Joanne has taught middle school and high school science for more than ten years and has a master's degree in education.
What Is a Science Fair?
The science fair is a rite of passage for American children. Students design and conduct an experiment of their choosing, and then exhibit their findings to their peers. The focus of a science fair project for early adolescents should not be on whether or not the project produces groundbreaking results or a picture-perfect final presentation. Rather, the emphasis should be on the process; a student-led study with adult coaching to ensure accurate experimental design.
A proper science fair experiment follows the steps of the scientific method. The scientific method is a series of procedures for studying the natural world. This includes observing a phenomenon, creating a hypothesis based on the observation, testing the hypothesis and modifying it if needed.
While these procedures are modified slightly in a science fair to fit the developmental needs of the students, the spirit remains. The steps used for a science fair are:
- Observe the world.
- Ask a question based on what you see.
- Conduct background research.
- Develop a hypothesis.
- Test the hypothesis through an experiment.
- Collect and analyze data.
- Communicate the results.
Step 1: So, What Interests You?
This is the easy part. Let the students start with a topic that they find fascinating. Growing plants? Building a rocket? Skateboarding? There are websites that offer many examples to start the gears turning.
Step 2: Ask a Specific Question.
This is where the process gets a little harder. Students must take their broad ideas and focus them down to a single, testable question. This will require some coaching from the teacher. Remind students that the project needs to be small enough that they can do it at home over a short time period. (They can't actually build a rocket ship that will send someone to the moon, but they could build a model out of an old soda bottle.) Here are some examples based on the ideas generated above.
- What is the right amount of water for growing plants?
- How do different rocket designs affect their flight?
- How does the speed of your skating affect the height of your ollie (skating jump)?
Step 3: Conduct Background Research
The next step is for students to learn more about their topic so they can construct a hypothesis and design an experiment. When conducting internet research, be sure that the students include the words ''for kids'' in their search. For example:
- ''Growing plants for kids.''
- ''Rocket design for kids.''
- ''How to do an ollie for kids.''
Step 4: Develop a Hypothesis
Now that the students know more about their topic, they are ready to write their hypothesis. A hypothesis is a scientific prediction based on the available information. For a science fair, they are usually written as ''if-then'' statements that cover both what the student plans to do and what they think will happen.
- If I give a plant either too much or too little water, then the plant will die.
- If I build a rocket with a cone and fins, then it will fly further.
- If I skate faster, then my ollies will go higher.
Step 5: Design the Experiment
For many students, this will be the hardest part. As an educator, be prepared to provide lots of coaching and feedback. The experiment must be simple enough that it can be completed at home, but not so simple that the students are not challenged academically.
Students must identify the independent and dependent variables. The independent variable is the aspect of the experiment that they are changing.
- The amount of water given to the plants
- The aerodynamic aspects of the rocket.
- The incoming speed for skateboarding trick.
The dependent variable depends on the independent variable. It is the aspect of the experiment that the students are measuring.
- How tall the plant grows depends on how much water it receives.
- How far the rocket flies depends on its aerodynamics.
- The height of the ollie depends on the incoming speed of the skateboard.
Here are some other things that students need to consider: What materials will they need? How many trials will they conduct? How are they going to measure the dependent variable?
Step 6: Conducting the Experiment and Collecting Data
This is the fun part. Once the experimental design is in place, the students can start collecting data. There should be both quantitative and qualitative data. Quantitative data is information about quantities or numbers. It can be objectively measured and charted.
- The height of the plants.
- The length of the rocket ship flight.
- The height of the ollie.
Qualitative data refers to the descriptive qualities of what you are observing. This data in not measurable or objective, but it is just as important.
- ''By the third day, the plant receiving only a small amount of water was starting to wilt.''
- ''The rocket with both a cone and fins had a much smoother flight.''
- ''The ollie was much easier to complete when I was skating fast.''
Step 7: Analyzing the Data and Communicating the Results
The final step involves organizing the collected data into charts and diagrams. This allows the students to clearly demonstrate the results of their experiment to others. Again, qualitative descriptions of the results are just as important as quantitative descriptions.
Here are some questions that the students should answer in this section: Did the experiment support the hypothesis? If not, what did the experiment show instead? Did anything go wrong? Were there any surprises?
In a science fair, students design and conduct an experiment, and then exhibit their findings. The focus of a science fair project for early adolescents should be less on the results and more on the process: a student-led study with adult coaching.
When guiding students through the project, be sure that they follow the steps of the scientific method. They must identify a hypothesis, an independent variable, and a dependent variable. Additionally, they should include both quantitative and qualitative data in their results.
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