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High School Science Fair Project Research

Overview

Science is a process, a way of looking at the world. It is not simply a body of facts. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to understand science without doing science. For this reason lab experience in the sciences is essential. In college a lab class is roughly 2.5 to 3.0 hours per week with about the same time for lecture. Lab work is very time intensive. Having taught high school for 14 years I understand how difficult it is to develop meaningful lab activities with the restrictions of : (a) time, (b) facilities, and (c) manpower. Many experiments just don’t fit into a fifty minute period and don’t keep well from day to day. Secondly most high schools do not have adequate facilities to do meaningful lab work. Lastly, the high school teacher seldom has help to prepare experiments and to get the facilities ready while teaching all day long. As a result experiments must be few, short, and usually very "cookbook", thus losing the real meaning of the scientific method.

As a result I encouraged my high school students to do independent research work on a topic of their choosing but approved by me. The projects could be broken into three categories:

  1. "Homegrown" projects where the student comes up with the idea without any help.
  2. Projects where the teacher and student work together to develop an idea. I compiled a large file and collected books on possible topics.
  3. Projects where the student worked with a mentor at an industry or academic facility. For example we have several people at APSU who are willingly to work with students on projects. Teachers have been given a list of APSU resource people.

These projects were accomplished in three settings: (a) at school, (b) at the student’s home, and (c) at an industry or academic facility.

In addition to developing an understanding of the scientific method, there are several other important reasons to consider encouraging this program:

  1. Many projects show the relationship between science and everyday life and for many students this partially answers the question "Why should I study science, anyway?" As jobs become more highly technical and the choices that our society faces require more and more scientific knowledge, it is vital to show the links between science and the human condition.
  2. So many higher order reasoning skills are developed in a project. As Piaget would say, it is important to stimulate and expose students to formal operational (abstract) experiences if we expect them to develop their full cognitive abilities.
  3. The communication of the project to others provides many interdisciplinary opportunities. (a) Library skills are developed in the initial planning stages of the project as the student gathers background information about the topic. (b) The scientific research report is the product of all scientific work and is an excellent way to teach technical writing. We are challenged to provide more writing opportunities for students; too often writing is only taught in "English" and is a vastly different style than technical writing. Yet most writing is more closely aligned to the technical format that the usual literary genre. (c) Visual artistic and multimedia skills are also required in putting together a science project board. (d) Explaining the project to judges and giving an oral presentation provides excellent public-speaking development.

Incentives and payoffs

I have used course extra-credit to provide some reward and incentive for doing an out-of-class project of this type. I gave up to 10% of the points available each six weeks as extra credit; this usually amounted to an increase of 1 letter grade in their six weeks average. Students were required to keep a bound notebook and document their time spent and results of library searches and lab experiments. I met regularly with the student to discuss progress. At the end of the six weeks period, I graded the notebook and assigned extra credit points.

Another benefit of project work was that most students improved their in-class test scores because they were reinforcing class material as well as seeing practical uses for it. As a result of increased test scores and the extra-credit, the grades and self-concepts of students increased dramatically. Many students changed their career plans as a result of their work. It definitely increased the chances of pursuing advanced research degrees in a particular scientific field. Students for the first time saw that they could do this type of work and felt the satisfaction and joy of it.

A final benefit occurs from possible awards that the student may receive. Science contests are well funded and provide many opportunities for summer work, college scholarships, cash, educational trips, and excellent additions to the college application. I encourage participation in the TN Junior Science and Humanities Symposium, TN Junior Academy of Science, the local and county science fairs, and the Middle TN Science and Engineering Fair.

Timeline

The following is based on the year long schedule. The block schedule used at some schools makes the process more difficult.

1st Six Weeks

  • Students should decide on a topic and do a library search of information. (August, September)

2nd Six Weeks

  • Students should complete library work and plan the experiment. Some experimentation should be attempted. (October, November)

 3rd Six Weeks

  • Students should perform experimentation. Revision of procedure and some additional library work should be done. (November, December)

4th Six Weeks

  • Experimental work should be completed and a rough draft of the paper completed. At this time a copy of the paper should be submitted if possible to the TN Junior Science and Humanities Symposium. (January, February)

5th Six Weeks

  • The paper should be rewritten to the teacher’s satisfaction. The project board should be assembled. The project paper should be sent to the TN Junior Academy of Science competition and the project board entered in the local school science fair, hopefully the county science fair, and then to the Middle TN Science and Engineering Fair. (February, March, April)

6th Six Weeks

  • Projects should be presented orally in-class to enhance public speaking skills. The best papers will probably be selected for presentation at the TN Junior Academy of Science competition. This will require work on a 15 minute presentation to the academy using slides, transparencies, and the like. (April, May)

My best experiences in my 14 years of high school teaching came from working with students on research projects. I heartily recommend your commitment to this program.

Ron Robertson, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Chemistry
Austin Peay State University