science fair

Science Fair!

The counter tops and table tops have become delightfully cluttered with projects in progress. A calcium chloride bottle, spilled yeast, banana peels, beakers, pipettes and graduated cylinders are scattered throughout the classroom.

It’s that time of year when science fair projects are underway all across the world. We’re conducting, for the first time, a science fair in our high school. Initially, we were faced with an onslaught of protest from the students such as “But that’s so much work” and “We’ve already done a science fair!” as though participating once in 4th grade exempts them from the benefits of designing and conducting an experiment as an older, more mature person. Once informed that the Science Fair would contribute significantly to their second semester grade, there was more “buy-in”

Our secondary science department has been stunned with the realization of just how much investment there is in the process. Working with students who haven’t spent a lot of time immersed in scientific thinking requires incorporating extra training time into the classroom, time many don’t feel they necessarily have. Even guiding students towards a question to investigate was more time-consuming than originally expected. The idea of “wandering and wondering” is not yet part of the mindset of our pupils. Helping learners determine what background information they need in order to design an experiment and understand the results was yet another hurdle. Identifying variables and writing a procedure was like extracting teeth. But finally, some are starting to experiment.

It is my preference that students collect their data at the school. This way they have access to legitimate tools of science and guidance from their teachers. However, funneling 400+ students through our lab and classroom space isn’t logistically possible and some experiments are not conducive to completing in the classroom. For example, one student is measuring the heart rate of her canines (she has over 20 dogs) in response to varying types of food. Another pupil is querying whether feeding quails peanuts will result in larger eggs (as with chickens).

He enters with a big smile, “I have more news on my quails.” He then proceeds to describe behaviors he’s noticing. One quail is laying eggs so despite having purchased 10 quails only one is laying eggs. So, he’s doing his entire experiment with one quail but he’s excited about it. He thinks about it constantly. Even though he’s not one of my students, he drops in nearly every day to discuss the progress of his experiment. He shows me pictures. He’s genuinely excited and he’s learned so much about quail biology, their bahaviors, and their care. In my opinion, one of the most important things is for students to find a topic they are genuinely interested in.

“Look, Dr. Markham, my hypothesis is supported!” A grin erupts across his face as he points to his data table and gestures towards the beakers of his experiment.

“This isn’t what I expected but it’s still cool!” Her soap pieces weigh the same before and after soaking in various concentrations of lemon juice and the volumes of the liquid haven’t changed indicating that the soap didn’t dissolve into the liquid. “I think I’m going to let them dry and weigh again, just to be sure. Either way this is interesting.”

Several students are redoing their experiments for a second or third time, working out the details of their protocols, but they remain undiscouraged. In fact, they’re determined to figure out how to make it work. They analyze their technique and the age of the reagents, just like real scientists! It’s so fun for me to watch them in action, to see their enthusiasm, and to witness their determination.

Students who aren’t conducting their experiment at school are engaged in a VESPR project, studying molecular geometry in Chemistry and a Star Project in Physical Science. They’re equally engaged. The classroom is literally buzzing with activity and I’m pulled back and forth between the theoretical and experimental scientists in my classroom. My heart swells with joy.

Evidence of experiments linger long after the students have disappeared. It’s so worth the mess to have witnessed the students learning and experimenting.  But the best part are the grins and the students’ own declarations of “This is actually really fun!”

Of course, I’m not surprised because, even with all the trouble-shooting and the questions and the mess and the chao, science IS fun!

Science Fun Night

An alternating event with the standard Science Fair

Has anyone experienced or heard of “Science Fair burnout”? I have heard so many parents complain about the imposition of the Science Fair on families. I think for students it can be taxing as well. We have developed a remedy for this dilemma by rotating different events over a three-year period. The students participate in a standard Science Fair one year. The following year they present posters compiled from literature-based research they have conducted. The third year is the Science Fun Night. At this event students demonstrate a fun phenomenon and explain the science behind it.

The project begins with an overview of the upcoming event and the instruction to search for YouTube videos presenting fun science. Faces light up with smiles as the command is given to act on a task they so enjoy: YouTube surfing. Students almost hesitate to open up their computers wanting to be sure they understand the instructions. As soon as it is clear that, indeed, they can freely search through YouTube the exuberance is palpable and the search is on.

“Ah, Dr. Markham, look at this! This is so cool!”

“This is sick!”


Exclamations continue all through the class. Partnerships eventually settle on three ideas they have genuine interest for and can be conducted safely with materials found at home and school. Over time the selection is narrowed to the topic they will pursue for the Fun Night.

Now the task becomes challenging, as they have to master the science behind it. They soon discover that the little explanation often accompanying the video is inadequate, incomplete, or even inaccurate. They have to research, ponder, discuss, analyze. It stretches them. They return to the Internet, to the teachers, to theory, and to their experiment over and over again. Slowly they begin to understand, at a molecular level, what is happening with their project. The understanding gradually “clicks” for each pair of students. The more they understand the more fluid their explanation becomes. As a team they put together an instruction sheet for participants attending the Science Fun Night. They must have a section, in their own words, on the “Science Behind It”. Though they have worked in pairs, they must present individually to the class before the actual event. Each student must demonstrate the project and explain the science on their own.

As with all student productions, there is a moment days before the event when we, the teachers, wonder whether this is going to work. Will the students be prepared? Or will it be a disaster?

All of the school community is invited. Hands-on activities and fun for the entire family has been promised. Student presenters have set the jeans aside and come dressed “professionally”. With anticipation and excitement they set up their stations. Participants begin to filter in and soon the event is underway.

The cafeteria is a buzz with the thrill of cool science and discovery. The parents and elementary students are equally wowed by the mind-bending activities. Laughter and exclamations from impressed participants fill the room. The flurry of activity continues throughout the evening.

Finally, it’s over. The last burst of energy is exerted to wipe up colored cornstarch, sticky glucose, volcanic baking soda leftovers, citric species, and a host of other interesting messes from the tables and floors. Glassware and supplies are washed in the science lab and put away. Student check-out forms are signed, students depart exuberantly, and finally, six science teachers collapse exhausted around a table together reflecting on the entire process and evening. We make a quick list of what worked and what can be improved upon in future years. Overall, however, it’s been a success: students have learned and are excited about science and have proficiently communicated that to the school community.

Science Fun Night.  An effective process to immerse students in scientific phenomenon and get them truly excited about science at a molecular level. It is also an opportunity for students to present and communicate in scientific language. It will surely remain in our cycle of annual science events!

Science Fair Reflections

“I have to admit, as we walked out the door, I was really dreading the evening” a parent confided, “I thought it would be so boring, but then I was so surprised. The students knew what they were talking about and I actually learned something.  It was really good.” 

Due to my absence at the Science Fair, I have had to rely on colleagues, judges and parents for their input regarding the final product of the event itself.  Only positive responses have been relayed to me.  Basically the words “huge success” are repeatedly echoed.  Additionally, the student reflections have been insightful.  All pupils were required to ponder on all aspects of the project from start to finish:

  • Choosing a topic
  • Researching (Finding articles, understanding articles)
  • Transferring information from the Internet into their own written words
  • Blogging
  • Combining all written work into one piece
  • Constructing the Poster
  • Presenting at the Science Fair

Thus were they queried:

What did you enjoy most?  What was most challenging?  What did you learn? What are you most proud of?  How hard did you work? What would you do differently?  How could the teacher have supported you better?

Each student found different aspects of the project most challenging, whether it was the researching, blogging, poster construction, or the presentation.  However, many students found the researching difficult and especially the task of reading and extracting pertinent information. 

On the Science Fair itself:

“I could see how curious they were and when I presented it, it felt good to see them fascinated”

“I am most proud of my presentation during the Science Fair”

“…it was exciting to see all of our hard work come together and make something great.”

“I was surprised by how much I had learned and how well I could communicate it to others”

“Understanding the information made me really proud, then being able to teach others about it also made me very proud”

On other aspects of the project:

“I also enjoyed having my own blog and posting my research on the blog”

I learned that I need to tell my parents to begin to be a bit more green in my house.

Overwhelmingly the students responded with “3”, providing reasoning, to the question below:

How hard did you work on this project? Estimate your personal input on a scale (highlight the option) and explain why you selected the option.

  1. I did the absolute minimum and could have done much more. The quality of the project doesn’t at all represent my ability level.
  2. I worked on the project but sometimes I was distracted or off-task. The quality of the project doesn’t fully represent my ability level.
  3. I worked on the project and stayed on task, I think that the quality of the project fully represents my ability level.
  4. I worked harder than I ever have before, I stayed focused on the project at all times, I did my absolute best. I think that the quality of the project exceeds my own expectations.

When thinking of what they could do better, many suggested that they would start sooner and not get behind.  Others would have practiced their presentations more.  Yet others would have worked on their posters more. 

Half way into the project my colleague and I realized how unequipped the students were for this type of research work.  We floundered to help them.  Many felt adequately supported, yet there were several who felt similarly to this student:

“I think the teacher could help me get started off. The teacher could give me a good piece of information on the topic so that I can get an idea of the work I can do”

We did have to help some students find appropriate articles and we had to help many understand the articles and extract the information. In the future we envision a more collaborative effort with English and History on such a project as students still need to learn the process of research.

However, in the end, the hard work paid off.   Students learned about global warming and were converted to the need for change and definitely communicated this to visitors that night.  They also learned about the process of research and public presentation.  There is an overwhelming sense of accomplishment.  Surprisingly, community members also walked away from the evening with new knowledge.  The judges were impressed with the amount and depth of understanding that the youngsters had acquired.  I do attribute the success of the evening to the fact that the theme had such real world application and it carried meaning for the students. As a result they, indeed, had acquired abundant knowledge and conveyed genuine enthusiasm. 

How I yearn to fill every class with such purpose.  What gives the students you work with meaning in learning?

The Science Fair: The Day Before

“Can it be four minutes? ‘Cause I just can’t get it below four minutes and everything in there is so important.”

“No, it can only be two minutes”

“But that’s impossible!”

The directive is to make sure their presentation for the Science Fair is two minutes in speaking duration.  Some have planned it just right.  Others need to shave off time.  They pull out their note cards trying to figure what could possibly be shortened or discarded.  There seems to be an emotional attachment to all information written on those cards.

“Can you help me?”  I flip through the cards and easily find lines and ideas to edit out.  I’m surprised at how easily they take my advice.  No one argues. Resignation? Respect? Or are they just sick and tired of this and want to get it over with?

Students practice on their own, two times with a peer, and then before the class.  We work through some nervousness.  Encouragement abounds.  I love these kids and I’m touched by their effort, their desire to do a good job, their seriousness.  My heart is warmed by each imperfection in the posters: the bent corner, the misplaced letter, the glue smudge.  I rejoice with them in their enthusiasm for what they perceive is a job well done.  I see they’ve worked hard and they’ve sincerely done the best they can.

My colleague and I touch base at the end of the day.  We survey the posters and acknowledge that there is simply nothing more to do.  We go through our checklist and send off a reminder email to parents.  Our “Science Fair in a Box” is ready to go.  It is teeming with Science Fair paraphernalia: the judges’ clipboards, certificates for the students, programs, student nametags, student numbers for position, a tally sheet, poster size welcome signs and schedule of events,  eco-friendly items for the raffle, eco-friendly chocolate prizes for the winners, wine bags for the judges’ wine bottles (don’t get me started on that one), judges’ rubrics, sticky tack, pins, pens, and tape.

Everything has been scheduled including dinner for the students, which will provide nourishment to get them through the evening. 

Now, it’s up to the students.  Tomorrow night is their night and they get to show what they know. Personally, I enjoy watching the development and growth that takes place in getting to this point. There have been growing pains and it's been tough.  But the students have learned a lot, gained academic skills, and have become advocates of "Going Green".  Hats off to our little global warming experts!

The Ups and Downs of the Science Fair Journey

What a roller coaster ride this year's Science Fair has provided us! 

EMOTIONAL HIGH: Our idea for the science fair was conceived towards the end of the last school year.  Coupling the Science Fair with the Going Green initiative at the school seemed genius.  We envisioned school unity as elementary and secondary schools embarked on the Going Green journey.  A conceptualization of parents, students, and community members participating in the Science Fair event settled into our minds and we knew it would “be awesome”.

IMMEDIATE CONFIRMATION BOOST:  When we introduced the topic, students were completely drawn into the Going Green theme.  Students from years past rejoiced at receiving a reprieve from the typical experiment and report Science Fair.  My colleague and I were convinced that this would be the best science fair ever.

SMALL SETBACK:  Realization hit that the students need guidance in every single step of creating a web site and beginning to blog.  Burning the midnight oil one night I created two podcasts, one for creating a web site and one for creating a blog post.  My colleague and I came up with some blogging guidelines.  Hope returned.

EMOTIONAL HIGH: The initial thrill for blogging enveloped both the students and us, the teachers. I even posted about what an incredible experience the blogging was turning out to be.

DISCOURAGEMENT: As we moved deeper into the project we realized that students simply weren’t equipped to truly research their topics or to find appropriate articles that they could actually understand!  Late nights once again rescued us as we helped students find the articles they needed to begin understanding the topics they selected.

HOPELESSNESS: The writing skills were as weak as the research skills!  Once students reached a point of understanding and could articulate their topic, they still needed a lot of support to put it into the written word.  At this point we’re starting to think that the students will never be ready for the fair.  It seems like an impending disaster and our hope of a successful event vanishes.

HOPE RETURNS: Receiving a lot of support, some of the written work begins to make sense.  The students are making creative blog sites, finding their voice and forming opinions.  We are left with a sense that it might be OK.

DISPAIR: The assignment is to put all of the blog posts together into one document and edit them so they “tell a story”.   We gave some explicit guidelines thinking it was straightforward.  Even the learning support teachers that help in the classroom commented on how clear the instructions seemed to be.  However, the results were a disaster.  Excessive repetition.  Nonsensical phrases.  Contradictions. Plagiarism.  How could this ever be rectified and come together such that students could print out their work and construct posters?  It’s going to be terrible!

EXPECTATIONS LOWERED: We decide to cut out the “Abstract” component of the poster.  We allow Middle School students to cut and paste the URL’s in the Bibliography rather than compiling APA format as expected in High School.  We start to make comments on all those Google documents.  We set up appointments with students.  We consult.  We resist the temptation to simply rewrite their text.

HOPE RETURNS: Students respond positively to their comments and sincerely make efforts to improve their work.  It starts to look like they might pull it together. 

DISPAIR and HOPE: Some students are still struggling with understanding.  We modify.  They smile and demonstrate sufficient knowledge.  They’re eager.  Their confidence and enthusiasm instills hope again.

HOPE and DISPAIR and HOPE: The students are so excited to put their posters together.  Today they start construction.  They print.  They cut.  They paste. They become creative.  They consider their presentation and make some adjustments in their order, seeking confirmation. It’s exciting.  A beaming student holds up a finished poster that she’s clearly proud of.  The placement of the text blocks is crooked and irregularly spaced.  Suddenly the room is full of smudges, tilted titles, and unevenly cut images, despite the presence of four paper cutters.  I search for the positive and give encouragement.  Then, the classroom is quiet.  The posters sit silently on the table. I start to leaf through them and am seriously relieved to notice that the High School posters are, indeed, more advanced than the middle school posters.  I read through all of them.  I realize they aren’t that bad.  I reflect back and remember the students carefully doing what they perceive as their best work and suddenly I feel better.  It’s going to be OK, I think.

During this entire process my colleague experiences the same cyclical roller coaster.  Fortunately, whenever she comes to me exclaiming, “This is going to be a disaster”, I’m feeling pretty good about it and assure her, “No, it will be OK”.  And when I’m feeling the despair she’s hopeful and encourages me on.  Every now and then our highs and lows coincide and we either rejoice or commiserate together.

The greater school community has received an invitation to attend the Science Fair. Posters announcing the event cheerfully decorate the hallways and stairwells.  Today guidelines for the judges, instructions for the students on the night of the fair, and student certificates printed from the big machine downstairs.  The judges’ clipboards sit assembled in the “Science Fair Box”.  The guest speaker is secured.  Our cafeteria business has committed to running that evening, featuring “Eco-friendly” food.  The facilities management team has confirmed its role for the night.  There’s no turning back.

On Friday the students will supposedly practice their presentations.  That could go either way.  On my end there’ll surely be times of panic interspersed with moments of assurance.  Next Tuesday night is the actual Science Fair.  Either a report of success or failure will follow.  Wish us luck!

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.  

Global Warming Science Fair to Come

Today my colleague and I met about our upcoming Science Fair on May 13, 2014.  We have been running behind on this project so it felt good to find an hour to sit down together and hammer some things out.

We have held two science events together so far.  The first year we did a Science Fun night in which students in groups of 2-3 held science based demonstrations/activities for the entire school to participate in.  The hands-on entertainment was interesting and fun and had a science explanation to accompany it.  The evening was a huge success.

The following year we conducted a full-on science fair for grades 6-12.  Students worked on science experiments that were founded in the scientific method.  We worked so hard to guide the students through the process of design, experimentation, and presentation.  The result exceeded our expectations.  We brought in outside judges from the local universities and they were very impressed with what they saw. The science was great and the students were so professional that night.  It was perfect.

This year we are aiming for something different: a tour of global warming and climate change to coincide with the school’s going green initiative.   We will have a special guest speaker to commence the evening.  Then parents and community member will take a tour prepared by the students.  Each student will be individually responsible for presenting a particular issue.  We envision the starting section to be about global warming and climate change, including the political issues surrounding it. Presentations on the causes of global warming will follow.  Next the Effects of global warming will be encountered.  Then participants will learn of solutions to global warming and they will finally be inspired to make manageable changes at home beginning that evening.  We are excited about it and, as with all things, it becomes more thrilling as the pieces begin to come together.