Physics & Physical Science Demos, Labs, & Projects for High School Teachers

I Hate Science Fairs

Posted on: September 21, 2009


Amelia science fairI hate them.

Parents hate them.  Most aren’t any more science literate than their kids.  The pressure on the parents to create a decent project is awful.  Coming up with a good science experiment project is really hard to do.  There are dozens of books on the topic and everybody is clawing at them, trying to find something they can handle.

Kids hate them. They see it as a grade, nothing more.  They don’t understand the need for the formality in the presentation.  All they know is they don’t win.  Now they hate science.

Teachers hate them.  Be honest, they are brutal to grade, the work is not worth the effort.  Please, no more volcanoes.

OK, now that I got that off my chest, let’s talk about this.

I love doing experiments.  I love inspiring kids to think.  I make my students experiment constantly.  I want them to play in science, find the joy and excitement.  I want them to ask questions and be curious.  I make them launch rockets and throw balls.  If they make a paper airplane in my class, they better make five or ten and tell me what design works best and why.  Is science really distilling everything they know about a topic and making it fit on a bent poster board?

I will be doing a science fair in my classroom in about a week.  Only I don’t call it that.  I call it my “Mythbusters Project.”  To be honest, I don’t care if it’s a stupid idea they are testing.  I want them to be goofy and have fun.  I help them to make sure they are doing good science.  I challenge their findings.  I make them work together and research.  I know, it’s not the county science fair.  So what?

You can’t sell someone something they don’t want or need.  Really, it’s true.  OK, maybe once, but you lost them as a customer forever if you do that.  Kids want to be creative, they want to think, they want to learn.  They are unbelievably curious.  If you don’t think so, leave a pile of mechanical puzzles on the table and don’t draw attention to it.  Every one of them will be in the kids’ hands in two minutes.  Try it.

Here’s the question you need to ask yourself:  What can I do to make this kid love science?

science fair image

8 Responses to "I Hate Science Fairs"

Well said.
Science Fairs do not make kids love Science.

You might add: Science Fair Judges Hate Them. I remember a fair where the judging team included a Kiwanis Club representative (they paid for the trophies), a school board member, and a pool contractor who was a volunteer at the school. They were enthusiastic and supportive, but did not know what would make a great project. They put a good face on it, but they were not having fun. As you mention, they are so hard to score fairly and it takes forever to do well.
I have six kids so we have done our share of science fair projects. I’m a science education consultant – I have an idea what will please the judges. My kids usually win first prize. How is that fair? As I am working on the project with my child, asking questions, talking about the data, posing new questions, it is so much fun – but then we have to make our exploration fit the criteria set out in the science fair packet. We organize lots of data with a spreadsheet program, we include photos, interesting observations, and a nice looking project. What about the kid who does not have that resource? How do you compare and judge them against each other?

How about a Science Festival? If a student wants to do a classic science fair project – fine. If they want to do a model of grasshopper, cool. If they design and make a working watershed model – also cool. Then we all get together and talk about the cool stuff kids have done. No awards, unless they are authentic: most interesting question, great collecting data and looking for a pattern, most likely to make us think of new questions, etc.

Let’s make kids understand that Science is about looking at the world, thinking about interesting things, and doing stuff to figure out and explain those observations!

We had a science department meeting today, the science fair starts Monday and it is mandatory for all students except seniors. All I could do is smile because I only teach seniors. There is so much we can do to encourage an interest in science, and science fairs just don’t make that list.

Hey, I need all the ideas I can get. Science Fair is an OLD tradition at my school and mandatory for grades K through 10. Like you all, I realize the frutility! I hate it as the Science teacher, and so do nearly all my kids. I like the idea of doing a Science Festival or something similar! I think I might try that… Do you have any ideas on how to grade that kind of thing though? Or do you? I’m thinking I might have my HS students present a cool experiment to an audience or something! I am soooo glad to know I’m not the only Science teacher that hates Science Fair! I was starting to think I might be crazy!

What if … instead of science fair, we assign a “research project” where the student can choose anything they find interesting in any discipline of science. They will have to read up, research, and in the end, teach the class or classes with experiments and demonstrations. I do something similar in my astronomy section, in general, the kids do a great job and put together excellent presentations. If we take away the rigid set of rules and let them dig deep, they learn so much more. I like the idea that they can be free to present the material in a creative and interactive fashion.

I think the key here is that they pick something they find interesting. Take away that awful “hypothesis” as a way of thinking and let them just dig in. You can certainly have a jar of ideas they can pick from. I found out the hard way that if I just let them choose in astronomy, they fight over topics. Instead, they draw from a hat, then are free to swap as long as both parties agree. I’m not suggesting we assign topics, only that we have a jar of ideas for those who are stuck. I do think in a project like this, duplication is a problem. They would need to either team up and expand the lesson or someone needs to choose another topic.

Scott: What exactly is awful about a hypothesis? Regardless of its emotional value, it is a necessary component of the scientific process. It focuses the research question on what is and what is not testable (i.e., scientific) and provides a framework for statistical evaluation of the results.

Nathan, I don’t disagree with you. Anybody doing any real science must work from a hypothesis. The problem is the format of the science fair. We force a kid to pick a topic they don’t hate and won’t cost too much so they can do an “experiment.” Often the kids come up with something they can do but don’t understand and then they struggle to form a hypothesis to fit the already chosen experiment.

For example, this year a couple kids wanted to do their science fair projects on optics. They went through books and came up with an activity, Jello lenses. They didn’t have a question to answer, they just needed a viable demonstration that looked like an experiment. Now they go back and forth trying to come up with a hypothesis to fit the activity. Clearly, this is not how real science is done.

Suppose instead, the kids were given a bunch of lenses to play with. They might play and do some research on their own. After a while they would start to come up with experiments based on their understanding of what was happening. Now they would be creating a hypothesis (maybe informally) and doing science. They might now look into the refractive properties of different liquids and solids. They might do something with absorption or angles of reflection in different media. But until they played and learned and had a real interest in the subject, they were just chasing a grade, not doing science.

I hate science projects or any project that my child has to build out of things that cost a fortune!I have spent hundreds of dollars over my 3 kids school years, doing science projects. I also resent the fact that they become MY project. I am the one left to shop and buy supplies and stay up all night making the thing look good so my child isn’t embarrassed at the fair. I would rather donate $100 to my childs class on something they could use, rather than waist it on a stupid project that goes in the trash as soon as it gets home!!!

Mandatory science fairs are awful. I’ve judged some middle school and high school fairs, and the Exxon Mobile Science Fair. The Exxon Mobile was great, and I enjoyed talking to students who chose to do a science fair project. I remember one middle school science fair project entitled, “Do Aliens Exist?”. The student just polled everyone he could and did a pie chart.

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