Inspiring Budding Scientists
What paper towel is the strongest? Does the type of water given to plants affect their growth? Is a hamster more active in the dark or light? These were the questions I sought to find answers to as a young student attending Claywell Elementary School. I recall sitting in my family’s recliner with headphones on, listening to a cassette tape recording of my hamster running in its wheel in a dark closet. I carefully collected data by counting the number of times the wheel squeaked. Each squeak indicated one turn and therefore my hamster’s level of activity. My science fair projects were very basic. I’m not sure I had more than one trial per experimental group! I didn’t solve any important real-world problems or win any special awards. I didn’t continue completing projects at the middle or high school level or pursue a career as a scientist. However, being exposed to the process at a very young age taught me important skills about the nature of science and the scientific method. Skills that laid mostly dormant until I became the middle school science teacher at Carrollwood Day School in 2001.
When I first started teaching middle school, every student was required to complete a science project. I enjoyed teaching the difference between an independent and dependent variable often using my simple elementary projects as examples. Helping my students select good topics and develop their methods of experimentation was challenging though. Grading the projects was the most dreadful part of the process and always seemed to end up needing to be done over winter break. Technology, engineering, and math were added to the science fair title and around 2006 we began entering some of our projects into the Hillsborough Regional STEM Fair. Students who didn’t think they were good at science began representing their projects and achieving unexpected success. Some of my proudest moments as a teacher have been when my unsuspecting students’ names were called to win a special award or place in their category. I was slightly offended by the science fair poster that went viral around 2010 outlining the “turmoil” apparently experienced by everyone involved in the process of completing a “Science Project.” The creator of the fake poster, Susan Messina, explained in an article she wrote for Huff Post in 2014 that “It seems there is something wrong with competitive, elementary school science fairs.” She clarified that she’s not against science. To prevent unfair parental over-involvement and overwhelming stress at home, she suggested that projects be done in school or offered as an elective to those interested in committing the time and energy required. At CDS we had already started moving in that direction.
The experimental cycle is embedded in the IB MYP science objectives and assessment criteria. Therefore, every CDS student in grades 6-10 is taught the scientific method and regularly practices those skills in the classroom. They are essentially doing many full and partial “science projects” in school and under the direction and supervision of their teachers. Students who are passionate about STEM can still complete independent investigations. The extracurricular club, STEM Society, gives young scientists the opportunity to complete projects and compete at the Hillsborough Regional STEM Fair every February. Over the years they have achieved overwhelming success with memorial awards, special awards, cash prizes, and many often placing 1st, 2nd or 3rd, in their category. Several have been selected to move on to state competition and have achieved success at that level. Students who have good questions about the world around them, a desire to solve real-world problems, and enjoy the process of data collection and analysis are encouraged to participate. It is my pleasure to support their pursuit of science.
Messina, Susan. “That Fake Science Fair Poster That Went Viral? I Made It. Here's Why.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 7 Dec. 2017, www.huffpost.com/entry/that-fake-science-fair-poster-that-went-viral-i-made-it-heres-why_b_5053008.
Thank you to middle school science teacher and STEM Society Sponsor, Carrie Prieto, for contributing this article.