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 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 http://www.outreach-foundation.org/pdfs/SOF_Evaluation_Report_010913.pdf
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.
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…
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…
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 www.explorit.org. Learn More…
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…