Three ways to put the SCIENCE back in Science Fairs

People seem to have different reactions to science fairs: parents may grumble about the mess that will inevitably be made, teachers get overwhelmed by all of the extra planning and the students? The students are excited, and rightfully so! I recently discussed my reflections on judging my first science fair and I can’t get the idea out of my head that there is some way that students (and teachers) can get some good science done at science fairs with a little help from scientists. Here are some ways that science fairs can be improved (and I know our fearless readers have more to add, take it to the comments or use #kidsdoscience on Twitter):

  1. Incorporate inquiry-based learning into topics other than science.
    three ant scientists dig in the dirt with their hands

    You are never too old to dig in the dirt with your hands. Photo by Lea Shell

    Using a method of teaching that encourages students to ask questions and develop ways to answer those questions (either through research or experimentation) in topics other than science gets students ready for the rigor of creating and testing their own scientific hypotheses. Oftentimes (but not always) elementary teachers are trained in subjects other than science, the most popular being Liberal Studies, Elementary Education or Child Development – typically with an emphasis in literacy. There are ways to incorporate inquiry-based learning into subjects that the teacher feels more familiar with before extrapolating those skills to science. For example: students may be given a new book and a list of new vocabulary words (presented like evidence), the students can then attempt to reconstruct the theme of the new book along with predicted story lines based on the new vocabulary; they would then “test their hypothesis” by reading the book and comparing what they read to what they predicted. To keep us on track, here are four different categories of inquiry-based learning:

  • Confirmation Inquiry: students reproduce standard procedures in order to produce an expected result. This is the method used in most chemistry laboratories and pre-planned science fair projects
  • Structured Inquiry: The teacher demonstrates a man-made or natural phenomenon and then asks the questions of the students. Students answer questions and then devise explanations for the phenomenon. The “right” answer is not the goal of inquiry.
  • Guided Inquiry: The teacher presents a question and students design and select the procedures to test said question.
  • Open Inquiry: Student-developed questions and student designed procedures to test their own questions. This method of inquiry leads to original science fair projects – students should conceive the questions and methods for testing their own hypotheses.

Walking students through each inquiry process models the activity for them (or “scaffolds” as Vygotsky would encourage) so that they will eventually have the confidence to approach “Open Inquiry” on their own to unknown topics.

slug on brown leaves

You'd be surprised what you can discover in your backyard! Photo by Lea Shell

  1. Take advantage of place-based learning. A good science experiment doesn’t have to involve expensive laboratory equipment, exclusive access to data or specialized science paraphernalia. Students should be encouraged to explore their neighborhoods and learn what they can from their own local environments. Citizen Science projects, such as School of Ants, encourage students to look in their backyard for potential new species of ants (some have been discovered already!). Place-based learning allows students to use their immediate surroundings to provide both context and application to their learning. Added bonus: it’s generally inexpensive (sometimes free!), accessible and real.


  1. Don’t underestimate the abilities of students to do “real” science. Here’s the thing: kids are really smart. They ask the best questions with very little, if any, self-consciousness. We have got to capitalize on this! When else do we have the opportunity to have people totally new to experiencing our world ask questions about it? Since we don’t have aliens asking us questions, the next best population is children: they have no preconceived notions about how stuff works except for their (often limited) experiences. Watch their eyes light up as they notice patterns, look for the first time into a microscope and find their own answers to their very own questions! How empowering to give them total ownership of their inquiry by trusting them to test their hypotheses on their own through facilitation instead of hovering supervision!
Clint Penick rolling over a log in North Carolina

In case you were wondering, the 9th of September is reserved every year as International Rock Flipping Day. Clint Penick gets a head start here. Photo by Lea Shell

So there you have a start to my ever-growing list of some ways that we can think about science in the context of other subjects. When a brain trust of scientists, science writers and educators got together in November 2012 (check out the Storify) for an open discussion on how to approach science fair projects. I participated before officially joining the ranks of the Your Wild Life team and was so happy to find a lively and insightful discussion about science fairs and inquiry-based learning, including some talk about some of the current limitations on science education. All agreed that a focus on getting students looking at their world in an inquisitive way was key. Students must also be comfortable with gray areas and being wrong in their scientific endeavors (and learning from their experiences rather than being frustrated by their perceived failures). As we explore the Next Generation Science Standards we look forward to the future of science education to include more inquiry-based learning instead of the memorization of scientific facts explicitly for high-stakes standardized tests. When students are empowered with the learning and understanding of the scientific process of inquiry they will be more confident to take scientific inquiry and apply it to critically understanding and assessing the world around them.

So, my challenge for you, fellow scientists, educators and information seekers, is to help us explore more of these topics. What has been your experience with science fairs – what made them successful or unsuccessful? What does “real science” mean to you? If you could ask any question of our world – go for it, here’s your chance!

By |2016-11-22T13:47:29-05:00January 23rd, 2013|

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About the Author:

Lea Shell
Lea Shell is an entomologist and educator who devotes her time convincing others just how wonderfully important insects and microbes are to our lives. She enjoys playing with slime mold, ants, GPS units, climate loggers and interviewing scientists about their middle school experiences.


  1. Avatar
    Mitchell Cope January 24, 2013 at 10:10 am - Reply

    Great article. It’s hard to get kids to think in the former (and probably current) structure of Science Fairs. You said, “Students must also be comfortable with gray areas and being wrong in their scientific endeavors (and learning from their experiences rather than being frustrated by their perceived failures).” I believe kids think they MUST BE RIGHT to have a successful science fair project. Who wins or gets a good grade if they’re wrong in their hypothesis? If you want kids to think outside the box, they must be encouraged to do so and not do what has been done before because they know it works.

    • Avatar
      Lea S January 29, 2013 at 4:49 pm - Reply

      Mitchell, I couldn’t agree more! In discussions with students it was interesting that some of their motivations included their parent’s interests or a project their friends had done before. I know students, teachers and parents are so busy with meeting deadlines and checking off standards, but I feel as if a lot can be learned in an interdisciplinary way through science fairs: reading, writing, mathematics/statistics, presentation skills/public speaking, design, construction, even photography! It’s so important that students not be afraid to be wrong, and unfortunately a lot of those pressures are a result of peer, parental and teacher pressure and, ultimately, self-consciousness.

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    Lucy January 26, 2013 at 7:35 pm - Reply

    It is hard for students to get interested in anything science these days. If you asked most kids about what they think about science fairs they would say that they are boring or that they would rather do social studies fairs because they are easier. Just think about encouraging students to be interested in something other than computers or video games.

    • Avatar
      Lea S January 29, 2013 at 5:04 pm - Reply

      I know how frustrating it is when students aren’t interested in science – but the hope is that we can students that computers and video games ARE science and a result of lots of tinkering, question-asking and discovery.

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