March/April 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 6

Is NGSS the End of Science Fair?

Posted: Tuesday, March 22nd, 2016

by Peter A’Hearn

It’s science fair season again and time for my annual love/hate relationship with the science fair.

I love science fair because it gets some kids really excited about doing science and going deep into a topic which is where the real learning occurs. I love that families get excited and do science together—how powerful for kids and parents to work together to learn something new! I love talking to kids who are excited about their projects and what they did. My own daughters’ science fair projects have been among the most powerful learning they have done in their school years. Not just in science, but in reading, writing, learning how to do research, applying math, and being able to present themselves.

This picture went viral two years ago.

This picture went viral two years ago. The poster was created by Susan Messina and first appeared in the blog Jade in the Parke.

I hate the competitive aspect of it and the way parents and families get over involved and do the project. I hear parents saying, “For science fair this year I’m thinking of doing…” which I find totally depressing. I hate the way people fuss over the boards and how they are put together instead of focusing on the science. I’ve seen 6th grade board formatted like journal articles, which I’m pretty sure a 6th grader didn’t do.

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I wonder…if we took out the competition, would science fair still be a thing? Would kids still show up just for the love of science?

Into this love/hate mix comes a new question: “Is science fair compatible with NGSS?” I have heard many arguments that it is not. There are all the reasons above. In addition some say that science fair is focused on a narrow view of science that prescribes following a formulaic “scientific method” that is at odds with the organic and social way that science is done in the real world. The NGSS Science and Engineering Practices offer a fuller view of how science works than the cartoon version that science fair follows.

Science and Engineering Process Graphic from the Framework for K-12 Science Education, National Research Council http://www.nap.edu/catalog/13165/a-framework-for-k-12-science-education-practices-crosscutting-concepts

Science and Engineering Process Graphic from the Framework for K-12 Science Education, National Research Council
http://www.nap.edu/catalog/13165/a-framework-for-k-12-science-education-practices-crosscutting-concepts

But take a look at the judging criteria for the California State science fair (full text at the end of this post). You will not find any reference to the scientific method in the judging criteria. You will also find nothing about how the board should look, the order of the parts of the project, or any of the other fake criteria that surround science fairs. The criteria ask for things very much in the spirit of NGSS and the Common Core: creativity in design and questioning, asking questions, thorough research, rigorous understanding of the science, data collection and analysis, providing evidence, and clear communication.

Over time, in schools and districts (including mine), many rules and assumptions have accumulated over time. Rules about the layout of the board, what kinds of pictures can be on the project, how many trials are required, etc. These rules are well intended. They are there to help guide students in doing better science, but over time have perhaps become more important than the good science itself.

NGSS is an opportunity to clean house on science fair and get rid of the rules that have made it formulaic. Strip it down to the criteria below. Does there even need to be a board?

Science fair is a great opportunity for teachers and students to dive deep into Common Core standards about research and using multiple sources of information and using technology and speaking and listening as they present. It’s a chance to dive deep into all of the NGSS Science and Engineering Practices. But only if those are the goal of the thing.

Before you decide to ask your kids to do a science fair project ask yourself some questions:

Will you:

  • Give students a due date and ask them to bring back a project?
  • Expect parents to do most of the teaching?
  • Assume they know how to do this and complain when they can’t?
  • Expect projects that follow a very specific set of steps?
  • Ask students to choose topics from a list or from a website?

If so… Please don’t do science fair

Or will you:

  • Work through a project as a whole class as a model connected to grade level appropriate phenomena?
  • Spend the time to do it well?
  • Use the opportunity to teach about asking scientific questions, designing experiments, doing research on multiple sources of information and evaluating that information, collecting and analyzing data, communicating clearly, evaluating findings, modeling, arguing, and explaining?
  • Have students present and defend their work?
  • Ask students to pursue topics that arise from their questions and interests?

If so…you are spending your student’s time wisely, understand how NGSS and the Common Core work together, and getting your students to learn with depth and rigor. You might even learn to love science fair.

California State Science Fair Judging Criteria:

The Judges Advisory Committee has determined the five areas of originality, comprehension, organization and completeness, effort and motivation, and clarity to be important for creating a quality science project. The following information has been sent to the student participants.

Originality Original ideas and the creative use of resources are usually impressive. This originality may be in the scientific concept, a new approach to solve an old problem, or a new interpretation of data. However, an original project must be well executed. Original projects are those that go beyond the textbooks and explore new ground and innovative techniques.

Comprehension Comprehension is the understanding and appropriate use of scientific theory, terms, techniques, and methodologies. Students should have a depth of knowledge about the scientific and engineering principles and practices, which can be shown by the ability to extrapolate what was learned from the project to the subject in general. Depth includes understanding the basic science behind the project topic, comprehension at a finer level of detail, and awareness of the influence that the project has on related material in the subject topic.

Organization and Completeness The project should have a well-defined goal or objective. The materials, methods, and experimental design should be sufficient to answer all the appropriate questions. A second component of organization is thoroughness, which includes not only the issue of how well the original questions have been addressed, but also the issue of how fully questions arising during the project have been addressed. It is the duty of all scientists to provide evidence in support of their claims. The burden of proof does not rest with the observer. Without supporting results or data, the science project is not a completed work.

Effort and Motivation The amount of time a student has spent doing the actual science project and the amount of time the student has spent reading and learning the subject should both be considered. While motivation and effort are not the same, the amount of effort that goes into a project is usually an indication of a student’s motivation. It is important to know if a student enjoyed the experience and is interested in learning more.

Clarity Written and oral communication skills are very important in science and engineering. Ideas should be clearly presented and easy to understand. The experiments should have well-defined goals which indicate clear understanding of the basic science. A well-written abstract, easy to follow visual aids, and clear and concise answers all add to the quality of a project.

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the K-12 science specialist in the Palm Springs Unified School District and is Region 4 Director for CSTA.

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