The Art of Judging a Science Fair Project

It all starts with a simple question. Or even a silly question:

Does the 5 second rule for food that falls on the floor really work? Which is cleaner, the mouth of a dog or a cat? Why is grass green? How does popcorn pop?

You’ll find the answers to those questions at your child’s annual Elementary School Science Fair, typically held in the spring. (If your child’s school doesn’t run one, you can start one with a few parents, teachers, and the principal’s blessing.) This is a great opportunity for some fun, interactive, hands-on learning. If your child already signed up, great. If not, start a conversation about it. Any subject that your child is curious about is a natural place to begin. For kids who don’t gravitate toward science or are more reserved, doing a project with a friend eases the transition.

I’ve listed some helpful websites and links for Science Fairs at the end of this post. Lots of ideas and projects for kids to consider. There are even Science Fairs on-line for kids 13-17, the ages when most school fairs stop. Most schools give specific guidelines for Science Fairs so be sure to read them with your child. Some schools allow animals; others do not. Many have limited outlets, so if you need electricity, be sure to sign up early.

In many school districts today, parents are not allowed in the Science Fair area during the students’ presentations. While it seems sad that parents can’t watch their own children give presentations and answer the judge’s questions, it’s understandable. Some parents can’t help themselves from getting a little too involved in their child’s work and it becomes a joint venture vs. a child’s project.

The best advice I can give to parents supervising and guiding a Science Fair project is to do just that: supervise and guide. Ask questions. Help kids manage their time. (See my post on helping vs. doing for what exactly that looks like.) A decade ago, my oldest daughter did a science fair project that I became far too involved in – and no one had any fun. Two years ago, my youngest daughter signed up with a Penguin project. I stayed completely out of it, other than driving to the store, paying for some supplies and asking a few questions on the trip back home. And that’s one of the key reasons why she took 2nd place.

Judges (teachers and administrators) sniff out a project that has too much parent involvement in the first minute. A perfectly lettered headline pasted oh so straight on the three panel board. A power point presentation that is read word for word. Written descriptions that use words kids don’t understand. A hypothesis that a child can’t restate in his own words. And most importantly, rehearsed answers to questions that a student plays back like a robot – a student well coached by a parent.

The judges know when kids get it, when they created the project themselves, when they spark to what they’re doing and saying. Just walk around and check out all the projects yourself during public viewing. I bet you’ll see the difference too. Your kids will too.

So, don’t fret if your child’s project is a little messy. That’s a plus in the judges’ eyes. If one fact on the board isn’t accurate, ask a question. But if it‘s not fixed, let it go. If your child doesn’t explain the process she went through to figure out the answer the same way you might, bite your tongue. Just let it be your child’s project. And  remember to praise the effort they put in, not the results. It will pay off in the end.

Most of all, encourage your kids to have some fun. That’s what it’s all about.

Helpful resources for Science Fair projects:

Discovery Education Science Fair Central

Google Science Fair 2012 (ages 13+)

Bill Nye the ScienceGuy

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