A Guide to Surviving the Science Fair

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I am seeing more and more angst from parents who “dislike” the science fair (and in some cases that might be an understatement). And I get it. I feel your pain. I’m a parent too, and science fair “board weekend” can be traumatic at times. However, I think it is important for us to gain some perspective on the science fair too. We do it for good reasons and it truly does not need to add huge amounts of stress to family life.  I offer these thoughts as a fellow struggler, realizing some of them will come “too late” in the process this time around for some of you, but in an effort to release stress for those of you who may be feeling it at the moment.

First, why do we do it?

Not many parents really ask this question out loud, but I know they are thinking it.  If it is so stressful, why do we do it at all? There are several good reasons:

  • It helps our students understand good science. They experience, in an age appropriate way, what it is like to be a scientist. To ask a big question, to design a test to answer that question, and to figure out how to report the data they find- these are all important parts of the scientific method that they simply need to know. Many of them will go into a science-related field one day, and this will be their first real exposure to what it might be like to be a biologist or a botanist or a chemist.
  • It helps our students become critical thinkers. I am sometimes surprised at how many people fall prey to hoaxes. Yes, as Christians, we believe in a God we cannot see, but he also gave us a logical mind that can think critically. Taking a statistics class in graduate school helped me appreciate data and not fall prey to convincing-sounding arguments with little reliable data to back them up. The science fair begins to build that ability in our students.
  • It encourages our students to develop perseverance and resilience when they do something hard. If everything comes easily and nothing takes time or is challenging, they do not learn those important life skills. They need the mental toughness that a “big” project will require of them.
  • It teaches them how to manage time well. This is not something they can do the night before, so they must do it in steps and think about those steps beforehand. Breaking a big task into component parts is an important life skill.
  • It gives them an opportunity to practice their presentation skills. Many of our graduates go on to jobs that require a high level of presentation ability. Many 21st century jobs require the ability to communicate well. This is a great way to practice sharing something that they did with an audience in a concise and interesting way.
  • It sparks their curiosity. Children are naturally curious and ask questions. This gives them the “permission” to follow one of those questions until they get an answer.
  • It builds memories. My children often do not remember day-to-day assignments that they do which may not require much of them, but they always remember their science fair projects with great fondness, down to even small details. These have become the stuff of family folklore.
  • It is a great way to engage with mom and dad. My husband helps my kids with the science part and I help them with the trifold board part. It is a great division of labor and enables them to spend some high quality time with their dad and with me.

How do you do it without stress? A few tips to help!

  • Keep this in mind at all times: it is their project. It is not your project, mom and dad! It is theirs. You do not need to be embarrassed by a board that doesn’t look professional if it was your child’s work.
  • Have age-appropriate expectations. If they are very young, their hypothesis might be very simple and their sample size won’t be quite as large as when they are older. Their boards definitely won’t look like the older kids’ boards.
  • Follow the teacher’s lead. The science teachers have put a great deal of time into helping students have the skills they need to do a graph or follow the scientific method. They have set mini deadlines to help your child manage his or her time well. Be encouraged by all the help you are getting from the school so it doesn’t all happen on one weekend. Mini deadlines are your friend. You can also create your own checklist with goals with your child which will also help.
  • Set time limits. This is also good if you have a perfectionist or over-achiever in your house. Set the timer for one hour and say to your child, “Today you have one hour to work on this. What are you going to do in that hour?” Write it down. When the timer rings, go do something else. The next day you can spend another hour on it.
  • Choose to have a good attitude.  If you are already saying the science fair project is going to drive you crazy, your child will pick up on that attitude too and it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. You can choose to have a good attitude and help your child choose to have a good attitude also.
  • Split the responsibility. As I said above, we split it 50/50. Dad helps with the actual project (kids do generally need a little help thinking it through). Mom helps gather supplies and makes suggestions for the board. Talk to your spouse about this ahead of time and make it a division of labor (or if you are single maybe a grandparent or good friend can help!)
  • Encourage your child to choose a project in an area they have interest. When we are doing something we love it is not burdensome. If they love to bake, there are tons of baking science fair projects. If they love the outdoors, choose something in botany to do. If they love engineering, they can build something.
  • If you have multiple children doing a project, encourage them to do something together. This may require a bit of compromise but it is worth it. They still have to do their own boards, but they can do a very similar project, just collecting their own data and doing their own board. We had a family of four kids that did this one year and it really helped four projects feel like just one!
  • Celebrate a job well done! Plan to go out for frozen yogurt or do something else that is fun to celebrate when it is done. Give yourself permission to order pizza out on “board weekend.” And don’t forget to come to the science fair, listen to the presentations, and give your child a giant high five for his or her hard work. When you come, don’t compare the projects to one another. I know this should go without saying but I also know we tend to do it. Comparison kills joy.
  • When all else fails, remember this only happens once every two years! Next year is a history fair year. You have 24 months before you have to think about this again. And if your child is in junior high (7th or 8th grade) this is their last one. Believe it or not, a time will come when you will miss this fleeting time with your child and wish you had one more science fair project to do together.
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