Painting a Fair Picture of Science

“How Much Turmoil Does the Science Project Cause Families?” reads the tongue-in-cheek science-fair-style poster illustrating parent Susan Messina’s views on science fairs. Her materials list includes: at least 1 grudging parent, half-baked idea of very dubious merit, and procrastination. I think you can guess at the project’s “findings.” George Takei recently shared Messina’s photo of her project on his Facebook page, where he often includes science-related items.

My own experience with science fairs is tangential at best. The closest involvement so far has been fielding a phone call or two from family members looking for fair project ideas. My work with the JCE Classroom Activity series over the years provided a ready source of hands-on activities that could potentially morph into a project investigation appropriate to an elementary-aged student. In fact, I wrote an Especially for High School Teachers column several years ago about my niece’s use of the Activity “A Magnetic Meal.” Aside from that, my experience is nil.

I have had a negative knee-jerk reaction when science fairs come up in conversation. I don't think I'm alone. As seen in Messina’s poster and online comments about it, typical perceptions are that the students are uninterested, the parents are the ones doing the work, a majority of projects have no real relevance to the students’ lives, and work is often done at the last minute. The phrase “baking soda volcano” was mentioned at least once. One of my feelings is that fairs often confine the idea of science into a single pathway—first find a question to investigate, then follow the scientific method, and bam! You’ve got science.

Do you?

Another parent in our local homeschool group approached me this year looking for my thoughts on offering a science fair within the group. Her son had read about a science fair in a book and wondered how he could participate in one. My first thoughts were the negative ones mentioned above. But then I considered further—how might a fair give students an accurate picture of science and help them to experience it in a meaningful and positive way? I brainstormed a list of desired qualities: each student exploring something that truly interests them; the process of getting students into inquiry, giving them ownership of the project and its procedure; students being able to communicate about their project to peers and adults; and participants realizing that science is not necessarily a rigid following of steps in a method. I would love for students to know science and to enjoy it. But how to get there, science-fair-style?

Have you had science fair success? What are some best practices for regular in-school science fairs?

(Photo credit: J. Chem. Educ., October 1997)

Join the conversation.

All comments must abide by the ChemEd X Comment Policy, are subject to review, and may be edited. Please allow one business day for your comment to be posted, if it is accepted.

Comments 12

Brenda Williams | Sat, 02/22/2014 - 14:30

I first started doing science fairs back in 1986. It took several years, but I fine-tuned to where it was fun, the students couldn't wait, and the parents were very happy with the arrangements. I first had the students do the project in class and then chose from my classes the projects to go on to the school science fair. The other teachers did the same. I soon had to limit each class to no more then 5 projects because that gave us a good variety but not too many to handle. I brought in 3 judges from various area schools and the college in town. If the students could not answer our basic questions then I knew they would not withstand the judges questions. That's why we did not have the parent interference.

At that time it was a science and math fair. Our state held that type of fair along with energy efficient projects. Students then went to the county fair (we could only have 6 from our school) and then to the state fair. We always managed to send at least 2 or 3 from our school and it wasn't always students that I taught. So on the whole I have had really good experiences with science. I did it for 25 years, must of loved it.

Brenda, Retired & double dipping

Erica Jacobsen's picture
Erica Jacobsen | Sat, 03/01/2014 - 16:27

Sounds like your fine-tuning got you to the perfect situation. How great that you were able to have something that students looked forward to (and pleased parents at the same time). I like the idea of having it in class, so the teacher can provide guidance and also help control the timing, so no last-minute projects. I’m wondering if others do that today, or if it’s seen as too much time to take away from “regular curriculum,” along with standards and testing?

Tom Kuntzleman's picture
Tom Kuntzleman | Mon, 04/07/2014 - 17:14

Hi Susan,

Thank you for sharing your article in the Huffington Post with us.  I found your poster to be creative, funny, interesting and thought provoking.  In this regard, perhaps you have even created a work of art!  After reading your post, I am wrestling with many thoughts about the role parents should play in the education of their children. 

Here’s the rub.  In your post it is stated that "any elementary school project that requires a lot of parental time, energy, resources, support, cajoling and financial investment is just BAD".  This statement creates much cognitive dissonance for me.  I agree that any elementary school project that by necessity requires parents to do work for their child is a very bad idea.  Children should always be responsible for their own work.  In other words, parents should neither conduct science experiments nor write essays for their children.  Furthermore, a child who informs their parents at 5 p.m. that a science fair project is due at 8 a.m. the next day should expect to receive a failing grade on said project.  On the other hand, I do think it is wise for parents to invest their time, energy, resources, support and finances into the education of their children. Considering that U.S. students are routinely outperformed in several academic disciplines by students from other countries, perhaps parents in the U.S. can put forth a bit more effort in the academic arena.  I am sure you will agree that it is very often student procrastination – and not science fair projects – that causes anger and tears.  While I appreciate that your poster has caused science educators to rethink the idea of science fair projects, I also wonder if your poster unintentionally undermines what many science educators are trying to accomplish.

Our children can handle a little academic competition.  Our children can do small projects required of them by our school teachers.  We require elementary students to write simple essays and poetry.  Likewise, we can require elementary students to conduct simple science experiments.  Plenty of "rag tag" parent-coaches invest time, energy resources, support, and finances so that their children can learn athletic skills.  In these athletic endeavors, parents and children spend time together and learn something along the way.  The same could be true about math, science or any other academic endeavor if people are willing to put forth the effort.

I think you should repeat your science fair project, but add one material:  A person who has put their heart into the project.  My hypothesis is that you’ll get very different results.   

Erica Jacobsen's picture
Erica Jacobsen | Tue, 04/15/2014 - 12:14


Thank you so much for alerting us to your background story. It was interesting to hear your further take on the situation beyond what can be gleaned from the poster. It seems like there's even more of a story to tell. I'd love to hear it from your daughter's viewpoint, for example, and from the teacher's viewpoint. I hope it continues to generate more fruitful discussions of how students, teachers, and parents can have an effective education partnership.

Beverly Shevenell's picture
Beverly Shevenell | Tue, 04/08/2014 - 18:13

Thank you so much, Tom Kuntzleman, for your cognitive dissonance. I have just finished running my 15th science fair, and that poster, appearing as it did at the height of my 60-hour work weeks, caused me great anguish. If only the parents would support this effort, rather than undermining it, the students might have a very different experience. It has certainly been my experience, that those students who come from families that are enthusiastic about the research process have fun and produce work of which they can be proud.  

Erica Jacobsen's picture
Erica Jacobsen | Tue, 04/08/2014 - 22:19

I've struggled today to gather my thoughts in a focused manner to share after reading Susan's linked article, and Tom's and Beverly's responses. The topic continues to generate more questions for me, rather than provide a neat, pat answer to my original question of how to get students to know science and to enjoy it, through a science fair format. I appreciate hearing the voices of two sets of stakeholders in the process here—parents and educators. I also wonder about the third set, the students themselves, and the interconnections between all three. 

What would Susan's daughter tell us? What factors led to her tears? What aspects of the project could be adjusted to prevent them, for her and for other students? Are there things she could have done differently? Susan? The teacher?

How can we help students choose an idea that helps them, as Tom says, to "put their heart into the project", rather than leads them to focus on as Susan says, a "half-baked idea of very dubious merit"?

What learning objectives do educators have specifically in mind for students when they head into science fair? Is a science fair format an effective way to accomplish those objectives or are there other avenues to explore to increase student learning?

Painting a negative and lasting picture of science is no one's goal heading into such a project. But, if that is the result for many, how do we change the picture, while effectively teaching students about science? To finish, one more question—How could this be turned into a chemical education research project?


Beverly Shevenell's picture
Beverly Shevenell | Wed, 04/09/2014 - 18:16

At our school, the science fair is much more than a one-day event, it is a semester long process. It begins with a research proposal, followed by a research paper. The experimental phase includes two notebook checks that allow me to monitor progress and provide input. This year I also required the students to submit photos of the experiment in progress. It was as if I was looking over their shoulders as they worked! In one case, the photos showed me the reason why the data did not make sense - something I would never have been able to discern from the description in the notebook. As we get closer to the fair, final lab reports are submitted, and finally the posters are contructed. With this multi-stage approach, the students are less inclined to procrastinate. The vast majority of the students complete all the steps more or less on time, thereby avoiding the last-minute panic.

While this approach is a ton of work, I believe that it is necessary if we truly want the students to go through the process without taking shortcuts. And without driving their parents crazy.

Erica Jacobsen's picture
Erica Jacobsen | Mon, 04/14/2014 - 11:30

What a rich experience for your students! Sounds like your checkpoints, including the photos, really help to smooth the process. Do students tend to do longer-term data collection projects with the semester-long time span? What are some examples of projects from over the years that stick in your mind?

Erica Jacobsen's picture
Erica Jacobsen | Sun, 08/17/2014 - 15:02

Doug Ragan recently tweeted a link to an article that had a great discussion on the scientific method. Subtitle is: "Scientists rarely follow one straightforward path to understanding the natural world." It really spoke to one of the big beefs I have with science fairs, the limiting idea that you must find a question/hypothesis and then apply the scientific method.

Take a look at

joanne gervais | Mon, 08/18/2014 - 08:50

We had in school science fairs for years and we evolved. We no longer allowed literature searches that became everything I know about.....dinosaurs. Students were encouraged to solve a question that they had wondered about, but many of these became questions that were suggested by commercials (best soap, best battery etc). While some students did come up with a neat question, many relied on a bank of 50 questions that I generated. That also guaranteed that I had the equipment and chemicals to make it happen. The projects were only worked on in school under my supervision. Yes that took time from other curriculum stuff.

The creative and thinking parts of the project now relied on the student. They had to come up with a reasoned hypothesis. This often required internet searches to get the necessary background information. This also required my guidance (guided discovery) to get them there.

They then had to create a procedure to resolve the issue at hand, and also develop a date table to record their quantitative data. I insisted on quantitative data...if at all possible.

Each student was given a question set to demonstrate that they had learned the key concepts. The questions were application questions.

Example: Are citrus fruits the only foods that contains vitamin C? Application question: Why did Eskimos not develop scurvy, as they did not have access to citrus foods.

The difficulty of the projects was made appropriate to age and ability. We also did not follow up by entering the project beyond the school as the regional fair deadlines did not fit in with a semestered school, I did not like the structure of the regional fairs, and I questioned the integrity of some of the parents involved...who studies heavy metal uptake in plants in Jr High eh?

Dave G

Erica Jacobsen's picture
Erica Jacobsen | Mon, 08/18/2014 - 11:26

Sounds like you had it down to a science (pun only slightly intended). I appreciate your balance between letting students loose to consider something that they've wondered about versus having options available for those who need something to get them started, in addition to having materials available for them. I really like your example of the Eskimo application question. So, each student's project had a teacher-developed application question to accompany it as a further concept check?