September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

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.



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

Science and Engineering Process Graphic from the Framework for K-12 Science Education, National Research Council

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 Region 4 Director for CSTA.

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CSTA Is Now Accepting Nominations for Board Members

Posted: Friday, November 17th, 2017

Current, incoming, and outgoing CSTA Board of Directors at June 3, 2017 meeting.

Updated 7:25 pm, Nov. 17, 2017

It’s that time of year when CSTA is looking for dedicated and qualified persons to fill the upcoming vacancies on its Board of Directors. This opportunity allows you to help shape the policy and determine the path that the Board will take in the new year. There are time and energy commitments, but that is far outweighed by the personal satisfaction of knowing that you are an integral part of an outstanding professional educational organization, dedicated to the support and guidance of California’s science teachers. You will also have the opportunity to help CSTA review and support legislation that benefits good science teaching and teachers.

Right now is an exciting time to be involved at the state level in the California Science Teachers Association. The CSTA Board of Directors is currently involved in implementing the Next Generations Science Standards and its strategic plan. If you are interested in serving on the CSTA Board of Directors, now is the time to submit your name for consideration. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Announces 2017 Finalists for Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching

Posted: Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson today nominated eight exceptional secondary mathematics and science teachers as California finalists for the 2017 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST).

“These teachers are dedicated and accomplished individuals whose innovative teaching styles prepare our students for 21st century careers and college and develop them into the designers and inventors of the future,” Torlakson said. “They rank among the finest in their profession and also serve as wonderful mentors and role models.”

The California Department of Education (CDE) partners annually with the California Science Teachers Association and the California Mathematics Council to recruit and select nominees for the PAEMST program—the highest recognition in the nation for a mathematics or science teacher. The Science Finalists will be recognized at the CSTA Awards Luncheon on Saturday, October 14, 2017. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Thriving in a Time of Change

Posted: Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

by Jill Grace

By the time this message is posted online, most schools across California will have been in session for at least a month (if not longer, and hat tip to that bunch!). Long enough to get a good sense of who the kids in your classroom are and to get into that groove and momentum of the daily flow of teaching. It’s also very likely that for many of you who weren’t a part of a large grant initiative or in a district that set wheels in motion sooner, this is the first year you will really try to shift instruction to align to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a challenging year – change is hard. Change is even harder when there’s not a playbook to go by.  But as someone who has had the very great privilege of walking alongside teachers going through that change for the past two years and being able to glimpse at what this looks like for different demographics across that state, there are three things I hope you will hold on to. These are things I have come to learn will overshadow the challenge: a growth mindset will get you far, one is a very powerful number, and it’s about the kids. Learn More…

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Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance and is President of CSTA.

If You Are Not Teaching Science Then You Are Not Teaching Common Core

Posted: Thursday, August 31st, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn 

“Science and Social Studies can be taught for the last half hour of the day on Fridays”

– Elementary school principal

Anyone concerned with the teaching of science in elementary school is keenly aware of the problem of time. Kids need to learn to read, and learning to read takes time, nobody disputes that. So Common Core ELA can seem like the enemy of science. This was a big concern to me as I started looking at the curriculum that my district had adopted for Common Core ELA. I’ve been through those years where teachers are learning a new curriculum, and know first-hand how a new curriculum can become the focus of attention- sucking all the air out of the room. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Tools for Creating NGSS Standards Based Lessons

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Elizabeth Cooke

Think back on your own experiences with learning science in school. Were you required to memorize disjointed facts without understanding the concepts?

Science Education Background

In the past, science education focused on rote memorization and learning disjointed ideas. Elementary and secondary students in today’s science classes are fortunate now that science instruction has shifted from students demonstrating what they know to students demonstrating how they are able to apply their knowledge. Science education that reflects the Next Generation Science Standards challenges students to conduct investigations. As students explore phenomena and discrepant events they engage in academic discourse guided by focus questions from their teachers or student generated questions of that arise from analyzing data and creating and revising models that explain natural phenomena. Learn More…

Written by Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke teaches TK-5 science at Markham Elementary in the Oakland Unified School District, is an NGSS Early Implementer, and is CSTA’s Secretary.