May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

New Research: Just What Are the Benefits of Science Projects?

Posted: Tuesday, October 1st, 2013

For decades, science projects and science fairs have been as much a part of school lore as book reports and dodge ball. Yet little research has been conducted into the impact these projects make on the education of the student participants.

In 2012, the Synopsys Outreach Foundation hired WestEd, a preeminent educational research firm, to conduct an in-depth survey of students who have participated in foundation-supported activities. Since its creation in 1999, the Synopsys Outreach Foundation has supported more than 1 million individual science project experiences. We provide science project support to teachers at more than 600 California schools annually and serve as the major sponsor of the Santa Clara County, Sonoma County, and Sacramento Regional science fairs.

One of the foundation’s goals is to spur young people’s interest in careers in science and engineering, thereby replenishing the supply of these workers in the decades ahead. The results of the survey show that our support of hands-on science learning also helps educate students in non-science-specific skills they’ll need to succeed in a variety of 21st century careers.

The Survey

The online surveys were targeted at three different grade spans: upper elementary (grades 4 and 5), middle school (grades 6 – 8), and high school (grades 9 – 12). More than 1,600 students in Santa Clara County completed the survey.

Students were asked to reflect upon their science project experiences (in class and/or at a science fair) and to rate their skills in several areas, before and after completing their projects. Among these skills were:

  • Scientific investigation: develop an idea, plan an experiment, conduct an experiment
  • Project management: manage a project and meet deadlines
  • Scientific analysis: keep a logbook, analyze data, create a chart or graph
  • Communication: write results, create a presentation board, present and discuss results

Survey Results and Implications

As one might expect, survey respondents consistently rated their abilities in these areas as showing improvement following their participation in a science project. What was surprising, however, was the degree to which they felt they had improved. Students were asked to report their abilities using a 4-point Likert scale ranging from “Very low,” “Low,” and “Good” to “Very good.” In nearly every category, significant numbers of students rated their skills as having improved to “Good” or “Very good” after participating in a science project.

What does this tell us about the science learning environment specifically and about the skills students gain through hands-on science projects generally?

Any teacher who’s ever guided a group of students through a science project can attest to the power of hands-on learning. Freed from the two-dimensional confines of the printed page, these projects routinely benefit students by requiring them to engage in the varied tasks that comprise the scientific method.

One of the respondents neatly summed up the benefits of participating in a science project:

“Science projects are invaluable experiences…It’s like being a detective and it’s fun because the entire project is yours–not some homework assignment…There is nothing predictable about it and it’s a completely new experience from sitting and learning in a classroom…”

Judging from the number of positive responses to the survey, both quantitative and qualitative, it’s clear that hands-on learning, the primary focus of our foundation’s work, plays a key role in energizing science lessons. Equally important, though, were the survey’s findings regarding students’ self-rated improvement in the types of skills that will position them for success in a variety of careers. Skills such as idea generation, project management, communication, and collaboration will be as critical to the success of those in the sciences as to those in financial services, healthcare, transportation, public service, and other industries. According to a report by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a consortium that counts Apple, Intel, and The Walt Disney Company as members,

”Businesses expect employees at all levels to identify problems, think through solutions and alternatives, and explore new options if their approaches don’t pan out.”

Compare that sentiment with the following statement by one survey respondent:

“Sometimes things don’t go exactly as planned, so what do you do then? You have to come up with a new way to finish your project fast.”

To find that students are gaining these non-science-specific skills through their science project work is, indeed, very encouraging.

Conclusion

While science projects may serve to inspire a number of future scientists, the survey indicates that hands-on learning can also significantly contribute to students gaining the 21st century skills they’ll need as they develop into the next generation of business owners, innovators, managers, and employees. As the foundation’s positioning line states, “Science projects. Prepare students for life.”

Gary Robinson is president of the Synopsys Outreach Foundation and Heidi Black is science fair coordinator for the East Side Union High School District.  The complete survey report is available at http://www.outreach-foundation.org/pdfs/SOF_Evaluation_Report_010913.pdf

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.

One Response

  1. Thank you for this article and study! I have been the science fair advisor at my school for 11 years, and a career-long believer in “constructivist” learning that is “hands on, minds on”. It is a labor intensive process, and one that doesn’t always “settle well” with students who just want to be fed the information, but I have remained steadfast in my belief that this style of teaching and learning is the right thing to do. It’s nice to have the scientific data to back me up. 🙂 I’ll be sure to share this article with my students, as further justification and motivation for all of their hard work.

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LATEST POST

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: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/HappyAtoms

Please contact Rosanne Luu at rluu@wested.org 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.