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.