March/April 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 6

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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