Science fairs: Teaching students to think like scientists

Broadcom MASTERS competition encourages science as interactive, live process, not just memorization

Samantha Rowland

If you grew up learning that science is a class where you memorize clunky, four-syllable words and follow instructions straight out of the lab manual, raise your hand.

That’s just the kind of thinking that Len Kenyon is working to change when he helps his students develop ideas for science fairs. Too often, students think that science is about rote memorization and step-by-step procedures, rather than active and live processes, he says.

“Students have these misconceptions…they think science must be conducted in a cookbook sequence,” says Kenyon, a former marine science researcher who teaches sixth-grade science at Tippecanoe Middle School in Tipp City, Ohio. “I teach my kids that science is a process. It’s messy, it’s here, it’s there. They might be doing something and all of a sudden they get data they didn’t expect to get and suddenly they’re off on a tangent. That’s real science.”

Kenyon has been mentoring students through science fair projects since he began teaching six years ago. This year, one of his students — Samantha Rowland, 14, now an eighth-grade student — was selected as a finalist for the first-ever Broadcom MASTERS (short for math, applied science, technology and engineering for rising stars) science competition, a national contest for middle school students. The competition is cosponsored by Society for Science & the Public, which publishes Science News for Kids. Out of an initial 1,476 applicants who were nominated from 45 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, 30 finalists were chosen to represent their schools and communities in Washington, D.C., from September 30 to October 5. Students were judged on their science fair projects and their mastery of science, problem-solving skills and communication in both individual and team events. Students vied for more than $75,000 in earnings, and the winning student, Daniel Feeny, was awarded $25,000.

“Daniel Feeny is a young adult who possesses a keen scientific mind and a true interest in making a positive difference in the World,” said his teacher Yogi Sullivan. “In class, Daniel is a natural leader who brings out the best in both himself and his classmates. The entire Woodside Elementary Community is so proud,” Sullivan said of the boy’s national recognition. And, he adds jubilantly, “He is JUST GETTING STARTED!!!”

For most finalists, reaching the Broadcom science competition was the culmination of a year — sometimes years — of preparing largely outside of class and participating in competitions at local, regional and state levels. Some students elected to carry out science fair projects as extracurricular work, either through science clubs or with the help of their teachers, parents and volunteers in the community. In other cases, science fair projects were integral to the school science curriculum. Though a science fair is time-consuming, the payoff is gratifying.

“It keeps you sharp because you are learning,” says Kenyon. “The student is actually educating you as a teacher, which I think is wonderful. They’re getting to tell you their discoveries. The roles get reversed there; that’s what I think is exciting for me.”

At Tippecanoe Middle School, science fair projects are optional and students develop projects with help from their science teachers and through a local science club. For Rowland’s seventh-grade project, she investigated something of highly practical value to her: She wanted to know if the type of light you put on your Christmas tree affects how many needles it loses.

“There’s always an argument in my family about whether to get an artificial or live Christmas tree,” says Rowland. “I prefer live. But at the end of the season, I always have to clean up the extra needles, and I wanted to find out whether there was a way to reduce the amount of needles. I thought that was a problem that other people had, too.”

Rowland gathered the tops of 14 Christmas trees from a local tree farm and set up an experiment in her basement. She tested both incandescent and high-efficiency light-emitting diode (LED) lights in red, white and blue. She found that trees with red LED lights lost a whopping 21,000 fewer needles than trees with the other types and colors of light. Rowland also observed that the trees that drank more water tended to lose more needles, suggesting that those trees were drier and more fire-prone than trees with longer-lasting needles.

Science teachers agree on the importance of guiding students toward ideas that allow them to become part of the scientific process. Michaela Iiames, who teaches fifth- and seventh-grade science at St. Timothy’s School in Raleigh, N.C., has been doing science fairs with her students for eight years. At St. Timothy’s, a kindergarten through eighth-grade school, science fair projects are required for certain grades, including fourth and seventh. To help students develop projects, Iiames asks them to begin with journaling about their everyday interests. “We’re trying to really hook them into science and seeing how science concepts can be applied in their everyday life, not just with test tubes and chemicals,” says Iiames, whose student — Justin Barber — competed in the Broadcom competition. His project focused on discovering the pitch of roof that is best able to withstand hurricanes.

Key to a positive experience for students — whether or not they win — is steering them toward ideas they can “own,” says Iiames. “I emphasize that I don’t want you to come into science fair with a turbine engine if the last thing in your world that interests you is a turbine engine but your dad is really interested in that. Having grown up in schools where I had to do science fairs, it really was that research project that you dreaded — and hated every minute of.”

In Iiames’ classes, students develop their ideas independently and “peer review” — or critique — each other’s topics in the classroom. If projects involve data collection from human volunteers, such as one past project in which a student was investigating the effects of different types of music on homework performance, Iiames sometimes allows for class activities related to the projects.

Several finalists were able to work on their projects under the guidance of community volunteers. Debra Beckett, who teaches eighth-grade science at Sequim Middle School in rural Sequim, Wash., started a local after-school science fair club six years ago that helps elementary, middle and high school students develop science fair projects. Beckett enlists the help of volunteers such as other science teachers, retired state teachers, an engineering mentor and an environmental scientist. Teachers and mentors in the science fair club first help the students do background literature searches and refine their project problem and questions. Then volunteers walk students through the steps of designing a research plan.

One of Beckett’s students, Katherine Landoni, competed in the Broadcom MASTERS competition after being nominated for her eighth-grade project that looked at genetic differences in populations of New Zealand mud snails and the animals’ ability to tolerate changes in salinity. Landoni received some guidance from local marine biology experts and coordinated with a retired high school biology teacher in Oregon to collect mud snails in the state. “It was like a whole bunch of people helping her pursue her passion,” says Beckett.

Beckett says that in a rural area that does not have the benefit of a nearby university, the support and resources of the community are instrumental in helping students carry out science fair projects. And the relationships can help set students up for success as they prepare for high school and beyond. “We build up a nice community of kids, and I get to work with scientists in the area who like to work with young people and help them think about their future and the possibilities that can happen for them,” says Beckett. “[The students] can continue to work through high school with the same cadre of people that really know them.”

In some cases, the communities themselves can benefit from the students’ projects. Derek Esibill, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade science at Kailua Intermediate School in Kailua, Hawaii, mentored Robert Heckman, a student who became a finalist for Broadcom. For his project on coral tumors, parrotfish predation and bacterial colonization, Heckman produced data that could be used to benefit the health of Hawaii’s coral reefs, says Esibill.

The amount of time that teachers spend with students in preparation for science fairs varies widely, depending on how independent the students are, how much support they have at home and whether the project is elective or part of the classroom curriculum. Beckett’s science club meets once a week for a couple of hours, and she estimates that in the fall and winter she spends about 12 to 15 hours per month outside of class on science fair activities. When spring rolls around, the usual time that science fairs are held, the time commitment may double. “It’s crazy hectic,” says Beckett. Though most of the data are collected by this point, students now rush to polish their posters and written reports and practice for interviews with judges.

Although science fairs require a significant commitment, teachers agree that the process is gratifying for students and teachers alike. Susan Duncan, a science teacher at Summa Academy at Meadow Park Middle School in Beaverton, Ore., had two students, Valerie Ding and Anirudh Jain, who became finalists in the Broadcom competition. Duncan keeps in mind a lesson that her own mentor taught her: The main goal should be to teach students how to become researchers. “So whether they go on to language arts or to become journalists or lawyers or doctors, they’ll leave with these research skills,” says Duncan. In teaching this, she finds that the teachers learn to become researchers themselves.

The Broadcom MASTERS competition is cosponsored by Society for Science & the Public, publisher of Science News for Kids.