This started out in the comments to Janet’s conundrum about what to do regarding her child’s upcoming science fair:
I’m very committed to the idea that a science fair project is the kind of thing a kid should control, from start to finish — conceiving the project, formulating some clear questions and some promising strategies for answering them, doing the experiments and making the observations, adjusting the strategies as necessary, setting up more experiments, looking at the results, figuring out what they might mean, flagging the questions that remain unanswered, and then figuring out how to communicate it all to kids (and teachers) who weren’t right there with you doing all the research.
If a parent does this stuff (or acts as PI to the kid’s lab tech), I think the parent may learn a lot, but the kid will not get the same experience.
Having attended many science fairs over the past few years (from elementary to high school level), I absolutely agree. It’s all too obvious when the parent has carried out the project, and the kid has taken a backseat (or in the worst cases, just ends up being a spokesperson for the parents’ project.) My experience with my own child below…
First, I think Janet’s strategy and goal of getting the child to spearhead the project as much as possible is great, but for elementary kids, a bit more guidance might be necessary. My daughter has done science fair projects for the last 2 years (since she was in 1st grade) and each time, we hit on an idea together. She’ll ask a question about something, and I’ll tell her, “y’know, there’s a way we could find that out.”
The first year we did toothbrushing and germ growth (spawned from a “mom, why do you rinse with that nasty stuff after you brush your teeth?” question). So we talked about how she might investigate germs in the mouth. She ended up swabbing my teeth and tongue before brushing, after brushing, and after mouthwash. I asked her what she thought would happen, and then she got to do all the plating, and “analysis” of the growth (counting colonies, ideal for a first grader). We also discussed what pictures she should show for her poster, and she put that together.
Long story short, though she did most of the work, it was still a team effort. I helped guide her through it but made sure she was doing what I deemed the important stuff for a first pass at a project–helping to figure out a research question, formulate hypotheses, analyze the data, draw conclusions, figure out additional experiments leading from this research. Now, 4th grade and 1st grade is a world of difference, and Janet’s Sprog the Elder probably could do much of this with little guidance–but I’d be wary of trying to swing the pendulum a bit too far away from the HoverParents and make her responsible for everything on her first project. Get one under her belt, let her see what works and what doesn’t, and she probably won’t even want Mom’s help for next year.