Monday, November 22, 2010

Science Fair - Preparation Week

I apologize for not posting recently. Most of my notebooking has simply been a repeat of previous years with some tweaking. I'm trying to avoid repeat posts but that has left me with no material for this year! Luckily we went off schedule this past week in preparation of our upcoming science fair and I thought I would do a post about that.

Our district had isolated community judges for our science fair years ago and set up a schedule for all the schools (for the sake of organizing the judges time). Unfortunately our school got one of the worst dates (right after Thanksgiving break). Science fair projects are mandatory in grades 4 and 5 and, up until this year optional in the lower grades. This year the lower grades are encouraged to do a class project but nothing except 4th and 5th grade projects will be accepted into the science fair.
This means that the first time a child is introduced to a science fair project is in my grade level (4th). No pressure!

Students learn about inquiry at the beginning of the year and we do several projects, however in preparation of the science fair we put aside a week in November (several weeks before the project is due) to really go over what makes a good science fair project. We even host a science fair informational night for parents within that week....which is an excellent parent involvement event (which I usually add to my goals for the year - "Plan one parent involvement activity").

We start out the week with a review of inquiry vocabulary - fair test, variables, graphing, etc. and a review of the science fair packet (most of the information can be found online on my classroom web page). I also review a sample board. The main point we are trying to make is that a science fair project starts with a question you are trying to find the answer to by conducting an experiment (with the end result learning something new). We show them a good BrainPop on the subject (which has a trial subscription for anyone who doesn't have a classroom one).

This year, on second day, I pulled in our laptop labs and used a site called GIZMO (online simulations for math and science). Our district had purchased a district wide license and teachers in upper elementary and middle school received subscriptions. I liked their "plant growth" GIZMO because students could change various variables and see the effect on the plant growth (I believe they have a trial subscription as well). At first students changed multiple variables in the simulation and then we went over how only one variable should change and students practiced trying to get the highest plant by only changing one variable (this could be done in a computer lab if you don't have laptop labs). Students can also be paired up on a computer if you don't have enough. IMPORTANT NOTE - Make sure students have a pencil and paper to record their highest plant and all the variables and a place to note the one variable they changed. I didn't in my first class and the kids played without purpose and it showed when I asked them questions.

Then we conduct a science experiment. This year I told the kids that I went to a training once where we were turning a liquid into a solid using freeze pops, ice, and salt. The pops froze but I was wondering if more salt would cause the freeze pops to solidify faster. We set up the experiment and talked about the variables, materials, etc. and did it in class. IMPORTANT NOTE - This gets very messy so it is best you do it outside (Picture Above). My favorite part of this was discussing the problems we encountered and other projects that could be done based on this one.

We had student put together a mini science fair board on the project and a mini log book. The hope is that they would take them home and use them as a guide when doing their project. The project took one day and the boards/log books another.

The last day I pulled in the lab top labs again and I showed them a kids graphing website that they can use. I put together data for two graphs (bar and line) and the kids have to use the information and create two graphs.

I like putting aside an entire "Science Fair Information Week". I feel like we review everything the students need to know and give them time to practice. Nothing is worse then telling students some large project is due without first giving them practice with something similar!

At the end of the week students are required to turn in the question that their science fair project is going to be based around. This gives me an opportunity to review their questions and help them find problem areas. Traditionally I get about 10 questions that aren't any good (i.e. I am going to do my experiment on fingerprints...or hurricanes...or volcanoes). I have classroom resources (and websites) that I direct students to look through if they need to come up with another topic.

Probably the one thing I don't like about science fairs is the fact that some amount of parental support is needed at home. I try to identify students that don't have that support and work with them before school (or after) or during their specials time. I know one fifth grade teacher lists after school hours she is available for help on science fair projects. Last year I had four students that I helped from start to finish and only two students didn't turn them in. I have a friend who teaches at a Title One school who struggles because her involvement is much greater.

I am not a fan of at home science fair projects in generally (both as a mother and teacher). I fully support them in the classroom and encourage teachers to plan at least ten throughout the year to really drive home those inquiry standards. Unfortunately "it is what it is" and as long as I feel I have prepared the students for the expectations I sleep better at night :)

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