No activity strikes more anxiety -- or Nobel-caliber competitiveness -- into your household than your kid’s annual school science fair. Stop recycling the same old “Model Volcano” project. Follow these tips to power up your kid’s science fair project by helping her get started the right way. Steer your kid towards something personally meaningful this year!
Jot Down “Why?” Questions Daily (Starting on School Day 1!)
Despite the awful, rote way in which many parents were taught science, science instruction should be all about asking and answering questions about the wondrous world around us. Your toddler peppered you constantly with “Why?” inquiries. Rekindle that natural scientific curiosity in your household by having your kid keep a running log of questions as he or she goes about normal daily life. Not all of the questions will start with “Why?” -- in fact none of these questions do! -- but each should be framed as an interrogative:
Are crickets actually chirping more at night, or does it just seem that way when we’re trying to sleep?
How come our electric car uses up its charge at a different rate in the summer than in the winter?
How many helium balloons would it take to levitate our Corgi? (Remember, asking the question doesn’t mean it’s a project you should actually conduct.)
How much does upholstery color or tinting impact our car’s internal temperature?
Are Google Map travel times good estimates, and should we trust them?
Can I catch something from using someone else’s makeup?
Are some pool chemicals better at killing algae than others?
How well do people’s facial proportions match the golden ratio?
Does room color affect my mood? (And should we figure that out before we paint my room fire-engine red?)
Do older people hear a different range of sounds than young people? (My high schoolers love experimenting with, “Who can hear this ear-piercing screech?” in the classroom.)
Record these “Why?” questions daily on a fridge whiteboard, in a journal, in your phone notes -- anywhere it’s quick and easy to access. The goal is simply to compile a list of real curiosities that your kid personally experiences or ponders. Doing so over a couple of months is a no-stress way to generate authentic ideas for a project!
Once your kid had generated a list of “Why?” questions, it’s time to evaluate the “Who cares?” value of each question. While it’s likely that someone, somewhere, cares about every question on the list, a small subset of the queries will stand out as having relevance to the larger world. Some examples:
My own first science fair project measured the heart rate of Daphnia (water flies) when strobe lights, jam-packed populations, and other factors disrupted their normal environment. The results -- that urban stressors produced amped-up resting heart-rates -- were headline-worthy for everyone from club-goers to city-dwellers.
In a group science fair project with elementary kids, my students quantified how much liquid different brands of adult diapers held. They compared these values with how much urine a diaper would need to hold for astronauts awaiting launch and verified actual NASA lift-off criteria for space suits. Because halting launch cycle to pee is a multi-million dollar pit stop that’s impossible to make!
One of my kids wanted to know why, when we’re driving in traffic, we’re constantly surprised by emergency vehicles: why didn’t we hear the sirens blaring sooner? His experiments found that several factors including siren angle, car insulation and air conditioning can make it hard for a driver to notice and react to emergency vehicles. This sets the stage for new emergency alert technologies to improve traffic responsiveness to fire trucks, police and ambulances.
A 12-year-old Florida girl found her headline project by investigating consumer safety. She discovered that fast-food ice is dirtier than toilet water, sparking chain restaurants to examine their safety protocols for cleaning drink dispensers.
Connecting a science fair project to a bigger issue elevates the interest of your kid, the judges, and perhaps, local press. Winnow down the original “Why?” questions to a short list which has broader importance and impacts more than just your household. Direct your kid to research online news articles and -- for more experienced kids -- abstracts of recent scientific studies (many of which can be found on Google Scholar and Academia.edu) to build those links. Then help your kid set up the story of the overarching relevance every time he or she presents the topic: in the written report, on the display boards, and in the oral presentation. What may start out as a simple science fair project may end up with significant impact on your kid’s community and environment.
Give it a Great Title
While titling a science fair project may seem trivial, remind your kid that the title of anything -- a news headline, a theme-park ride, even a person’s professional position (Disney “Imagineer”) -- creates the first impression of that thing. Make the science fair project stand out from the glut of other projects by giving it an impactful and meaningful title. Create the title in two parts: a short snappy title to capture attention, followed optionally with a subtitle that conveys more scientific specifics and clarifies the content of the project. Here are some examples:
How Mona Lisa are You?
Facial proportions and the Golden Ratio
Weapon or Decoy
Determining where to aim in missile defense
Population Density Stress
The impact of city living on human health
Pull Over and Stop!
Emergency vehicle accidents and siren effectiveness
And be aware that, even with an easy-to-understand title, the press may still screw it up. Although my own Weapon or Decoy project examined a highly headline-worthy theme addressing the US-Russia arms race, our local newspaper publicized it as Weapon of Decay, leading to unexpected attention from the dental community.
It’s vital to access the doability of a science investigation your kid wants to pursue. To bring a project to fruition, your kid must be able to supply a thumbs up to each of the five following questions:
Am I interested enough in the subject that I’m willing to research and learn relevant background information? If not, pick another subject.
Do I have enough time to execute the experiments? Two weeks may not be enough to germinate seeds and grow plants, but two months will likely suffice.
For “headline-worthiness,” can I conduct a kid-level version of the project to get data that contributes to the larger theme? It may be possible to conduct a small-scale version of a project that would otherwise take NASA or a university to conduct. While kids can’t test a rover design on the surface of Mars, they can test it in a backyard sandbox.
In a project where I may not easily have the skills or resources (scientifically or mathematically) to answer my original question, can I adapt my idea to make the project doable? When my younger son wanted to know “whether Punxsutawny Phil is right each year,” he found that, as a Kindergartener, judging the onset of spring was too hard, varying regionally and defined by multiple variables. To make the project more doable, he modified his question to ask simply “what weather does the groundhog predict?” then mined the data from historical records to produce age-appropriate tally charts, timelines, and graphs.
Is it safe and allowable to conduct the experiments I want? Kids usually aren’t allowed to experiment on live animals or with hazardous materials or in dangerous settings. But there are alternatives, including coding a simple computer model using kid-friendly tools such as Scratch! Your kid can’t introduce a real virus into the world to examine how it spreads, but she can program a simulation to study how group density, transmission rate, and recovery facilities impact a population of digital aliens hit with the flu.
Remember, not all science fair projects have to be “experimental.” Examining data sets, coding simulations and analyzing outcomes, and evaluating new designs can all produce insights that contribute to a larger body of scientific knowledge and understanding. However, just building a model of “something science,” like a cell or a volcano, does not qualify as conducting substantive scientific work.
The bottom line: Science Fair can be, and should be, an exciting and fun opportunity for your kid to work like a scientist. Give kids sufficient lead time to develop a project based on their own authentic questions. Target a project that has broad appeal, connecting to hot-topic issues, especially those which may be currently in the news. Don’t abandon a theme due to difficulty -- you may be able to reframe the project in a kid-doable way, or code a computer simulation to model and evaluate a simplified version of the real-world phenomenon. Most importantly, stop rehashing overused projects, like “Model Volcano” -- the goal of Science Fair is to engage in science, not art.
Author’s Note: From sixth grade through high school, I competed my scientific research in the annual Alamo Regional Science and Engineering Fair. I am indebted to the late Edwin Eargle of Keystone School for his mentoring of my first project, and to my parents who supported me every year.
Kitchen Chemistry: iStock Photos MelkiNimages, photo ID: 1022352268