What motivates Students? - Real Purpose

A scene from last year's science fair, which was a more traditional event in which students presented data and results from self-conducted experiments.

A scene from last year's science fair, which was a more traditional event in which students presented data and results from self-conducted experiments.

This year we are trying a new idea for the Science Fair.  In conjunction with the Going Green initiative at the school, students will be presenting an evening on the topic of Global Warming.  Each student has selected a specific aspect related to one of the following subtopics: evidence for, causes of, results of, or solutions for global warming and/or climate change

This week I probed whether the middle school students understood a “big idea” of their own topic as well as the overall theme of the Science Fair.  I was pleased to hear that most of them (not all) did, indeed, understand their own topic and how it fit into the bigger picture of the science fair theme.

Furthermore, I surveyed the middle school students in different classes to determine what they thought the purpose of the actual science far was. To my surprise the following three purposes repeated themselves in each class:

Last year students also presented to the greater school community.

  • “I want to “Wow” them with my  knowledge”


  • “I want to inform them”


  •  “I want to inspire them to live green.”


Wow.  Seriously?  Could I ask for any better self-defined purposes from a set of 11 – 14-year old students?  I think this explains the scene during my last middle school class on the last school day before the break:

It was gorgeous and sunny outside. The students entered my classroom directly after lunch during which they had been playing wall ball and running around out of doors.  Their flushed faces exuded joy and anticipation of the upcoming Spring Break.  I immediately regretted not having an experiment for them to do.  How would they ever settle down and become focused on their science fair blog?  I debated a last minute change in plans but knew we needed to press forward with the projects.  Minimally my plan was to determine the progress of each student  before the 10-day hiatus from anything remotely academic. 

To my surprise, these little 6th graders whipped out their computers and immediately accessed their blogs.  First came the exuberance over the statistics, “I’ve had seventy-five page views!” “I’ve had over a hundred!” and so on until everyone had shared.   Then, to work they went.  By the end of the class every single student was current with our science fair timeline and had worked ahead, nearly completing the research required for the blog due three days after our return from the break!  Not only that, but the blog posts actually look pretty good!  I was thrilled.  Literally thrilled.

The last two weeks before the science fair will still be a crunch, especially helping them to get all their information into poster form, however, as of now it seems manageable! 

We will have judges this year like we did last year.  Bringing in experts from "the outside" raises the bar.

I attribute the momentum to their intrinsic motivation to “Wow people with knowledge”, “inform”, and “inspire”.  Where does this come from?  I think it has to do with the fact that they have truly been swept into the reality of global warming and perceive it as an actual problem that relates to them.  They sense that they can potentially make a difference in the world.   Additionally, they were allowed to choose the specific topic they will focus on for the science fair.  Finally, they feel responsibility in anticipating their roles as teachers of the greater school community at the science fair.   This project has real-world application and their presentations on the night of May 13th will be real-time with real people (other than their teachers) resulting in the process being a bona fide learning experience in every way.