I recently attended the US Entomological Society Meeting where one of my science fair students was presented with the 2nd place Calvert Award for her work with the invasive spotted lantern fly.

Earlier that evening, I was discussing science fair in general with my student’s mother. Parent involvement was part of our discussion. How much should parents be involved? How much is too much? Should they help at all? Some argue that the students who win didn’t do their projects at all. Well… I disagree. From the perspective of a judge- it becomes obvious immediately when a student has not completed the work themselves. Very rarely are those students successful. So back to the original question: How much help should a parent or mentor provide? Consider the following…

While at the US Entomological meeting, a woman from the University of Delaware presented her work on her PhD dissertation: What Birds Eat. (http://www.whatdobirdseat.com/) During her presentation, which included multiple studies, she often referred to her mentor and peer group. I can’t quote her exact words, but the gist of it was… She would complete a study, bring the results to her peer group or mentor, and they would say something like… “We think you should do such and such next” or “We think you should look at this part of the data” or “This data set is going to be biased because of… change it this way….”

Is that not the same as a parent or mentor directing a science fair student? It’s not doing the work FOR them. It’s discussing, stepping back and looking at the broader picture. It’s why we have peer review groups and mentors. Isn’t that the exact job of a mentor or parent? To mentor and parent??

My student who received an award that evening had analyzed her data with the chi squared probability test. As her mentor, it was my job to introduce her to this tool. She did the math, understood the results, and could explain them fully. I did none of the work. I guided.

Having a mentor and involved parent are extremely important, especially for the first science fair experience. Once a student has been through the experience two, three times, they will naturally take the lead on all aspects and seek out mentorship with questions. But until then, yes- you should be discussing and introducing your child/student to tools, ideas, and avenues of research. Don’t do the work for them, but guide their work.

As parents, we always say we want our children to do big things, develop endurance, and tackle hard projects. We want things to discuss with our teenagers and projects to work on. We want STEM. We want project based learning. Science fair provides ALL OF THOSE THINGS. Use science fair as the opportunity you’ve been looking for.

Enjoy teaching, mentoring, and science fair-ing!

If you’re a mentor, check out my blog post on Science Fair.


  1. Hi Lisa, I absolutely agree that parents can and should be guiding their children’s projects – it builds relationships, and enhances the whole process. I worked at the high school level (mostly 9th and 10th grade) for many years, and mentored thousands of projects. I can think of very few times where I felt that a student had not done the actual work herself (and a sponsor who oversees every part of a carefully constructed process can tell!). I encouraged my students to discuss their projects with their parents; after all, the parents will be the ones footing the bill for materials, driving the student here and there, etc… It’s true that some parents are able to give their children advantages that other students might not have (like access to a professional lab, or personal connections to professionals in the project area), but that’s not the most important part of executing a successful project. Teachers must remind the students, their parents, and often, themselves, that the focus is for the students to learn – about science, about themselves, about pushing the limits of their abilities, about being successful without “winning.” In the rare event when I suspected that a parent did a little more of the work than they should have, I let it go, consoling myself with the thought that maybe what this parent and child needed was to spent time together on a worthwhile endeavor.

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