In my school district all students in grades 3 through 9 participate in the annual science fair. I love science fairs. I teach science at the junior high school.
We had some really outstanding science fair entries. The most successful students asked a question that could not easily be answered by querying the internet with their browser of choice. To find the answer to their question, they did what real scientist do; develop a process to systematically find an answer to their question.
Building a Foundation for Next Year
I began to examine my teaching. What could I do to inspire students' science fair choices? How could I help students develop the skills that would allow them to confidently ask a question and systematically find an answer on their own? How are students going to learn to think like scientists and prepare for their own science inquiry if the process is not modeled for them? My classroom instruction already included a great deal of inquiry but not deliberately modeling the scientific process from beginning to end.
Note that I am referring to the scientific process and not the scientific method. The NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards) refers to a model that shows realistically how scientists work. See the resources at the end of the post for a graphic of the Science Process.
Modeling Science Fair
Inspired by the Science Olympiad event, Experimental Design, I decided to incorporate science fair like inquiry into my curriculum whenever possible. The goal is to help students be comfortable with experimental design as well as learn that science fair is a fun way to figure out how the natural world works.
I really like the activity Gummy Bears in Space. Students are presented with materials; 5 popsicle sticks, 5 rubber bands and 5 gummy bears and must design an experiment. This is where the fun begins. Students are first excited about making launchers for their gummy bears. They need this "play" time to be creative. Next I conduct a few mini workshops as needed by the students. We talk about energy transfer - elastic potential energy to kinetic energy and wonder about the angle of launch. As they prepare their experiment, small groups may need help with procedures or data collection. Workshops for these topics are given as needed by myself or a student expert in the class.
NGSS - MS-PS3-1, MS-PS3-2, MS-PS3-5
Students also can measure the distances using the metric system and angles using the protractor for practical application of math skills.
Use resources to model research that will help students refine their experimental questions. I use these as mini workshops for students making sure the videos are short, then give the groups time to turn and talk about how they might incorporate the information in their experiment design.
The Gummy Bears in Space experiment is part of a larger document that includes other ideas for experimental design as well as a great sample rubric.
The workshops help spark ideas for my higher level thinking students who will add measurements for angle of trajectory into their experiment. My on grade level students will stick with comparing he distance the elastic is pull to the distance the gummy bear travels.
NBC Learn video on the Science of NFL Football: Projectile Motion and Parabolas is a great video to model research for students by examining how the gummy bear might be launched.
You Tube or Teacher Tube can be queried to find videos that examine the trajectory of Mario or Angry Birds.
This power point template provides students with prompts to help them complete all the elements of a good experiment. Before the template is given to students, it can be modified to meet the criteria for success for this assignment.
Students can work on the experimental design as individuals or in pairs.
Gummy Bears in Space is one example where students practice working through the science process in the same manner we would like them to prepare a science fair project. I am trying to incorporate at least one such activity for each unit of study; life, earth, physical and engineering.
When we cannot do a full scale investigation, I ask students how this topic could be explored further as a science fair experiment. Last week one of my students commented during an exploration of density that he had an idea for his science fair project for next year!
" 3 Dimension 1: Scientific and Engineering Practices ." A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas . Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2012 .