Science Fair is my jam. If there were a queen of Science Fair, it’d be me. Well, alright… at least in my county. I’d be queen of the County Science Fair.
In all seriousness, I’ve been involved (a little too much if you’d ask my family) for over a decade. I sponsor (like a boss), run my school fair, help other teachers, dominate the county, and take middle school students as far as the National level. About 5 years ago one of my students won the Iron Man Award (top 10 MS projects in the country) from Robert Downy, Jr. himself. Pretty cool stuff.
And no, I’m not some grumpy old person who has been involved forever. I’m the youngest (by multiple decades) person, hanging with a bunch of old folks at the fairs (ha!).
So how do I do it? Great question. Here I’ve made a top 10 list of how to kick the freaking crap out of Science Fair. Not only can it be done… but parents, administration, and students (YES!) will be thanking you. Every year, even before the competition, I have students who are brainstorming for the FOLLOWING year. (Crazy!)
So here we go, in no particular order, are my TOP 10 Tips for having a freakin’ awesome Science Fair experience.
1. MODEL: Keep old boards (and not just awesome ones, crappy ones too.) Pull them out. Do a demo presentation. And another. Do a crappy presentation. Ask students what they liked about the presentations. What didn’t they like? Students are Ah-May-Zing at pulling apart someone else’s work. Let them do it. Do this when you introduce Science Fair. Do it again when you introduce how to pull a board together. And again when you’re talking about how to present and talk to judges. You can’t over-do modeling. Don’t underestimate this tool. Don’t have boards yet? Use google images.
2. TIMING: You canNOT expect your students to do quality work without the time. There are multiple ways (and reasons) for building this into your school and homework schedule.
A) Space it out. I give students 4 1/2 months. They’re not always working. In fact, there are times I give them “2 weeks off! Don’t think about Science Fair for the next 2 weeks!” Schedule it out. You’re running a marathon, not a sprint. These are children, you need to set the pace. Spacing it out gives them time to let it sink in, rethink how to do the next portion, talk to others for advice, etc. So even when they’re on ‘break,’ there is still a lot of processing going on.
B) When you’re moving on to the next ‘part’ (whatever that happens to be), take a day (or two) of class and talk about it. Get out your SCIENCE FAIR GUIDE and read through the directions, look at examples, take questions, discuss in small groups, whatever your kids need.
3. ENCOURAGE: YOU are your students’ biggest cheerleader. If you think they can do it, they will believe they can… and they will. Kids are AMAZING. Get excited. If you’re excited about their project, they will be too. Check in with them as often as you can. Ask what they’re doing next. Where are they on the experiment? Who is taking pictures for them? Do they have any questions? The more importance you place on them and their project, the more they will follow through. The same goes for presenting to judges. Believe in your students. Tell them about how great they’re going to do. Be excited for them. Even if they don’t let on that they’re excited… they ARE. Building your relationship with your students through this experience will yield amazing results.
4. “THE MEETING“: I meet with every single student (and I sponsor 80-120/ year) individually to approve their project. We discuss idea, paperwork, research, experimentation, cost, locale, originality, possibilities, difficulty, category, etc. I fill in a contract that they need to get signed by a parent. They get a pep talk. I prep them for what to do next. This gives me a platform to build from with each project. It motivates the students. They feel important, capable, and empowered. Keep track of every student you meet with, recording their question and probable category. This will give you a list to work from to put together paperwork packets and begin making a program (if you’re doing a school fair). Once you’ve met with every student, put the typed list of categories and projects onto a projector and go over it with each class. Make everyone accountable. These steps will get your classes off on the right foot.
5. BE AVAILABLE: By email, before school, after school, during study hall, between classes. Middle school students need to have a relationship to be able to talk about their project, discuss their problems, and feel supported and encouraged. You get more back for that small amount of time than you can imagine. This is why you became a teacher. Go the extra mile. Be available.
6. GET PARENTS ON BOARD… AND KEEP THEM THERE: Every year I give a presentation immediately following back to school night. I go over what to expect, my role, the students’ role, and the parents’ role. I give parents a time line of due dates, their own copy of my Science Fair Guide, and a copy of the grading rubric. If you have a school system for posting homework assignments, post every time you’re moving on to a different portion of the project. After we’re done the research paper and experiment plan, I give a homework assignment where students are required to have a 5 minute conversation with a parent about who/what/when/where the experiment will take place. Students are required to bring in a note from their parent stating that they’ve discussed the experiment and what dates they put on their calendar. This help keeps parents in the loop and forces students to talk to their parents (ground breaking idea, I know). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been thanked for giving this assignment.
7. TALK IT OUT: Students need to practice talking it out. As much as middle school students love to talk, they’re not necessarily good at communicating. Form small groups often and have them practice just talking about their projects. What are they testing? How are they doing it? Have them question each other and practice explaining. Have each student give a formal class presentation and take questions at the end. Time it out so that this is one to two weeks before the first competition. This will get rid of their jitters and help them to see what they’re not explaining well.
8. MAKE IT FUN: I have multiple categories of awards for my school fair. And NO, not everyone gets a trophy. (I really dislike that). I do like to celebrate different accomplishments for students who deserve them, though. In my county, I can only bring 24 projects to the county fair. When you have over a hundred students completing projects… that can be a problem. That’s why we have a school fair, to select county participants. I have other awards, though. We have a best in show for 6th, 7th, and 8th grade. There are category awards. Then I have “Special Awards.” Some of these are chosen by my board judges (two art teachers). They determine who gets the “Da Vinci Award”: For the best combination of art and science, the best 6th, 7th, and 8th grade board awards, and then some silly ones like “Pretty in Pink” if there happened to be a very pink board. This past year I added my very own category of special awards that got funny prizes. The purpose of these was to recognize aspects of student work that might otherwise not receive it. You can download these for free HERE.
9. RELATIONSHIPS COME FIRST: I’m realizing as I’m writing this that this should have maybe been #1. Middle school students are in DIRE need of positive, nurturing relationships (especially this day in age). BE THAT TEACHER. Science Fair is long and tiring. Recognize that and nurture your students. Talk to them about what’s going on and how you can help them. Meet them where they are OR you will get absolutely no where and your student will hate science and science fair. This is NOT why we became teachers. So check yourself. You can have high expectations, you can penalize late work, but for goodness sake, please remember that these are children. These are someone’s babies. These are precious gifts. Our goal here is to instill a love of learning and of science. To grow their minds. To encourage their hearts. Don’t forget to be a human being.
10. HAVE A PLAN: You need to be organized and have a plan… not just for your students, but for yourself. Anticipate times that may get stressful. Get help. Delegate. Every year I hostess 20-25 judges for a home cooked meal after judging. I get friends to come set up. I have a sign-up genius for parents to drop off the meal. I sign up other teachers to walk around during judging to help monitor the students. I have someone get the auditorium ready for awards. This is a big job. Do as much in advance as humanly possible. Make lists. If you’re a Mom like me, plan for a pizza night if you need to not make dinner.
IN CLOSING: I hope this list has been helpful. Science Fair is HUGE. It’s also immensely rewarding. The growth I’ve seen in students throughout Science Fair is just absolutely inspiring. THIS is why I became a teacher.
Do great things. Enjoy teaching again.
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