Regardless of whether you’ve ever manned your own booth, everyone has an instinctual idea of what a science fair project should look like.
Maybe it’s the classic erupting volcano seen in TV and movies, or the lemon-powered battery, or even measuring the effects of music on plant growth. Or, maybe you can only get as far as picturing the essential trifold board.
These projects are popular because they have the potential to offer students a valuable experience in observing phenomena and communicating their findings. Still, they shouldn’t define the limits of what can be investigated. How do you get students to move beyond these archetypal projects and toward authentic investment in driving their own project?
The science fair: ‘iconic, but not archaic’
The Massachusetts Science and Engineering Fair (MSEF) is setting out to expand the public imagination of the science fair journey. It’s been around since 1949, but its organizers know the possibilities for projects are endless, and they can and should begin with students’ interests.
As Program Director Bekah Stendahl says, the science fair is “iconic, but not archaic.” For students and educators advising them, this deep legacy, combined with open-endedness, can understandably seem daunting, but MSEF has resources available for anyone participating in the state. Whether your school has a long-running tradition of participating in science fairs or you’re trying to build it out as a newer extracurricular initiative, you don’t have to chart the path alone.
It starts with the right question
When she began her position, Stendahl heard from teachers and students over and over how important it was — and how hard it could be — to get a project started with the right question.
“I knew that the QFT [Question Formulation Technique] tools could help teachers lead students through a process to narrowing down a topic and then identifying a testable question or problem to solve,” said Stendahl. She hoped to spread the word that the QFT can effectively guide all students in discovering their own research interests, beginning with MSEF’s suggested roadmap to the science and engineering journey.
Observation leads to inspiration
This science fair journey kicks off with the “observe” phase. Ideally, this phase “engages students in brainstorming, idea sharing, and discussion with peers and community members” in order to “help students identify topics and questions that inspire, excite, and fascinate them,” the MSEF notes in their roadmap document.
To help advisers meet the goals of this exploratory phase, MSEF assembled a list of Project Ideation Activities, which encourage students to practice the observation and question-development skills that are integral to an engaging research process. Some activities push students to look for a potential science fair project in unlikely places. Such activities might include keeping journals to record weather or traffic patterns in their community or listening to science podcasts.
Once students have gathered a bunch of topic threads, a way to help them translate those ideas into potential questions is to take them through the QFT.
Some students may come ready with big ideas for their science and engineering project, and the QFT can help them distill ideas down to focused research questions. Other students may have no clue what topic to pursue, and the QFT might be an essential scaffolding tool to help them name their curiosities and move toward discrete science concepts. One thing is true for all students in the observe phase: There is no expectation that they begin with a single, perfect research question.
An example from environmental science
Tanya Chiarella is a science club adviser who decided to put the QFT to work and see how it helped her students’ ideas germinate. In addition to leading Billerica Memorial High School’s science club, she teaches eighth-grade science and AP Environmental Science, and she co-teaches an environmental science class for college credit.
Tanya took RQI’s online course, Teaching Students to Ask Their Own Questions, through the Harvard Graduate School of Education with a group of other MSEF advisers, and she liked how the QFT seemed simple but doable.
As a Question Focus, Tanya showed her high schoolers a YouTube video about the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals. She hoped this QFocus could prompt students to make connections to both local and global issues. From there, she took students through the rest of the QFT steps to arrive at their priority questions:
- How do we measure the progress?
- How do we accomplish these goals?
- What negative aspects could arise when we try to accomplish these goals?
- What is the timeframe for these goals?
- How are they going to battle sexism in the workplace?
- How do they plan to end poverty?
- What inspired them to create these goals?
- How can we feed many people effectively?
Refining a Question Focus
Though many of the questions were broader than Tanya expected, some students were able to surface a topic they wanted to dig into further, such as the issue of food production.
At RQI, we know as well as anyone that designing a QFocus can be a very iterative process for educators. In reflecting, Tanya shared that she felt the QFocus video itself was a bit too high-level or complex and led students to focus more on the development of the goals rather than what the goals were trying to accomplish. She would adjust it in the future by breaking the goals down into individual QFocuses and organizing multiple QFT sessions.
Students taking ownership over their science fair projects
Ultimately, as Tanya’s students show, the mission of this phase was accomplished. Students began exploring topics and taking ownership over the direction of their projects.
Tanya elaborated on how she found it valuable to facilitate the QFT at the start of the science fair journey:
“First, the students are able to work collaboratively. This allows them to be supported by their peers and develop a community as they start the ideation process. Next, it helps them develop confidence in their ability to understand complex problems and ask important questions. This can help motivate them. Finally, they learn the skills they need as they research their topic. If they get stuck they can start the process again.”
As MSEF advisers demonstrate, implementing a simple strategy to build students’ curiosity can be the launching point for STEM discovery and innovation. By starting with their questions, you might just guide your students to creating the latest iconic science and engineering fair project.
About the author: Imaan Yousuf is the education program associate at the Right Question Institute. She collaborates with educators across the country to learn from, support, and share their expertise in implementing the QFT. In elementary school, Imaan did in fact complete a science fair project on lemon-powered batteries.