Redesigning the Science Fair

For the STEAM Fair at Doane Academy in Burlington, New Jersey, upper-school students “complete projects in any field as long as they [relate] in some way to science concepts,” says Michael Russell, STEAM coordinator and mathematics and science department chair. Photo by Jack Newman, director of communications, Doane Academy.

Schools and teachers are transforming traditional science fairs into events incorporating science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) or STEAM (STEM plus Arts). At Lake Washington Girls Middle School in Seattle, Washington, for example, “we have transitioned [to] a Public Health STEAM Fair [in which seventh graders] identify a public health issue in our community, research the issue, develop a question and design a research procedure, then conduct statistical analysis to help them explain their data. Lastly, students present their research to [public health]…experts in the style of a conference,” says Christine Zarker Primomo, STEAM teacher.

“The curriculum in seventh-grade science is biology, so public health works great. But the bigger piece is that it [connects more] to citizen science. Public health is super broad and has a lot of connection to students’ lives,” Primomo observes. In addition, “[s]cience and social justice come together [for students] because their research can impact their community.”

She works closely with the math department because “they teach statistical analysis. [For their project,] students have to collect 30 data points…Students are more motivated to learn about standard deviation when it’s their own data,” she maintains. Local public health department staff provide data sets.

Students collect data via surveys and activities like collecting cigarette butts from nearby water bodies to study their effects on water, for a project exploring the effects of air quality on water quality, Primomo explains. For a project focusing on human sugar consumption, “students had test subjects and created a form requesting permission to collect data from them,” she recalls.
During the fair, students present a slideshow about their research to their families and judges from the public health community. Primomo grades students on their questions, procedures, data analysis, graphs, and presentations.

Doane Academy in Burlington, New Jersey, transitioned to a STEAM Fair because “we [decided] to celebrate student innovation and collaboration across all grade levels with a fair that permitted them to complete projects in any field as long as they related in some way to science concepts,” says Michael Russell, STEAM coordinator and mathematics and science department chair. “We wanted to motivate [students] to use the engineering design process more organically, [with the] idea that the science department isn’t the only anchor for that,” he adds.

Doane now holds a STEAM Fair because the science department found “students who thrive in science do elaborate, cohesive projects, while mid-tier students and students struggling in science find shortcuts and don’t do original work…We wanted to not just apply standards, but also have students do purposeful tinkering, driven by their passions and struggles,” Russell explains. “We made the fair a core part of our curriculum” because when students worked on projects at home, they tended to receive either “too much help from parents or none,” he contends.

Upper-school students can work with any teacher or community member to develop a product of their choice. One student wrote a book of science-related poetry that informed readers about mental health issues. Another wrote short stories about bug anatomy and behavior and illustrated them with photos. “A really cool thing is that our science kids haven’t lost the opportunity to do hard-science projects,” Russell emphasizes.

Introducing Engineering

Seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher Samantha Rudick of Northvale Public School in Northvale, New Jersey, was asked to redesign the seventh-grade science fair to include the engineering design process (EDP). “I [also] came up with [the idea of having] a theme,” she notes. Last year, students were told they were stranded on an island and had to create things to help them survive. This year, she told students they were living in a town with a polluted environment and had to use recycled or reusable materials to create games for a carnival that would raise funds for their town’s new recycling center.

“We did a unit on reusable versus nonrenewable materials…[Students] had to distinguish between [reusable and nonrenewable materials] to create their games,” she explains.

Students developed game prototypes and continued testing and improving them before the fair. They also created an interactive button apparatus that fair attendees could push to begin a presentation. “Some groups’ buttons were electric, [while others] used a sound-making device,” Rudick relates.

In addition, students had to make videos of their games and create a poster board showing every step of the EDP, illustrated with photos. “In their presentations, they had to explain their [EDP] without looking at their poster board,” she points out.

“The [school’s] administrators said this was the best science fair they’d ever seen,” Rudick reports.

Virtual Fairs

“We now participate in a Science/Engineering Fair, and everything is virtual,” says Laura Mackay, science coach and STEM liaison at Ed White Elementary E-STEM Magnet School in El Lago, Texas. “Students complete either a science fair investigation or engineer a design to solve a problem” and create a PowerPoint presentation, she explains.

Science fair participation had declined because “it wasn’t required, so more parents opted out. We decided to take the parents out of the process, and technology allowed this,” she relates.

Science fair boards were no longer needed, “which was really hard for some parents and teachers,” she reports. “The boards were flashy, but they didn’t emphasize the data.”

Using PowerPoint “meets the tech part of STEM,” Mackay contends, because students become highly proficient in it. “We’re modeling what the world is like now [and teaching] lifelong skills,” she adds.

“Science is still in there because students are analyzing data to see if their design will work,” Mackay points out. Past projects have explored solutions to problems like how to go fishing with minimal equipment and how to keep a soda cold using a wet towel in the freezer.

“Sometimes the finished project isn’t as amazing, but it’s all student-driven. It equaled the playing field on the judging part” because not all students have access to technology, “so we provide it to everyone,” she observes.

The judges appreciate that the judging is done virtually because “they don’t have to come here [to do it],” she reports. Students are only graded on participation because “[h]arsh grading killed the love of science fair [in the past],” she asserts.

“[Now we can] see what kids are really capable of doing,” instead of what parents do, Mackay concludes.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports, featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best science teacher you can be.

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2 Comments

  1. Robert Krampf
    Posted July 14, 2018 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    One major change that would make participating in the science fair easier for many students, and more like “real science” would be to introduce replication as an option. For students that have difficulty coming up with an original idea, let them choose on of the past science fair winning projects and replicate it, comparing the results. This keeps them from selecting project after project, only to find that many others have done it before (a disqualifying point in some science fairs), and it shows the importance of the replication process.

  2. Samantha Miller
    Posted July 14, 2018 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    We decided to revamp our Science Fair too… Now we do engineering challenges. Its for the kids not the parents. Students do a challenge in each science class, then the winner of the challenges are invited to an after school competition against all classes in their grade level for a similar challenge as in the class but with different variables. No technology allowed for the after school challenge. It was our first time doing it this way in April and it turned out AMAZING!

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