Mentoring Many Independent Research Projects – aka, “Doing Science Fair”

Its the time of year where my weekends start to be taken up with Science Fair.  But as a teacher – its really nearly a year-round endeavor.

Science Fair for me starts in May. May is when I find out what students signed up for my course for the following year, the students who I will mentor through the science fair process.  It takes a lot of time to help every student succeed.

Success looks different for every student, and I have to be ok with that. For some, simply finishing a project that they can present at our school science day is success. For others, success is competing at our county, regional, or state fair. Or winning a prize. Rarely, the goal is “to compete at the international science fair”. (That student succeeded).

I say it every year: I don’t think students should be doing independent research projects alone.  They need mentorship (and yes, usually this means from teachers, but not always). They need community with each other. And parent support helps a lot (please, don’t tell your student what a waste of time it is – and if you are having trouble with it, reach out for help!)

My students have a series of checkpoints. Each one is accompanied by a feedback form that I read alone, and then review with them in person to answer questions.

Checkpoints:

  1. Idea – propose an idea (or more than one). Look for ideas that are interesting to you, interesting to others, new, and doable.
  2. Background Research – find several peer-reviewed articles relating to your topic.  (No wikipedia. No no-author stuff. No blogs!)
  3. “ISEF FORMS” – Students must complete the ISEF forms, where they not only have to plan out their research (they must design and explain their experiment), but they also have to assess the risks involved and make sure they have proper approval and permissions.
  4. Data Analysis and Discussion – students must carry out their experiment, then present the data and a brief discussion of it.  (I require students to restate their question here, to make sure their data actually answered their question.)
  5. Conclusions – students must state the answer to their question, and then write about the new questions that their research have brought to light.
  6. Display Draft – Students have to mock-up what their board will look like.

And then we have the fair.  The fair requires a display board (inspired by the mock-up) and a paper. The paper is drafted by using the submissions from the check points.  Note that at the checkpoints, students have written the question, introduction, experimental design, data analysis and discussion, and conclusions.  All that’s left is assembly.

PS. Style? Our school requires APA (not MLA), which is a choice. Most science disciplines use APA so we feel its appropriate. Further, for my students, I use the style guide for the Journal of the Ohio Academy of Science – which students could choose to submit to.  (I haven’t had any try … yet.)

What challenges do you face with doing science fair projects with your students?

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