Teachers are often volunteered without even knowing it, as I am sure you have all experienced. Being the only 6th grade science teacher at my K-6 school last year, I "volunteered" to take on the responsibility of holding our first annual school science fair. At first, I have to admit, I was very nervous. How would I get the whole school to embrace another event and additional work? How would I coordinate times, rooms, and other logistics? How would I get all of my 100+ students to complete quality projects, on time, and worthy of display? This seemed to fall somewhere between mildly challenging and just plain impossible, so to say I had a few trepidations is a huge understatement!
Throughout the process of planning, implementing, and eventually reflecting on this event, I learned that it was not even half as difficult as I initially thought it would be. I actually enjoyed it. In fact, I enjoyed it so much, that I am now in the midst of planning our second annual fair, accompanied by a week of additional activities designed to help everyone at our school embrace science as much as I do!
Throughout the next few lessons in this unit, I will not only explain how to achieve buy-in and to coordinate your own science fair*, but also how to guide your students through the process of developing a question worth investigating, designing an investigation, and analyzing their results to develop a conclusion.
For more information, please visit the Science Fair Central website by Discovery Ed, particularly the page designed for Science fair Coordinators.
*Be on the lookout for text in italics. That will alert you to information regarding the logistics behind holding your own science fair. Normal text will focus more on how to work with students and to guide them through their investigations.
I start the lesson by building anticipation and reviewing the steps of the scientific method at the same time. I use a PowerPoint template that allows you to reveal puzzle-like pieces of a slide, one at a time, by clicking on them. On each piece, I have added questions about the scientific method, ranging in difficulty. Underneath all of the pieces, I have placed an enlarged picture of a science fair.
I start out by telling the students that we will play a game called, "Guess that Image". I project the slide and explain that underneath each piece of the puzzle is part of a mystery image. The objective of the game is to guess what that image is depicting. In order to reveal parts of the image, students must get the answer to each question correctly. I tell the students that the mystery image will give us a clue about our next science investigation.
I have students get into pairs to discuss the questions, using past notes recorded in their science notebooks as a reference. Each pair of students is given a group number. Using the Random Name Picker* at Classtools.net, I call on random groups to select a question and answer it. If they answer correctly, I click on the puzzle piece, revealing part of the larger picture. If they answer incorrectly, I select another group and let them try to answer the same question or to choose another.
One-by-one, the pieces disappear and the picture gets revealed. The idea is for students to review concepts related to the scientific method, which will be an integral part of the science fair project. However, students see it as a means to an end, ultimately trying to reveal the mystery picture and guess what it is. It has proven to be very engaging way to activate background knowledge.
*I've made a short instructional screencast on how to use the Random Name Picker to assist you if you haven't used this tool before.
Once most or all of the image is revealed, students usually figure out that they will be participating in a science fair. This usually comes with a mixed response, groans from the kids who envision research, writing, and, well...work - but fortunately, it's also often mixed with cheer from the kids who envision experiments, hands-on learning, and the possibility that they may get to blow something up.
While the final image definitely depicts a science fair project, a closer look will reveal that it depicts three elementary students presenting their project to President Barack Obama at the White House Science Fair. I have a student read the caption aloud, and facilitate a discussion about these students' invention, as well as how the students may have been impacted by this experience. We talk about why these kids may have chosen their topic, what impact it may have on the general public. My goal is for the students to see that participating in a science fair can be more than just an assignment. It can solve a real world problem, spark creativity, offer new opportunities, and even be... FUN!
I ask the students how many of them have participated in a science fair before. As this is our second annual fair, many - if not all - hands will go up. I ask them to turn and talk to their peers, sharing their experience and their thoughts about the process.
Now that I have framed the event in a more positive light, I tend to hear many more positive and enthusiastic comments. This is important, because student buy-in leads to parent support and to more active involvement from your colleagues.
Once students have had a chance to speak about their experiences, I pass out the Science Fair Guide. This document explains the theme, provides suggestions for topic ideas, and outlines the expectations and due dates for projects. I have broken up the project into several smaller sections so that students can monitor their own progress more closely, and so they do not feel overwhelmed by the expectations of a large undertaking as this.
I have attached the guides that I have used for the last two years. You will notice that they are very similar with just a few minor tweaks. I send this document to each science teacher in my school (every K-3 teacher, and one teacher in each of grades 4-6) and allow them to utilize it as is, make edits to fit their needs, or to dispose of it completely. I find that when I share documents that are already made and allow teachers to have freedom in how they use it, it again raises the level of participation I get from them. The less work they have to add to their already busy schedules, the better. And since I would be making them for my class anyway, it is no extra work on my part!
At this point, I do not yet go over all of the finer parts of the project. I let the students read through it. They usually get no further than the first section before they start to get intrigued. I try to select themes that students ill find interesting and that will lend themselves naturally to scientific investigation.
Now that I have students thinking about the topic and what they might like to do, I play a short video to provide guidance into the process of implementing a science fair project. This video is mainly a review of our unit, What Scientists Do, so nothing should be foreign to them.
I pass out an index card and ask students to write down anything they think is important from the Prepare for the Science Fair video (below). I like using index cards for this instead of paper because it signals that students should not be taking copious notes, but rather focusing on the most important pieces of information and only writing what they can fit on the card. It is also useful for motivating reluctant writers, because they know they won't have to write pages and pages of notes.
After viewing the video, I have students work at their tables to combine their notes into a poster that explains the most important parts of a science fair project. The trick here is that they must use non-linguistic representations, meaning that few or no words should be included.
After completing their poster, students present their work to the class, sharing their drawings and their interpretations of them. While students present, other groups may revise their work if they hear something that sparks an idea, but may not copy directly from another group. While they can share a common idea with another group, their nonlinguistic representation must be their own.
Once everyone has shared their work, we return to the Science Fair Guide and read through the specifics. I encourage the students to share this document with their parents and their other teachers (if applicable) and to ask for ideas, suggestions, and support. I let them know that they will be required to come up with a few topic ideas, which they should record on a piece of paper and bring with them, prior to our next class.
What the students don't know is that I have already spoken with their other teachers, including Language Arts, Math, Special Ed, Gifted, etc. I have explained the project requirements and solicited their support. While I don't ask that they teach any specific materials or structure their classes any differently, I share with them some of the skills students may utilize in doing this project, including:
While I know the bulk of this project relies on my instruction and is my responsibility, I don't see the harm in asking for these teachers to sneak in a few mini-lessons here and there, to point them towards resources in their textbooks, notes, etc, or to simply ask students how their project is going. Most teachers are more than happy to do this, since it addresses their own standards as well. I also find that these colleagues provides me with support in regards to suitable accommodations and modifications for specific students in these areas.
I assess student learning, and more importantly, student disposition by having students complete the 3-2-1 Science Fair Reflection. This will help me to determine who understands the process involved with choosing and investigating a topic, as well as how the students are feeling about the process.
I try to frame this activity positively by asking students to share two things they are excited about. I gain a great deal of information about my students' attitudes by their answers to this prompt. Many will say they're excited about selecting a topic, or about working with food. Others will say they aren't excited about anything or will have a hard time coming up with a real answer to the prompt. This tells me exactly who might need extra support and mentoring during the process.