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A Guide to Scientific Discovery

Helping Your Child Get Started With Science Fair Projects

Science fair projects give children a chance to study topics that interest them, while exercising their research skills. Your involvement in your child's project can turn a potentially stressful experience into an exciting learning adventure.

But how do you help without taking over, encourage without pushing and allow for stumbling without abandoning your child?

The following guidance will help both you and your child to explore the joy that comes from scientific discovery, without the pressure of winning a competition.

Why Hold a Science Fair?

Science fair projects teach children how to structure an experiment, gather material, collect data and present it in an organized form. It gives them an opportunity to study subjects such as sports, music, art, rocketry or computers, and to discover that science exists in every niche of the universe.

"Science fairs provide a learning/teaching experience for students," says Margaret Hamill, a retired teacher from New Era, Mich. "A lot of learning and togetherness takes place when children and adults work together."

Working at home gives children a chance to have a hands-on, one-on-one experience with a parent or caregiver, she says.

Getting Started

Find something that sparks your child's imagination.

Jenny Rackley's son Jordan had a keen interest in Mount St. Helen's. So she brainstormed with her son in their Woodinville, Wash. home, offering suggestions without taking over the project.

"He listened to tapes, read books and studied maps," Rackley says. "We used a large box, he crumpled newspaper in it and we made a paper mache model." For the Toutle River mud flow, Jordan mixed grits, cocoa powder and glue, and stuck his old toy cars, animals and action figures in it. He then created the signs and delivered a short presentation to explain what he had made.

"When a parent shows interest in his child's work, the child will be motivated to do his or her best," says neurophysiologist Eric Chudler, research associate at the University of Washington. "This kind of parent/child interaction strengthens family bonds and opens opportunities for communication on many topics."

Evelyn Raab of Millbrook, Ontario, says her two sons loved science and didn't need encouragement to get started. What they did need was someone to help them organize their plans and gather materials.

"I borrowed thermometers and asked a friend to donate some baby trees," she says. "I schlepped the kids around town to find materials and helped design a spreadsheet on the computer."

Raab spent more time than money, and found that great projects come from ingenuity. "In every case, my kids did projects cheaply, with as much free, recycled or borrowed material as possible," she says.

Her son Dustin once decided to do an electric potato assignment. They bought the wires and pieces of metal to stick into the potatoes, the light bulb and the socket. But after the project was assembled, it didn't work.

He tried switching to lemons and then smaller bulbs, but nothing worked.

"Dustin diligently wrote up the entire process and recorded every attempt, every change of material, every failure," Raab says. "He presented the project in its original form, with the unelectrical potatoes and the depressingly unlit light bulb. He recorded his results, and presented his outcome."

Dustin won the prize, and learned that science fair projects aren't always about making a project work.

Resist "Takeover" Temptation

Many schools have chosen not to hold science fairs because parental involvement got out of hand. Although schools insist the work be researched and constructed by the child, parents often take over, making it unfair for the other children involved in the fair.

"I've always tried to keep my girls honest," says Deborah Brown of Lafayette, La. "So when their cardboard, glued construction pales pitifully next to some neon-lighted, robotic nuclear thing, they just chin up to the games."

When parents become too involved, children miss out on the lesson and on the true victory of having developed their skills.

"A parent should in no way perform any of the work," Chudler says. "Construction of a project, data collection and data analysis can and should be supervised by a parent, but the student should be doing the work."

To help alleviate this problem, schools can provide a list of acceptable and unacceptable ways parents can help students. Chudler also suggests setting limits on the amount of money that can be spent on the project.

Invention Convention

Instead of holding a science fair where children will be judged, some schools opt for a Learning Convention.

"We sent home a list of possible projects, and parents and kids chose one together. They brought them to school on a special day or evening and demonstrated them together," Hamill recalls from her Learning Convention experience. "No prize for best project eliminated competition and allowed everyone to relax and learn from each other."

Fending Off Frustration

Lorna Lowen, mother of two in Edmonton, Alberta, finds science fair projects very frustrating. "The teacher – who has the instructions, has seen this done many times and understands what concepts are supposed to be learned – sends home very brief and often confusing instructions," Lowen says. "The child, who really doesn't know what he or she is supposed to be learning, ends up disappointed and turned off."

Lowen suggested that her daughter's school plan a scaled-down version or in-class field trips. "The school hired a company to come with projects for the kids to do," she says. "Parent volunteers helped out all day, while the kids worked on several hands-on projects."

To lower your science fair frustration level, try the following tips:

  • Help your child pick a project. Make sure it's one he can physically complete and you can manage financially. If it's too big to complete in the time allowed, explain why, and help him to find something more suitable.
  • Keep safety your number one priority. If your child's project involves electricity or sharp tools, be prepared to supervise.
  • Display your child's work. The final project should be a culmination of your child's effort, something he or she will be proud to show.
  • Volunteer. Consider volunteering your time to a child who may not have a parent to help with a project.

Whatever method your child's school opts for with its science fair, remember to support your child. Visit the classroom, sit in on discussions or call the teacher to find out exactly how to help. How your child performs the science project is as important as what project he or she selects.

If you focus on your time together you can rediscover the joy of discovery.

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