Friday, March 18, 2016

Elementary Science Fair Design and Implementation

For the last six years one of my roles as the Richmond Elementary School enrichment teacher is to organize and host our annual science fair.  I have done quite a bit of research into the different types of fairs and how they are run.  Taking my cues from our previous enrichment teacher I continued the RES tradition of making the fair a non judged family event as I looked into ways to increase student engagement, attendance and learning.  I read about problems that other schools had experienced and tried to figure out ways to avoid what seemed to be common complaints, including:  competition between kids and families to have the best project, students not spending time sharing their project, unclear expectations, a disconnect between school and this extra activity and exclusiveness of attendees ( limited by financial and home support).

Although every large school event has challenges, I am very proud of the RES science fair. I will continue to modify the fair to support our students and attempt to increase learning and fun for everyone....but I thought it was also worth summarizing some of my strategies and tools that have worked and not worked so far!  


Science Fair Passports:
I have created a science fair passport.  Every student that attends the fair can work on completing a passport.  The passport has six locations.  When a student asks a student with a project a good science question, the science fair participant can give them a stamp (I use markers that kids return at the end of the night and students decide the design of their stamp from a circle to a smiley face!)
Science fair participants are asked to be at their project for at least half the evening,but this is not hard to achieve once you add the passports because they have a job to do....they have to answer science questions!  The high value in this passport system is that it encourages excellent conversations between students!   They take their job of asking and answering questions seriously and do it without adult supervision.  Last week I witnessed second graders talking about a solar system project.  As I listened from the background the two figured out how long it took for Earth to rotate and revolve.  AND they figured it out through collaboration and critical thinking (the student project had just named and created each planet with a single fact about each one).
To encourage passport participation I purchase several science 'prizes' that are raffled off with passport entries at the end of the evening.

Non Judged, Family Event
Although some elementary science fairs are competitive and encourage individual independent student projects..the RES science fair expectations are clearly set as being an opportunity to share our passions and learning.  I also encourage students to work together, and to work with their families.    

Each student who attend the fair gets a participation certificate, their name in the program for the event, and I usually get them each a small token (pencil, badge, isn't snow packets, etc).

Event Date
I set the date of the science fair at the beginning of the year.  I publish it on the school calendar.  I broadcast the date to our school community(parents and teachers) multiple times well in advance of the fair...including blog posts and fliers home.  I send out information and ideas about what a science fair project might look like and provide links to previous fairs as well as ideas and resources.
Setting up this event on a consistent date allows for everyone to plan accordingly.  Families can fit the project making in when it is convenientfor them. 

Making Classroom Connections  
 Some years teachers incorporate the fair into the curricular learning and it provides a great opportunity for students to share their in class projects.  Last year the entire third grade shared their light up animals as a culminating activity for their electricity unit.  In years past we have also hi lighted inventions and energy projects.
I also request that classroom teachers give students homework passes for the time they are working on their project.  This gives families more time to work on the project and helps to support the fair. Classroom teachers have been very supportive of this idea and have even had students bring their projects and ideas to class to share outside of the fair!

Encouraging Families Without Projects to Attend
Over the last few years one of my biggest goals is to attract families to attend, even if they did not complete a project.  This encouragement has really built a sense of well as a lack of pressure for those families that want to participate but could not find the time to create a project. We have doubled our non project families!  

Need Improvement:

Adding Additional Aspects Beyond our School Participants 
We have invited our middle school technology group to share some of their learning at fairs. This has been a bit challenging as the timeline does not always fit in with their schedule and so lining up a fit has not yet proven successful.  My first year I invited a local engineer to put on an electricity demonstration.  It was well received and very exciting, but in discussions afterward, the engineer and I agreed that it took time away from student time at their own projects...which should be the focus of this event.

School Support for Project Creation
I have offered after school classes leading up to the science fair to support students creating projects for the fair.  This was a great strategy for including more students and increasing the number of students who did not have support at home to complete a project...but changes to the after school programming, my own personal schedule, and cost became prohibitive.  When we did this program it involved volunteers and my own time and we met once a week for an hour and a half for three weeks.  This was plenty of time to create a meaningful project with twenty students.  We continue to offer financial support for families who would like to participate in the fair through our school activities scholarship program.  

Encouraging Attendance
For several years one of the passport prizes at the fair was getting to pie myself, or our principal in the face!  This was a big hit with many students and families, but some families expressed concern that it was taking away from the point of the fair.  Although I think it just added to the fun, I removed it this year, with no negative consequences to attendance and passport participation.

Future Work:
I would like to continue to increase attendance at the fair.  I would also like to invite some community guests to witness the brilliance of our kiddos!  

Do you have ideas about how to make a science fair great?  Have you participated in the RES science fair, and have feedback?  If so I would love to hear from you.  I am also happy to share any of the resources I have created, from fliers to passports and if you are a teacher trying to start a fair in your school....feel free to email me!