Amy Schauer,Program Coordinator,West Linn-Wilsonville School District
Designing, Developing, and Presenting Original Work
Students often anticipate that their project work will "look good" on their resumes and college applications, and that is true, but it's only the beginning. Former students often tell me that this research experience - designing, developing and presenting their original work - prepared them for so much more than just writing a great application essay. They feel better prepared than their peers for interviews, for finding needed information and resources, for organizing and doing college-level projects, for collaborating effectively and communicating their work successfully. The science fair experience is an opportunity for learning many things in addition to scientific methods and content knowledge.
Mentoring the Students
Above all, choose something you are interested in. Yes, it should be relevant to others as well, but almost anything can be. If you aren't interested in the latest epidemic to hit the headlines, that should not be your research topic. You will be spending a lot of time working on your project, and if it isn't something that fascinates and engages you, then it will be hard to do, and hard to do well.
Once you choose that exciting research question or engineering goal, don't wait to get started! Give yourself as much time as possible to work on your project, in every phase from beginning design to final presentation. Most things take more time than we think they will, and it's almost a certainty that something will not go as planned. If you have built time into your schedule for that, then solving the things that go wrong can often be the most interesting part of your project!
Before you get into the hands-on phase of your project, you should know most science fairs require risk assessment reviews and project approval for many types of projects. There's paperwork to complete to show that you planned ahead to conduct your work safely and ethically. You'll need to enlist the help of an adult "sponsor" with this paperwork and consult the fair's guidelines very carefully, or you could be disqualified from competition. Your adult sponsor could be a parent, mentor, or teacher. I find that teachers make the best science fair adult sponsors - they know how to help students manage project requirements effectively.
The most important thing in getting a teacher on board with your project also happens to be the same first-and-foremost thing to remember about enlisting a mentor: be very prepared in your initial contact with them so that you show you will not waste their time. Explain your project idea concisely, and what you think you would like them to do to help you. Be ready for their likely questions. Do some background reading on your topic ahead of time so you show you have initiative and are eager to learn. Prepare one or two questions of your own - yes, you will have lots more questions, but choose the two most important for this first communication). Include your parents in your e-mail communications and get them to help you prepare for face-to-face conversations.
Embracing Parents Help and Support
I think it's great when parents are able to offer connections to mentors from their own work networks, or access to specialized equipment - particularly when those aren't exclusive their own children. In general, though, the main parental help and support that will make a difference is encouragement. Doing a project like this involves many challenges and it's incredibly helpful for a student to have a sounding board to express excitement, frustration, discouragement, and to talk through issues with things like time management or interpersonal dynamics. Parents do not need specialized scientific knowledge to provide this most important type of help. In my experience, the best learning opportunities for students happen when they don't have hands-on parental help with their research or presentation. Students tend to enjoy the experience more deeply and learn more by doing it all themselves, even when things don't work out perfectly. Also, when students can show they did the work, they tend to fare better in judging because judges are wary of projects which were essentially done by parents/mentors.
Delivering Knowledge to Students
I worked for several years as an oceanographer in the Ph.D. program at the University of Alaska's Institute of Marine Science, in both high Arctic and Antarctic ecosystems. As my life priorities shifted I was very lucky to find my current position with the West Linn-Wilsonville School District. As science advisor and science fair director, I get to geek out about an astonishing array of scientific and engineering topics. Every day is a learning adventure, and I aim for every student in our program to have an 'A-ha!' moment in the course of their project. Sometimes it happens when we are in an advising session and even though it's not my project, I'm as mentally fired-up as my student!
[CREST is our school district's science support center. We deliver instruction, equipment and curriculum support in science and engineering to teachers and students in the West Linn-Wilsonville School District. We have a special emphasis on environmental sciences and also operate a school farm. This is my bio from the CREST website]: After completing her B.S. at the University of Tennessee in Wildlife and Fisheries Science and her M.S. in Forestry and Natural Resources at the University of Georgia, Amy went to the University of Alaska to study seabird ecology in the Bering and Chukchi Seas. Her work in oceanography took her to waters around the former USSR (Siberia), Greenland, and Antarctica - among the coldest and most productive oceans on Earth. Amy has also worked as a park naturalist/ranger, reference librarian and artist. She brings all this together at CREST, working with students who are developing their own scientific research projects for the district-wide CREST - Jane Goodall Science Symposium. “It’s the most fascinating, challenging, and rewarding job I can imagine,” she says, “I can be working with a student who is interested in animal behavior or alternative energy one day, and the next I may be talking with another interested in curing disease by affecting how pathological bacteria work together." She is passionately committed to the goal of making this hands-on scientific inquiry experience available to every student who wants it. Amy lives in West Linn with her husband, Jay, and their twins, Liam and Benjamin. When not at CREST, she’s likely to be outdoors with her family, gardening, birding, backpacking/hiking, or playing her guitar.
Creating a Hallmark for Projects
Sophisticated generally connotes complexity, and I'd like to state right off that very simple ideas can be world-changing. Students often want to choose a project with highly specialized intricate protocols or flashy high-tech equipment just because they think they'll be taken more seriously. Sometimes the best way to get good data is a highly technical, complex procedure, but complexity alone isn't a hallmark of a good project. The most truly sophisticated project ideas, ones which are worthy of these high level science fairs, are based on deep background reading and willingness to put in the time needed to find and focus a question that will lead to new knowledge to benefit the world. Anyone can find those innovative ideas - it just takes time and revision. Then you have to design a valid and powerful experiment or engineering approach worthy of your great idea, whether that turns out to be complex, or actually very simple.
Long Lasting Experience
The prizes are a small part of the reward, really. They're exciting (who doesn't enjoy winning, especially cash or a college scholarship?) but not nearly so lasting as the experience itself. Students have the chance to use knowledge to create new knowledge - that's a deeply, deeply satisfying experience. Then they get to share that knowledge with professionals in the field. After judging interviews, students are often very excited because they have experienced a 'meeting of the minds' with someone who really gets what they themselves are interested in. This is a reward of doing science fairs that can and does have long-lasting effects.
No - I'm sad to say my school didn't have science fairs. Otherwise I would surely have entered. I was very shy for most of my middle and high school career but I always knew I wanted to be a scientist, so I would have pushed myself to do this.
Marion Zeiner,Director of Scientific Research,Episcopal School of Jacksonville
Jennifer Hellier,Associate Director of Programs,University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus