowledgments. That being said the judges can usually figure out which students who were only marginally involved in their projects. The interview portion of the judging allows us to ask questions regarding problem formulation and project design. If your student can’t explain why they did a test in triplicate or why specific controls were included then it is fairly easy to figure out where those ideas came from.

    One of the most interesting aspects of the judging is watching the same kids come back year after year and to see how they refine their approach. As a practising environmental chemist/biologist I get slotted in the “earth and environment” and “chemistry and biology” divisions and have seen students using the feedback from one year to provide improved results in later years. I’ve also seen students become advocates for causes after years of projects on similar topics. Now if I could ever get around to making a pre-printed card with three targets to help differentiate between accuracy and precision then I’d be set.

  6. As a practising environmental chemist/biologist I get slotted in the “earth and environment” and “chemistry and biology” divisions and have seen students using the feedback from one year to provide improved

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