How Your Kid Can Make a Good Science Fair Project

Vikram Bath

Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1.

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22 Responses

  1. Kazzy says:

    I think we discussed this on your previous post, but I am a big fan of rebranding most “science education” as “inquiry skills”. Testing and discovery are two such inquiry skills. I am increasingly uncomfortable with science being a discrete subject for elementary aged students. The fact is, they are — or should be — using inquiry skills throughout their day. These should be taught and employed both explicitly and implicitly. The body of knowledge can come later: most of it is rote anyway and with well-developed inquiry skills, they will be better positioned to access it on their own.

    I feel similarly about social studies/history. We should be focusing on research and study skills (which, in a way, are just a specialized form of inquiry skills).

    We need to stop teaching kids stuff and start teaching them how to learn.Report

    • zic in reply to Kazzy says:

      Excellent post, vikram, excellent and wholeheartedly seconded comment, @kazzy

      I would just add stressing the importance of teaching children how to observe and to be aware observing the world around them. With scientific inquiry, we build in appreciation of the problems and shortcomings and distortions introduced by the limits of our equipment for observing. Looking at light particles with electrons, Wm. Bell (I think,) once described as trying to understand a bowling alley by sending bowling balls across the lanes.

      Our own selves are subject to observation limits and bias by the nature of our sensory organs and the shape of our thought patterns and the limits of our knowledge; sometimes the greatest difficulty is finding the right question to ask, as demonstrated by the difficult of finding an appropriate project for a good, real science project that uses scientific process.

      There certainly is value in learning good modeling; I have beautiful prints of birds on this year’s calendar as a result. The act of modeling can be an act of discovery, leading to questions to investigate, as well as a way of reporting investigation. But modeling alone, is only a part of scientific method, not the sum of it.Report

    • Oscar Gordon in reply to Kazzy says:

      We need to stop teaching kids stuff and start teaching them how to learn.

      This was, to me, the big difference between school & college. Schools taught facts and some skills (like math), colleges taught how to learn & think critically. Given the world pre-internet, I can see the rationale for this distinction.

      Nowadays, not so much.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Oscar Gordon says:


        I read an interesting article recently in which a teacher railed against a vision of next generation learning wherein “super teachers” transmit via video came expertly delivered lessons while on site “behavior management specialists” handle the students.

        Now, I’ve got my reservations about such a future. But the way this guy (or gal? I don’t remember) spoke… it was full of bitterness about being replaced as the sole possessor of society’s knowledge. It really pissed me off. Yes, the democratization of access to knowledge isn’t without its warts, but it is a hugely positive development that all of us — teachers especially! — should welcome.

        We’ve updated Bloom’s Taxonomy. If you haven’t seen it yet, I suggest Googling it. It is a really positive shift.Report

  2. Michael Cain says:

    Here things are called “science and engineering” fairs. This has pluses and minuses. On the plus side, it opens things up and can leverage the popularity of the maker movement. On the minus side, it can detract from the experimental design aspect that has been the traditional emphasis. I haven’t decided which I favor — although the push to include engineering, and allow software to be featured, isn’t going to go away as long as Intel is putting up the bucks for the big prizes at the top levels. For me, the fundamental question that I don’t know the answer to is, “Is trial-and-error solution of an engineering problem, possibly hands-on or possibly through simulation, as valuable a learning tool as an experiment to determine if nail size affects magnetic field strength?”Report

    • Oscar Gordon in reply to Michael Cain says:


      Trial & Error design is not as valuable as the experiment. It’s not without value, just not as valuable. However, there is no reason design has to happen by trial & error, or random simulation. There are established, well used scientific approaches to engineering design, both in simulation and prototype design. Design of Experiments itself is a fascinating field that requires a lot of critical thinking to setup well.Report

    • I’d rather not get into which is more valuable here. Science and engineering are both awesome. Additionally, it seems unlikely that someone who is not good at trial-and-error to get something working is likely to grow up to be a good scientist. Similarly, knowing how knowledge is developed is likely to benefit an engineer even if it’s not strictly necessary.Report

  3. trizzlor says:

    I think schools do a generally poor job of explaining to children what research actually is. I have a nephew who really struggled with middle-school “research paper” assignments that basically required him to : 1) Pick a topic; 2) Read three articles on the topic; 3) Summarize the three articles in your own words. He couldn’t understand what the underlying goal was; why he couldn’t just quote the source material outright; and where to draw the line between “research” and plagiarism. He would paraphrase complex conclusions that no child could have come up with and get dinged for plagiarism even as the assignment required paraphrasing historical facts that no child could have come up with. Eventually, he got the hang of it in a sort of Pavlovian way – this type of statement costs you points, this type doesn’t. And coupled that with the age-old skill of reading a paragraph, closing the book for a minute, and then rewriting the paragraph using dumber words. By the end, the whole exercise had depressingly little to do with research and was primarily about demonstrating that you had done X hours of reading and writing.

    I don’t really know how to fix it without requiring a lot of parental engagement, but it would at least be helpful to explicitly state the goal of this kind of project and distinguish it from the way research is traditionally done.Report

    • Richard Hershberger in reply to trizzlor says:

      My wife teaches high school AP social studies. I know that there is a big push to use primary sources, but in practice this seems to mean using pre-digested anthologies of primary source material. This is better than summarizing secondary sources, but not a great deal better.Report

    • Vikram Bath in reply to trizzlor says:

      That brought back painful memories. On the plus side, I guess you at least get some experience writing. But that’s about it.Report

  4. Kolohe says:

    Really great post. My personal problem with science fairs back tin the day was that I lacked the imagination and the base of knowledge to ask interesting questions, and I feel this is a fairly standard occurrence among the 15 year old set, even those with a math/science bent to their intellects. Plus, asking interesting questions becomes more difficult if your dealing with biologically, chemically, or psychological/sociologically dangerous substances – which for the last case, was all of them. (every science teacher I’ve ever had counseled explicitly or implicitly against anything that would require an IRB or its school level equivalent. Even for most straightforward types of experiments, the equipment available to a student at a regular, non-STEM magnet public high school is quite limited – and even if present, is still a subject of unknown unknowns. (i.e. even if the school has a henway in storage, most students won’t even think of asking if the school has one due to their aforementioned lack of educational background).

    The thing I like about “and engineering” fairs that Michael Cain mentions is that it directly fixes another deficiency in most high school science education – the general lack of tinkering and machine building. That sort of thing, is, in my experience, often relegated to shop class, for students on a different track. Doing some welding in physics class to do some kinematic experiments is a worthwhile experience on both ends of the educational spectrum (i.e. practical and theoretical). Perhaps the success of Mythbusters and fame of the Pumpkin Chuckin’ winners have made this fusion more common since my high school days?Report

    • Vikram Bath in reply to Kolohe says:

      I actually do wonder whether reading this post would have been helpful when I was 15. I’m not sure I was aware then of how much we don’t know. I think I similarly felt that everything worthwhile requires highly specialized equipment. There are a lot more basic questions that don’t get asked though.

      IRBs suck, but I wouldn’t write off any experiment that involved them. As a business researcher, I particularly hate IRBs because there is no possible way that any of my research could have caused anyone any issues, but I have to file the same paperwork anyway. But they are passable if you are willing to go through the paperwork.

      In the fairs I’ve judged, “engineering” was a single category. It was always the largest. I think maybe they could have segmented it to be more fair to the students competing in it.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        Vikram Bath: But they are passable if you are willing to go through the paperwork.

        But that’s the catch. Asking a 15 year old to do paperwork is in fact the most realistic simulation of and best real-world training on how SCIENCE! actually operates, but it’s easily avoided if you’re just, in essence, a hobbyist, and not seeking grant money. (or grad school credit).Report

  5. Oscar Gordon says:

    My favorite “Science Fairs” is still the FIRST program.Report

  6. ScarletNumber says:

    This project doesn’t stem from genuine curiosity.

    That’s because no one gives a shit. Kids just do science fair projects because their teachers make them.Report

  7. DensityDuck says:

    The point of a science fair project is not to ask an interesting question. It’s to ask any question and then correctly follow the scientific method in detail — observe, hypothesize, test. Throwing eggs off the roof and measuring how high they bounce can win the science fair *if* you do a sufficiently good job of eliminating the independent variables, recording the results, showing how they do (or don’t) support your hypothesis, and writing it all up.Report

    • Oscar Gordon in reply to DensityDuck says:

      I’d say that depends heavily on the level of the fair in question. A grade school or middle school fair could ask some basic questions & test them. A high school fair should be a fair bit more sophisticated.Report

  8. trizzlor says:

    I wanted to add a person note, as someone who won a state science fair and placed at the ISEF in high-school. The idea that rich kids are buying their way to the top was not reflective of what I saw. At least at the senior level, everyone who placed had clearly done their own work. They knew what they were talking about. And they were basically the kind of boundlessly energetic young minds you’d expect to have a couple Ivys as safety schools. From what I remember, the parents were very engaged but not particularly wealthy or intellectually snobbish (which surprised my parents who were both academics).

    All that said, the dynastic element was definitely there. Most of the winners had been involved in science fairs for many years nearly all had already won several middle-school trophies. This was typically the result of strong infrastructure: either a serious science fair elective in school (as the article describes); or, more typically, mentorship programs with a local college/university. In fact, having some kind of academic mentor was the norm, and meant that – for better or worse – the fair was basically a dumping ground for academic PIs with some extra ideas lying around and no college students to implement them.

    Anyway, in contrast to the linked article, I totally understand why Intel and Google are funding these fairs. Aside from good PR, it is actually a very good way to identify a tiny fraction of young students who have the motivation and infrastructure to do college-level research. It is not, however, a good way to introduce the general young student population to scientific research.Report

    • Vikram Bath in reply to trizzlor says:

      trizzlor: The idea that rich kids are buying their way to the top was not reflective of what I saw.

      I think there’s a common misconception on the two generally accepted sides of the aisle that the claim in question is that the privileged rich buy their kids into success in a way that doesn’t actually involve their kids.

      A lot of media is currently painting a narrative in which rich kids are pushed and shoved into being rich themselves. In this model, they have no agency. In actual life, having rich parents just means you get access to more stuff. Having parents who can afford piano lessons doesn’t mean you will actually learn to play the piano, and if you do learn, it doesn’t mean the accomplishment isn’t yours.

      At least until the rich can afford to do skill uploads like in the Matrix.Report