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.



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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California Science Curriculum Framework Now Available

Posted: Tuesday, March 14th, 2017

The pre-publication version of the new California Science Curriculum Framework is now available for download. This publication incorporates all the edits that were approved by the State Board of Education in November 2016 and was many months in the making. Our sincere thanks to the dozens of CSTA members were involved in its development. Our appreciation is also extended to the California Department of Education, the State Board of Education, the Instructional Quality Commission, and the Science Curriculum Framework and Evaluation Criteria Committee and their staff for their hard work and dedication to produce this document and for their commitment to the public input process. To the many writers and contributors to the Framework CSTA thanks you for your many hours of work to produce a world-class document.

For tips on how to approach this document see our article from December 2016: California Has Adopted a New Science Curriculum Framework – Now What …? If you would like to learn more about the Framework, consider participating in one of the Framework Launch events (a.k.a. Rollout #4) scheduled throughout 2017.

The final publication version (formatted for printing) will be available in July 2017. This document will not be available in printed format, only electronically.

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.

Call for CSTA Awards Nominations

Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017

The 2017 Award Season is now open! One of the benefits of being a CSTA member is your eligibility for awards as well as your eligibility to nominate someone for an award. CSTA offers several awards and members may nominate individuals and organizations for the Future Science Teacher Award, the prestigious Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award, and the CSTA Distinguished Contributions Award (organizational award). May 9, 2017 is the deadline for nominations for these awards. CSTA believes that the importance of science education cannot be overstated. Given the essential presence of the sciences in understanding the past and planning for the future, science education remains, and will increasingly be one of the most important disciplines in education. CSTA is committed to recognizing and encouraging excellence in science teaching through the presentation of awards to science educators and organizations who have made outstanding contributions in science education in the state and who are poised to continue the momentum of providing high quality, relevant science education into the future. 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.

Call for Volunteers – CSTA Committees

Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017


CSTA is now accepting applications from regular, preservice, and retired members to serve on our volunteer committees! CSTA’s all-volunteer board of directors invites you to consider maximizing your member experience by volunteering for CSTA. CSTA committee service offers you the opportunity to share your expertise, learn a new skill, or do something you love to do but never have the opportunity to do in your regular day. CSTA committee volunteers do some pretty amazing things: 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.

A Friend in CA Science Education Now at CSTA Region 1 Science Center

Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017

by Marian Murphy-Shaw

If you attended an NGSS Rollout phase 1-3 or CDE workshops at CSTA’s annual conference you may recall hearing from Chris Breazeale when he was working with the CDE. Chris has relocated professionally, with his passion for science education, and is now the Executive Director at the Explorit Science Center, a hands-on exploration museum featuring interactive STEM exhibits located at the beautiful Mace Ranch, 3141 5th St. in Davis, CA. Visitors can “think it, try it, and explorit” with a variety of displays that allow visitors to “do science.” To preview the museum, or schedule a classroom visit, see Learn More…

Written by Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw is the student services director at Siskiyou County Office of Education and is CSTA’s Region 1 Director and chair of CSTA’s Policy Committee.

Learning to Teach in 3D

Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017

by Joseph Calmer

Probably like you, NGSS has been at the forefront of many department meetings, lunch conversations, and solitary lesson planning sessions. Despite reading the original NRC Framework, the Ca Draft Frameworks, and many CSTA writings, I am still left with the question: “what does it actually mean for my classroom?”

I had an eye-opening experience that helped me with that question. It came out of a conversation that I had with a student teacher. It turns out that I’ve found the secret to learning how to teach with NGSS: I need to engage in dialogue about teaching with novice teachers. I’ve had the pleasure of teaching science in some capacity for 12 years. During that time pedagogy and student learning become sort of a “hidden curriculum.” It is difficult to plan a lesson for the hidden curriculum; the best way is to just have two or more professionals talk and see what emerges. I was surprised it took me so long to realize this epiphany. Learn More…

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From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy: