At least 'round one', our local science fair, is finished. There is a reason I plan this event for the day before Spring Break. Actually, there are a few reasons. One, it keeps the kids focused right up until break. Two, it keeps families from traveling early, which can be a big challenge here. Three, I only have to make it through a half day and then it is vacation.
Why do I do a science fair in the first place? I never had until I was presented with an opportunity, in 2007, to join the 5th grade team of educators starting the NESA Virtual Science Fair 5th (to distinguish it from the original program at the middle school level). NESA is our professional development organization: Near East South Asia Council of Overseas Schools.
I won't go into the virtual aspects too much right now. Basically it is an extension of what you think of when you hear 'science fair'. In addition to our local fair my students learn and use many technology skills including their own website, wiki, and having an 'e-mentor'. An e-mentor is a high school student at a different international school. This high school student helps my fifth graders think through their project, helps them avoid pitfalls, and is their first 'go to' person when they have a question.
So, the novelty of having the virtual side, coupled with being a part of something cool and new got me hooked. I must confess, those are not the real reasons I do it. The real value of our inquiry unit, culminating in a science fair, has very little to do with science.
It is true. The first day of the unit I ask my students why they think we have a science fair. They guess everything sciencey they can think of. "Nope", I tell them. It has nothing to do with the science. It is all about group work. We then go on to talk about their experiences working in groups. What makes a group successful? What can be frustrating about working in a group? How to problem solve challenges that may come up. I emphasize that group work is a part of life. You may not like everyone in your group, but you have to find a way to work with them. (I assign the groups, based on a variety of factors. They have zero choice in the matter.)
During this discussion we are also practicing our note taking skills. I am showing one style of note taking on the board. I have other adults in the room talk about their note taking styles and model a bit. They look at one another's notes and talk about what they see and don't see.
The next reason that I want my students involved in science fair has nothing to do with science either. My second reason is all about communication skills. During the course of this inquiry unit they will end up writing a research paper and orally presenting to judges. We talk about how scary both of these sound, from the outset. I ensure them that everything will be broken down into small, manageable steps. I also ensure them that they will have lots of practice before they are in front of their 'real' judge.
The next reason for the science fair? OK, that has to do with the science. If they come out with a solid understanding of the scientific method and a basic understanding of variables I count that as a success.
The kicker for all of these reasons is that my students experience their inquiry unit as solely student work. I let both the students and parents know that all the work will be student generated. Parents can drive them to someone's house or help acquire supplies, but that is it. I simply act as a guide. I walk them through the steps and try to keep them looking ahead. They have a manual to refer to when they forget the details. Included in the manual is a very important page - dates to remember. I break down the project into small steps and have due dates for each step.
Do they turn in work with errors? You betcha! Would it be 'better' work if I, or the parents, were more involved? Most definitely. What they wouldn't have is the absolute certainty that they can take on a huge, enormous, frightening project and succeed, by themselves.
Some of them may need these science skills later in life. They will all need the group work, communication skills, and knowledge that they are capable.