Science fairs creating kids with curiosity, courage
Students across Middle Georgia are putting their questions to the test. It’s science fair time, and many children in elementary, middle and high school are busy with what they hope will be award-winning projects.
Each district sets its own standards for school and class participation, but local educators agree science fairs are an invaluable learning experience for students.
“It’s a friendly competition, but it’s also a good opportunity for students to see what their peers are doing and how they approach different learning processes,” said Brian Butler, Bibb County district science coordinator.
The state science fair, set for March 30 and April 1 in Athens, showcases the top projects from students in grades six through 12.
Bibb County has a district initiative to increase the number of students involved in science competitions, Butler said. Schools can participate in the science fair and Science Olympiad, where schools put together teams to compete in challenges.
It’s up to the schools to decide which students must complete science fair projects and if they will have an individual school fair. Kindergarten through second grades are encouraged to do a whole class project, and third grade and up can do small group, pair or individual.
Most Bibb schools had their fairs before Thanksgiving. The top two projects per grade for each school go on to the district fair Dec. 3, and from there they can advance to the regional fair Feb. 3, which is for all grade levels, Butler said.
At Alexander II Magnet School in Macon, fourth- and fifth-graders completed individual projects for their fair the second week of November, and kindergarten, first and second grades did class projects. Third-graders had the option to do a group project, but most of them did their own, said Mark Friar, science lab teacher and fair coordinator.
The school had stopped hosting science fairs about five years ago, but Friar brought them back and developed a grading system for the projects this year.
Projects filled the gymnasium at Vineville Academy recently. Individual efforts were required for fifth-graders, and the other grades did class projects, said Principal Kristy Graham.
The Houston County regional science and engineering fair, planned for Jan. 25-27, is only for grades six through 12 and is open to surrounding districts like Peach, Crawford and Dooly, said Ann Williams-Brown, Houston’s coordinator of science. Most of these counties just have individual school fairs and do not hold a separate district fair before regionals. The majority of the schools host their events in December.
Houston requires fairs at all its middle schools, since seventh-graders in the gifted program are required to do science projects. Eighth-grade gifted students can choose between the science fair or the National History Day Contest, said Melanie Mann, a gifted science teacher at Warner Robins Middle School. Projects are optional for the other students.
Warner Robins Middle students started working on their projects in August, and most of them have been doing their experiments in recent days. Forty-two seventh-graders and 18 eighth-graders from the school are participating this year, and about half will go on to the regional fair.
‘The next great thing’
Testing and standards are an important part of education, but the science fair provides an opportunity for more individualized student learning. Students are encouraged to pick a topic that’s meaningful and interesting to them, so they’ll be more engaged in the project, Butler said.
“The students are judged on the originality of their project, how they incorporate the scientific method and how they analyze the data. The goal is to provide students with the opportunity to authentically investigate science,” he said.
With the emphasis on STEM learning, many students are designing and testing things through engineering projects, Butler said.
“It’s preparing our students for the workforce with all of these new careers for science and engineering,” Williams-Brown said. “We have these jobs waiting for these students who are prepared to fill those positions.”
Vineville and Alexander II students studied gum, diapers, plant growth, mold, motors, food taste preference and more through their projects.
“One of these kids is going to build the next great thing ... maybe we inspire someone to design something, fix a problem or create something new,” Friar said. “I want them to have the courage and the curiosity to follow and investigate.”
Warner Robins Middle students looked at sound frequency on plant growth, stimulated pollen production, the cellulose material inside sunflowers, and the possibility of a biological battery, Mann said.
“It’s more about the process than it is about what they test,” she said. “It makes them think. If it doesn’t work out, at least they learn something. That’s what science is. It’s not necessarily going to turn out how you think it will.”
The science fair is a hands-on, real-world experience that teaches students how to question things and then find the answers, said Leslie Brown, Vineville Academy third-grade teacher.
Students learn how to work and make decisions by themselves, Friar said.
“I have found that when they’re independent, they’re more engaged, they’re more motivated,” he said. “Once you push them and they figure out they can do things on their own, they just seem happier.”
The students take pride in their work, and they’re excited to explain their findings to the other kids, Graham said.