Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Science Fair, Reimagined

We are knee-deep in eighth grade science fair projects at this point in the year, and students have been busy wrapping up their at-home experiments, writing a final draft of their lab report, and polishing their presentation boards. You know, those cardboard tri-folds we all used in school to display our construction paper lettering and store-bought borders. The same boards that have been used since... well, since as long ago as I can even remember.

Every year about this time, I grapple with how effective this whole science fair behemoth really is for the students. As with any project, unless you design with the end in mind (the goals/objectives you want the students to meet), often times the projects themselves (and all the minutia involved with executing it successfully) become the focus, instead of the learning that should result along the way. 

I can't help but wonder whether the learning goals have gotten lost in this thing we call the science fair. As a result, we cling to the trappings. The instructions, the guidelines that we have always used. But why? "Well, because we've always done it that way." 

The quintessential science fair component seems to be the cardboard tri-fold display, and to me, this display has evolved into one of the biggest relics in science education. Each year that I do a science fair project with my students, I lose both in-class and out-of-class time because of these antiquated boards. Students spend days and weeks gluing, cutting, pasting and arranging. Not only that, but the boards themselves are horribly cumbersome and a downright pain to move around. Especially at the end of the year when I have a classroom full of unclaimed projects that inevitably meet their demise in the recycling bin. To me, this is such a horribly unfortunate end to all the science work the students have done. (I fear that what I'm inadvertently teaching them is that, in real life, science experiments just get abandoned and then tossed out with the garbage.) 

With this being my ninth year as a teacher, I continue to advocate for a transition to a digital version of these mammoth cardboard monsters. I have used Glogster's virtual poster program successfully in the past with 6th grade science projects, and have wanted desperately to expand their use in my class. However, there are always important concerns to consider: 

1) How will the students accurately present their projects from a tiny laptop screen? 
2) How will our school-wide Science Expo have the same feel without the large boards?
3) How will our students compete at a regional or state level without a board?

While these are all valid concerns, I've never been able to successfully address them until now. After reading Kevin Hodgson's blog post about the pro's and con's of a virtual science fair, I am more impassioned than ever to push these cardboard dinosaurs to their final extinction. 

Kevin does a great job of summarizing some of the pluses and minuses of going virtual, and part of his list is summarized below:

Virtual projects are...
1. permanently archived (i.e., making science much less "disposable")
2. easily embeddable (hello, Google/Schoology!)
3. multimedia rich (students can display their learning through multiple modalities)

and my personal favorite:
4. expanding the traditional idea of "audience." 

As far as I can tell, this last idea is the biggest obstacle in transitioning from a old-fashioned science fair to a virtual one. Traditionally, the audience is the students and faculty and parents who walk by the cardboard display during the one-day Science Expo. But after weeks (or perhaps months) of working on an extensive out-of-class science project, it hardly seems fair for only a handful of people to view the students' work, and an even smaller number (usually just one: the teacher) to critically analyze it for a grade. 

What if the audience became as wide and as broad as we wanted it to be? What if students could continue learning from the project, long after the original experiment had been done and the poster had been constructed?

A virtual poster would allow students to share their work with others in the school, in their city, and even around the world. Just a few of my ideas for a new kind of "science fair" are below:

1) Students create a virtual poster of their work, and posters are linked to the class Google site or Schoology page for all other students to see. Classmates are then tasked with completing one or two "Peer Reviews" in which they (either virtually or in person) make suggestions and ask questions about the experiments. (Perhaps we even begin a conversation here about what happens after a body of experimentation is published in a scientific journal, and use our class peer review process as a model for how science is really done.)

2) Students could also use their virtual posters to do an "Experiment Swap" with another group in class, or with students from another science class somewhere else in the world. They would be challenged to replicate an experiment done by another student in order to validate their findings, and then share their results in a follow-up review. (Again, reinforcing the idea of how science is actually done in the real world.)

3) Student virtual posters could essentially become working documents, (because isn't that what most real science is?) with students changing their independent and dependent variables over the course of time, depending on peer feedback, expert feedback (from both teachers and scientists from the community) and their own interests. These working documents could continue to collect reviews and opinions and praise over time from a wide audience, including family members. (Students can easily invite Grandma Louise from Kentucky to log on and view their projects online.) 

4) Students could easily reformat their virtual posters for submission into any of the emerging digital science fairs appearing each year, including the Google Science Fair, the ExploraVision competition and AEOP's eCybermission contest, just to name a few. (Perhaps students could even be given the choice of which contests to enter, increasing their buy-in and personal interest.) This way, schools can still gain recognition through their students' science achievements as well as encourage healthy competition among classmates. 

The take home message here:
Let's transform the science fair. From a cumbersome semester-long project that ends in a puny, one-day presentation in front of a piece of cardboard to a digital, collaborative, peer-reviewed process that more closely mirrors the way science is done in 2013. 

No, students won't necessarily have the same sort of "face time" that we are accustomed to with the cardboard displays, and our current model of a school-wide Expo might not look the same at all. But that's okay. If we want our students leaving our classrooms with a passion for SCIENCE (and not the classroomitized-compartmentalized-version of science that we often present) then our plan for the science fair project needs to look drastically different indeed.

(For an example of a virtual science poster that I created in Glogster, click here.)

No comments:

Post a Comment