Adventures in Ethics and Science

The science fair conundrum.

The elder Free-Ride offspring, having entered fourth grade this year, will be participating in the school science fair in the spring. The elder Free-Ride offspring is very enthusiastic about the whole science fair thing.

Meanwhile, I’m having a very hard time.

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.

However, since the school year started, I have been bursting with ideas for cool science fair projects. Honestly, I get a new one daily. And I don’t dare speak of them, lest my child latch onto one of them. Because, you know, coming up with a good question and a good approach to tackling it is where a lot of the creativity comes into the science fair.

So, for the experienced science fair parents who may be reading, can you give me some advice on how to stay Socratic with my child while I continue to accumulate my internal running list of science fair ideas? I refuse to be a parent who takes control of my kid’s project, but at this rate, I’m going to have to do some of these projects myself just to satisfy my own curiosity.


  1. #1 SpotWeld
    September 18, 2008

    Write up the list and give it to your child’s teacher? Let the whole class get some inspiration and negate any advantage your own child might have.

  2. #2 Patrick Cahalan
    September 18, 2008

    Ja, I agree with Spot, above.

    From the Friday blogging, I’m surmising that the Free-Ride sproglings are well capable of being their own PI, but this isn’t universal for all children, and it’s also not universal for all types of projects/assignments – sometimes a teacher may want to have a narrowed scope as an assigned project instead of the sort of “catch all” projects you see at a science fair, and experimental ideas are probably fun to read through.

    I’d post the list and let the Intertubes do with it what they will (disclaimer – I have curiosity about the list, too) :)

  3. #3 Frederick Ross
    September 18, 2008

    Use the particular ideas as examples in your talk. Because it’s time to have one of those parent-spawn talks. When I entered a science fair for the first time, my father sat my best friend and me down and gave us a lecture on choosing projects, on choosing something where we could understand all the relevant background, where we could independently do all the experiments, where we could carry out the analysis ourselves. It needn’t be novel, but it must be watertight. He included ideas for projects as examples to bring this home.

    And we ended up using his ideas, and getting his help with things like powertools and the intricacies of correlation coefficients both years we entered (but we did all the actual calculations ourselves once he had taught us how to use them; he operated the powertools), but we didn’t use his ideas before dreaming up dozens of our own and winnowing them based on that lecture. It was one of the formative moments of my youth.

  4. #4 Jude
    September 18, 2008

    I’m a high school library teacher, experienced science fair judge, and a parent of a daughter who won at regionals, did well at state, and ended up at international science fair. I set up a science fair project site for the high school students at my school, and I help them a lot with ideas (we’re in the idea stage now). I try to steer them away from the projects I’ve seen too many times. I talk a lot about sample size (testing one plant just doesn’t cut it). I’d love it if you’d list your ideas on the internet so I could link to them. My feelings are that kids need a lot of help (not with doing, but help) with choosing a project and coming up with a good design. As a parent, you can teach them a lot of things, such as how to use Excel to create a graph to display their results (or use Create-a-graph). At school, they will generally receive minimal assistance, especially at the elementary level. There’s nothing wrong with sharing what you know, and that could include backwards planning or other time management strategies to make sure they finish the project. At the 4th grade level, my daughter tested rocks with a project called “Does this rock fizz?” For ideas, I like Science News for Kids, in part because it asks questions in a lot of different areas, but it only has a few sample projects.

  5. #5 Super Sally
    September 18, 2008

    HA-HA-HA-HA!!!!! (Sorry)

    Kids are different, but this one probably would be offended if you made un-requested suggestions from the get-go. Other kids might need a range of suggestions to even start a real thought process moving toward some level of focus.

    Is there not a “neutral” website on which you AND OTHERS can make some preliminary suggestions for topics for different age ranges in different discipline areas? Post those ideas, early and often.

    Then discuss with 4th grader which areas are of most interest, and how much time can realistically be devoted to the design, background reading, experiment, data presentation, and project display. And only then point this one at that website.

    And PLEEEEEEAAAAAASSSSSEEEEEEEEE keep us up to date with the progress. I’d hate to miss a minute of it!

  6. #6 R E G
    September 18, 2008

    If you feel you may give your child an unfair advantage by helping stop and think …

    Do athletes coach their kids?

    Do musicians help their kids practice?

    Do writers proofread their kids papers?

    You shouldn’t do the actual work, but you should keep the kid on track. A lot of science fair projects at this age are not really experiments. You can make sure your kid’s is. I hope your school is judging based on “doing science” and the kids get credit for it even if the budget and home help they get are minimal.

    I also hope the marking scheme is kind. I’ve met that grade five teacher who would give the kid who perfected cold fusion a B+.

  7. #7 GRAND Aunt Molly
    September 23, 2008

    Do you have any idea how many parents out there would pay BIG bucks for all those ideas popping into your brain? Not to mention your ability to actually get a child excited AND
    motivated to get the project started AND completed. Your offspring will NEVER appreciate you for the natural environment they live in to complete this! They have the mentors “in house” that other students can only dream of having. …and the Science Fair is when?

  8. #8 ganv
    September 23, 2008

    “… coming up with a good question and a good approach to tackling it is where a lot of the creativity comes into the science fair.”

    This is true, but the ability to come up with a good question and a good approach is not an innate human skill. We learn by watching others frame good questions and devise experiments to answer them. Most kids haven’t seen this done enough to do it entirely by themselves.

    I work mostly with undergraduate and graduate students, but I think the process of guiding them to good thesis topics is not so very different from guiding a kid to a good science fair project. Giving too little guidance results in poorly conceived experiments that end up mostly wasting everyone’s time. Giving too much guidance results in the students disengaging from the creative wrestling with making great measurements and understanding the results. Finding the right balance is different for every student.

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