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Science Fairs-What’s a Parent to Do?

With cooler weather approaching, many students, teachers and parents are beginning to prepare for Spring Science Fairs. Many of us are asking two important questions:Why are we doing this?” and “What’s a parent to do?” Staff at the MathScience Innovation Center are ready to help you answer these questions and help you prepare for the Metro Richmond STEM Fair which will convene on March 23, 2013 at Hanover High School.

Why should your child participate in a school, division or state science fair? Preparation and participation in science fairs provide an invaluable experience for students as they design their own learning experiences and share their research with peers and adults in their community. Engaging in a science fair project is not only a great way to explore scientific questions and concepts, it is also a way for a child to improve reading, writing, math and critical thinking skills that they will need in school and in the workforce. Additionally, the work involved in science fairs often helps students enhance their use of time management and communication techniques through the use of multiple forms of media. All of this adds up to a wonderfully complete description of the skills our children need now in school and later in their careers.

Whether the project is a child's first experience designing her/his own learning experience or is a way to follow-up on a previous idea or experiment, creating a project is a way for them to explore her/his interests.  In addition, it allows a student to work in ways that scientists have used for centuries.

Parents and/or mentors are an important part of the science project process and those who gain the ability to help only where needed are invaluable. Teachers greatly appreciate a parent's assistance and students will eventually appreciate an adult who will help, but allow them to learn on their own. 

For these assistants, engaging in conversations with their budding scientist about science is a great first step in their preparation. These conversations do not have to be based on complicated topics. Rather, the conversation can focus on how they interact with science in their ‘everyday lilfe’ and discuss current events in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields. Of course, if students are interested in pursuing topics on a much deeper level, the science fair is an excellent way to capture some of these ideas and questions.

Sometimes it can be challenging to determine how much support to give a child as they prepare for a science fair project. Websites such as Science Buddies and the Archimedes Initiative provide helpful ideas.

Watch this video from the Archimedes Initiative for Helpful Hints for Parents

Anyone looking to assist students can do several things to suppport them as they engage in science fair projects:

  • Help the child to think about which science topics she/he enjoy and would like to learn more about. Tying the project to an interest and/or a question that the child would like to explore increases the likelihood they will “stick with it” for the months it may take to complete the project.
  • Work with the student to establish target dates and interim due dates. You can also talk with them about ‘research’ times and/or times to work in study groups or perhaps meet with a mentor.
  • Be sure to ask questions when they hit a ‘roadblock’, but don’t ‘solve’ the problem for them.
  • Assist the child in coming up with a hypothesis to test and working through the research process. You can find information on the scientific method used for science projects at Science Buddies
  • Talk with the student about how she/he will communicate the results. Remember, they do not have to prove or disprove anything via their experiment. It is important that she/he is able to communicate her/his findings and research process to an audience, as well as develop a display that helps the audience to understand the project and the process.
  • Be there for them when they need to purchase supplies, but make sure these requests are not last minute. You should not be running out at 9:30 p.m. to pick up something needed for the next day. This should be part of the pre-planning.

It is critical for parents and mentors to know how much help is too much. Becoming TOO involved in a child’s project may help them do a better project this time, but will not allow them to learn as much about how to do a better project the NEXT time. In addition, it will not give the child as much of a sense of accomplishment knowing that much of the project was yours. Students need to have a feeling of ownership for their projects and too much parental involvement can deprive them of that.

Knowing how to help your child with their science project involves a delicate balance.  Science Buddies has developed a chart which may be useful Science Buddies: How to Help

Metro Richmond STEM Fair- a great opportunity for students:

In addition to science fairs held in classrooms and schools, science fairs can be district, city, or statewide. One science fair, the Metro Richmond STEM Fair (formerly known as the Metro Richmond Science Fair) may be a great option for your child. The Metro Richmond STEM Fair was started in 1992 and is hosted annually by the MathScience Innovation Center (MSiC) for students attending schools in the MSiC consortium throughout Central Virginia. Students in grades 7-12 in the MSiC consortium are eligible to submit their project papers.

Last year, this Fair brought together 356 Junior and 257 Senior Division projects from students (and teachers). More than 200 volunteers from local businesses and the community served as project screeners and judges. If you are interested in volunteering, please contact the MathScience Innovation Center.

Whether a child is interested in participating in the Metro Richmond STEM Fair or a local science fair in their school or community, these opportunities are a good way to spark interest in science. Students love the excitement of designing experiments, exploring, and testing their ideas. It’s time to Prepare for the Science Fair!

Learn More about the Metro Richmond STEM Fair and the MathScience Innovation Center.

Article by Dr. Hollee Freeman, Executive Director of the MathScience Innovation Center

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