CSTA Classroom Science

Science Fair and NGSS: An Updated Approach

By Debbie Gordon

Author’s son competing at the Riverside County Science Fair circa 2006.[/caption] 

During the early years of the Industrial Revolution, the American Institute’s Children’s Fair was held in New York City. Its goal was to connect students to nature. By the end of WWII, what was becoming known as a science fair’s focus had changed to grooming the scientists of the future. Today, many schools and districts are redefining science fairs once again. Most people have strong opinions on science fairs; they either love them or hate them. But the need for scientifically literate citizens can’t be overlooked. Science, technology, engineering, and math fields are among the fastest growing occupations in the country (some regions have a higher need for these jobs than others) yet the “U.S. system of science and mathematics education is performing far below par and, if left unattended, will leave millions of young Americans unprepared to succeed in a global economy.” http://www.nextgenscience.org/need-standards Equally disturbing is the underrepresentation of women and minorities in STEM careers. https://www.cde.ca.gov/qs/ea/ And still, many science fairs remain a tired, lackluster display of projects devoid of science content and student passion. In Palm Springs Unified School District (PSUSD), Philip Hudec, PSUSD secondary science coordinator and myself, gave this a lot of thought and believed we could combine the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), creativity, and a bit of fearlessness to increase the fun and the opportunities for science and engineering learning for our students. Following is our journey so far. 

First, we turned to the NGSS framework and its guidelines for how science should be taught. We looked at the conceptual shifts and how students acquire, internalize, and apply scientific knowledge through the practices and crosscutting concepts. http://www.nextgenscience.org/resources/ngss-appendices

We reviewed the importance of scientific inquiry and engineering design. Further, we noted how the standards empower students to ask questions, to plan and carry out investigations, to collect data and analyze it correctly using appropriate mathematics, and to design solutions. Spoiler alert: These are the same skills needed for a successful science fair project! 

With this beginning, we did a search of what other districts and counties are doing and found that there are some really innovative minds working in the state of California. We felt good borrowing ideas from them! A couple that were particularly helpful to us were: Placer County’s STEM Expo and Oakland Unified School District’s K-12 Science Fair. Takeaways from our research included the idea of non-competitive science fairs; having multiple entry points for students to pursue what genuinely interests them; including engineering in the focus; opening the fair up to the entire community of families (many of whom may have felt intimidated by science fairs in the past).

Now was the time to make changes. Teachers needed to be on board. We were changing what is expected from a science project. No more melted gummy bear rainbows or counting unpopped popcorn kernels. Teachers would need to teach scientific inquiry. They would need to design lessons where phenomena is driving the learning; because it is in this type of classroom that students are going to find out what they are passionate about and be excited to follow the scientific process. Students might edit scientific research. Teachers could help students find a mentor or someone in the field they are interested in, to interview or email; set check-ins throughout the process, bring in parents or put out leftover borders or paper for displays. This, we hope, will lead to projects with a deeper science content and include more of the students who historically have opted out.

We also recognized that science fair projects are not the only way our students are engaged in 21st-century skills. We looked around and saw that our students are doing fantastic things in all areas of science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics (STEAM). We wanted to also show these to the community. 

So in the end, we decided to combine the district level science fair with a community event that would celebrate the STEAM happenings across the district. Thus was born the first annual S.T.E.A.M. Expo and Science and Engineering Fair. Here was a place for students with the exemplary science projects from K-12 schools to display their projects and compete for the honor of representing the district at the Riverside County Science Fair. Alongside are booths and exhibits ranging from robotics, rockets, digital storytelling, pollination, and recycled art to gardening, coding, Makerspaces, and engineering challenges. All booths will be staffed by students. Families will be able to explore science in a fun, supportive space while we celebrate the diversity of our young scientists and engineers.

Change can be like a train pulling a heavy load up a hill. It takes some patience and determination, but just like the little train that could, once the train gets rolling there is no stopping it. Michelle Baker, a mom, and teacher sums it up, ”For my boys, it’s a learning experience. We’ve made rock candy and we’ve looked at the difference in fingerprints. They get to explore what they wonder or find interesting that year.” As science teachers, we need to make sure ALL our kids have these learning experiences through science fairs, STEM or STEAM Expos, or community science and engineering events. What is your school or district doing regarding science fairs? Leave a comment and tell us about it!

Debbie Gordon, Elementary Science Specialist, and K12 Early Implementation Initiative Co-Project Director for Palm Springs Unified School District. CSTA Region 4 Director. dgordon@psusd.us



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