May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

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

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Participate in Chemistry Education Research Study, Earn $500-800 Dollars!

Posted: Tuesday, May 9th, 2017

WestEd, a non-profit educational research agency, has been funded by the US Department of Education to test a new molecular modeling kit, Happy Atoms. Happy Atoms is an interactive chemistry learning experience that consists of a set of physical atoms that connect magnetically to form molecules, and an app that uses image recognition to identify the molecules that you create with the set. WestEd is conducting a study around the effectiveness of using Happy Atoms in the classroom, and we are looking for high school chemistry teachers in California to participate.

As part of the study, teachers will be randomly assigned to either the treatment group (who uses Happy Atoms) or the control group (who uses Happy Atoms at a later date). Teachers in the treatment group will be asked to use the Happy Atoms set in their classrooms for 5 lessons over the course of the fall 2017 semester. Students will complete pre- and post-assessments and surveys around their chemistry content knowledge and beliefs about learning chemistry. WestEd will provide access to all teacher materials, teacher training, and student materials needed to participate.

Participating teachers will receive a stipend of $500-800. You can read more information about the study here:

Please contact Rosanne Luu at or 650.381.6432 if you are interested in participating in this opportunity, or if you have any questions!

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.

2018 Science Instructional Materials Adoption Reviewer Application

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

The California Department of Education and State Board of Education are now accepting applications for reviewers for the 2018 Science Instructional Materials Adoption. The application deadline is 3:00 pm, July 21, 2017. The application is comprehensive, so don’t wait until the last minute to apply.

On Tuesday, May 9, 2017, State Superintendent Tom Torlakson forwarded this recruitment letter to county and district superintendents and charter school administrators.

Review panel members will evaluate instructional materials for use in kindergarten through grade eight, inclusive, that are aligned with the California Next Generation Science Content Standards for California Public Schools (CA NGSS). 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.

Lessons Learned from the NGSS Early Implementer Districts

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

On March 31, 2017, Achieve released two documents examining some lessons learned from the California K-8 Early Implementation Initiative. The initiative began in August 2014 and was developed by the K-12 Alliance at WestEd, with close collaborative input on its design and objectives from the State Board of Education, the California Department of Education, and Achieve.

Eight (8) traditional school districts and two (2) charter management organizations were selected to participate in the initiative, becoming the first districts in California to implement the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Those districts included Galt Joint Union Elementary, Kings Canyon Joint Unified, Lakeside Union, Oakland Unified, Palm Springs Unified, San Diego Unified, Tracy Joint Unified, Vista Unified, Aspire, and High Tech High.

To more closely examine some of the early successes and challenges experienced by the Early Implementer LEAs, Achieve interviewed nine of the ten participating districts and compiled that information into two resources, focusing primarily on professional learning and instructional materials. 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.

Using Online Simulations to Support the NGSS in Middle School Classrooms

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

by Lesley Gates, Loren Nikkel, and Kambria Eastham

Middle school teachers in Kings Canyon Unified School District (KCUSD), a CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative district, have been diligently working on transitioning to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) integrated model for middle school. This year, the teachers focused on building their own knowledge of the Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs). They have been gathering and sharing ideas at monthly collaborative meetings as to how to make sure their students are not just learning about science but that they are actually doing science in their classrooms. Students should be planning and carrying out investigations to gather data for analysis in order to construct explanations. This is best done through hands-on lab experiments. Experimental work is such an important part of the learning of science and education research shows that students learn better and retain more when they are active through inquiry, investigation, and application. A Framework for K-12 Science Education (2011) notes, “…learning about science and engineering involves integration of the knowledge of scientific explanations (i.e., content knowledge) and the practices needed to engage in scientific inquiry and engineering design. Thus the framework seeks to illustrate how knowledge and practice must be intertwined in designing learning experiences in K-12 Science Education” (pg. 11).

Many middle school teachers in KCUSD are facing challenges as they begin implementing these student-driven, inquiry-based NGSS science experiences in their classrooms. First, many of the middle school classrooms at our K-8 school sites are not designed as science labs. Learn More…

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Written by NGSS Early Implementer

NGSS Early Implementer

In 2015 CSTA began to publish a series of articles written by teachers participating in the NGSS Early Implementation Initiative. This article was written by an educator(s) participating in the initiative. CSTA thanks them for their contributions and for sharing their experience with the science teaching community.

Celestial Highlights: May – July 2017

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

May Through July 2017 with Web Resources for the Solar Eclipse of August 21, 2017

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graphs of planet rising and setting times by Jeffrey L. Hunt.

In spring and summer 2017, Jupiter is the most prominent “star” in the evening sky, and Venus, even brighter, rules the morning. By mid-June, Saturn rises at a convenient evening hour, allowing both giant planets to be viewed well in early evening until Jupiter sinks low in late September. The Moon is always a crescent in its monthly encounters with Venus, but is full whenever it appears near Jupiter or Saturn in the eastern evening sky opposite the Sun. (In 2017, Full Moon is near Jupiter in April, Saturn in June.) At intervals of 27-28 days thereafter, the Moon appears at a progressively earlier phase at each pairing with the outer planet until its final conjunction, with Moon a thin crescent, low in the west at dusk. You’ll see many beautiful events by just following the Moon’s wanderings at dusk and dawn in the three months leading up to the solar eclipse. Learn More…

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Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.