September 2016 – Vol. 29 No. 1

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.


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

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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California Science Assessment Update

Posted: Wednesday, October 12th, 2016

by Jessica Sawko

In June 2016 California submitted a waiver application to discontinue using the old CST (based on 1998 standards) and conduct two years of pilot and field tests (in spring 2017 and 2018, respectively) of the new science assessment designed to support our state’s current science standards (California Next Generation Science Standards (CA-NGSS) adopted in 2013). The waiver was requested because no student scores will be provided as a part of the pilot and field tests. The CDE received a response from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) on September 30, 2016, which provides the CDE the opportunity to resubmit a revised waiver request within 60 days. The CDE will be revising the waiver request and resubmitting as ED suggested.

At its October 2016 North/South Assessment meetings CDE confirmed that there will be no administration of the old CST in the spring of 2017. (An archive of the meeting is available at 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.

Some ways to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in your classroom

Posted: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

by Carol Peterson

1) To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, Google has put together a collection of virtual tours combining 360-degree video, panoramic photos and expert narration. It’s called “The Hidden Worlds of the National Parks” and is accessible right from the browser. You can choose from one of five different locales, including the Kenai Fjords in Alaska and Bryce Canyon in Utah, and get a guided “tour” from a local park ranger. Each one has a few virtual vistas to explore, with documentary-style voiceovers and extra media hidden behind clickable thumbnails. Ideas are included for use in classrooms. 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.

2016 Award Recipients – Join CSTA in Honoring Their Accomplishments

Posted: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

CSTA is pleased to announce the winners of the 2016 CSTA Awards for Distinguished Contributions, Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award, 2014 and 2015 PAEMST-Science recipients from California, and the 2016 California PAEMST Finalists. The following individuals and organizations will be honored during the 2016 California Science Education Conference  on October 21- 23 in Palm Springs. This year’s group of awardees are truly outstanding. Please join us in congratulating them!

Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award

John Keller

John Keller

The Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award honors an individual who has made a significant contribution to science education in the state and who, through years of leadership and service, has truly made a positive impact on the quality of science teaching. This year’s recipient is John Keller, Ph.D. Dr. Keller is Associate Professor, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Co-Director, Center for Engineering, Science, and Mathematics Education, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. In her letter of recommendation, SDSU science education faculty and former CSTA board member Donna Ross wrote: “He brings people together who share the desire to make a difference in the development and implementation of programs for science teaching. Examples of these projects include the Math and Science Teaching Initiative (MSTI), Noyce Scholars Program, Western Regional Noyce Initiative, and the Science Teacher and Researcher (STAR) program.” Through his work, he has had a dramatic impact on science teacher education, both preservice and in-service, in California, the region, and the country. He developed and implemented the STEM Teacher and Researcher Program which aims to produce excellent K-12 STEM teachers by providing aspiring teachers with opportunities to do authentic research while helping them translate their research experience into classroom practice. SFSU faculty member Larry Horvath said it best in his letter:“John Keller exemplifies the best aspects of a scientist, science educator, and mentor. His contributions to science education in the state of California are varied, significant, and I am sure will continue well 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.

NGSS: Making Your Life Easier

Posted: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

by Peter A’hearn

Wait… What?

NGSS is a big shift. Teachers need to learn new content, figure out how this whole engineering thing relates to science, and develop new unit and lesson plans. How could NGSS possibly make life easier?

The idea that NGSS could make our lives easier came to me during the California State NGSS Rollout #1 Classroom Example lesson on chromatography. I have since done this lesson with high school chemistry students and it made me think back to having my own students do chromatography. I spent lots of time preparing to make sure the experiment went well and achieved the “correct” result. I pre-prepared the solutions and organized and prepped the materials. I re-wrote and re-wrote again the procedure so there was no way a kid could get it wrong. I spent 20 minutes before the lab modeling all of the steps in class, so there was no way to do it wrong. Except that it turns out there were many. Learn More…

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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.

Celestial Highlights, September 2016

Posted: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graph of evening planet setting times by Dr. Jeffrey L. Hunt 

Our evening twilight chart for September, depicting the sky about 40 minutes after sunset from SoCal, shows brilliant Venus remaining low, creeping from W to WSW and gaining a little altitude as the month progresses. Its close encounter within 2.5° N of Spica on Sept. 18 is best seen with binoculars to catch the star low in bright twilight. The brightest stars in the evening sky are golden Arcturus descending in the west, and blue-white Vega passing just north of overhead. Look for Altair and Deneb completing the Summer Triangle with Vega. The triangle of Mars-Saturn-Antares expands as Mars seems to hold nearly stationary in SSW as the month progresses, while Saturn and Antares slink off to the SW. 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.