The Ins & Outs of Science Fairs

More often than not, when you talk to families about science (whether they homeschool or not), you will find one thing in common. The dreaded science fair.

“It’s such a chore! I don’t see the value in it!”

Entering a science fair project into a competition involves more than just completing a fun science experiment. The student needs to have a great idea and then create an informative and eye-catching display as well as demonstrate presentation and interview skills.

Competing at local, regional, and state science fairs is a great way for students to learn more about science. Participation encourages an open mind, tenacity enough to find an answer to your question, critical thinking skills, and honesty.

Over the next five days, I will walk you through all the ins and outs of science fairs.

science fairs

Tuesday – Types of Science Fair Projects

Most science fairs allow a variety of projects to be exhibited and there are a few different types of projects that students can choose from. On Tuesday, I’ll share several types of science fair projects and for what grade level they are best suited.

Wednesday – Inquiry Based Science Fair Projects 

Inquiry based activities closely resemble the skills and processes of science undertaken by scientists and incorporate the nature of science in more meaningful ways than traditional, cookbook type labs. Be sure to stop by Wednesday to learn more about inquiry based science fair projects.

Thursday – Preparing Your Display Board & Presentation

You’ve selected a topic, gathered your materials, and worked through your project.  You’re now ready to present.  Join me on Thursday when I walk you through the steps for preparing a display board and provide tips for a great oral presentation.

Friday – Getting the Most Out of a Science Fair

Not only are science fairs a great confidence builder, students often find inspiration and ideas they would like to pursue themselves.  On Friday, I’ll share tips for getting the most out of science fairs – as a participant and as an observer. 

Bonus – 100 Science Fair Ideas

100 ideas for incorporating inquiry science into your curriculum and to kick-start the planning for your science fair project.

Skyscrapers and Wind Velocity: An Inquiry Based Science Project

Engineering has always been of interest to my daughter. She has enjoyed building toothpick bridges, marveling at skyscrapers when we have traveled to major urban areas, and writing letters to civil engineers to learn more about their work.

Earlier this year, I shared with you an STEM Club activity I put together that focused on the Newspaper Towers & Skyscrapers. My daughter enjoyed this activity so much that she expanded upon it for a homeschool science fair.

One of the tallest buildings in the world is the Shanghai World Financial Center, located in the Pudong district of Shanghai. At the time of its completion in 2008, its 492.0 meters (1,614.2 ft) made it the second-tallest building in the world and the tallest structure in mainland China. The observation deck offers views from 474 m (1,555 ft) above ground level and we had the opportunity to experience this earlier this year.

skyscrapersIn April, she took part in the CurrClick Earth Day Science Fair and it was of no surprise when she expressed interest in doing something with skyscrapers. I tried to dissuade her, knowing it would be difficult to design a fair test that resulted in measurable results. Despite the mis-givings of her tutor and I, she was not deterred.

Research & Project Planning

She researched numerous skyscrapers around the world and ultimately settled upon three for her design inspiration: the Empire State Building in New York City, the Cayan Tower in the United Arab Emirates, and the Trans America Building in San Francisco.  Each design was significantly different and through her research, she came up with her experimental question: How Does the Design of a Building Affect the Sway Under Different Wind Velocities?

Testing: Design, Wind Velocity, and Sway

She calculated a scale with which to build each model (1/4″ = 1 m). Using three identical boxes as a stable ground upon which to build, she constructed her skyscrapers with rolls of newspaper and wooden skewers as the frame. She then wrapped newspaper around the frame and secured it with tape.

The Cayan tower proved to be the most difficult to build for its design required it to rotate 90 degrees. Despite considerable effort, we could only get our paper model to rotate about 35-40 degrees.

To test the sway, she used a large fan to generate wind at different velocities, being careful to keep the distance and the aim consistent. To measure the wind speed, she used a Kestrel wind meter.

Results

She discovered right away that the sway of each building was so small that it was not possible to measure consistently.  She thereby changed focus and began to take wind speed measurements at different places next to each building, comparing how the wind velocity was altered due to the design of the building.

I was very impressed with her tenacity to see this project through, despite numerous setbacks and disappointments. She persevered and despite not getting an outcome for which she had hoped, she learned how to set a goal, plan a significant project on her own, how to gather scientific data, and the process by which to present it to others.

Many parents will contend that science fair projects are more of a headache than they are worth.  Join me next week when I share tips for coaching your student through the process without losing your hair.

If you are interested in coordinating a science fair for your homeschool community, I encourage you to read my earlier post, Planning a Fun Science Fair in 10 Easy Steps.

Engineering: World's Tallest Buildings Unit Study

To learn more about skyscrapers and to explore the field of engineering with you students, check out my Engineering Unit Study: World’s Tallest Buildings.

Aeronautics: How Airfoils Affect Flight

Like most young men, my son is fascinated by planes, trains, automobiles, and ships. His interest in each will ebb and flow like the tide, depending upon various things that give spark. Presently, he is focused on airplanes and would like nothing more than to fly one himself.

He insists that he is capable of flying a plane and enjoys proving this to anyone who will watch him as he plays a simulator game. I’m not so worried about the actual flying; it is the landing that gives me pause.

For our annual homeschool science fair, he expressed interest in designing different airfoils (cross sectional shape of a wing) for a glider to see how the different shape or camber (convex or concave curvature of an airfoil) would affect the flight distance.

Research & Construction

A glider is a light, engineless aircraft designed to glide after being towed aloft or launched from a catapult.  It is composed of three main parts, the fuselage, wing, and the tail.

When air flows past the wing, due to the difference in curvature of its upper and lower parts lift is generated, which is responsible for balancing the weight of the plane, and the glider can thus fly.

Upon settling upon a style, he began designing and constructing his own glider out of a sheet of Styrofoam we purchased at Lowe’s.  For several weekends, he and his dad set about cutting, glueing, and sanding the foam sheets to resemble the fuselage. Along the way, a few modifications to his original design were necessary to enable the airfoils to be easily interchangeable.
aeronautics_building

 

Testing: How Does the Airfoil Affect Flight?

Concerned that the glider would get damaged upon landing, he made the decision to launch it from a seated position.  He grasped the fuselage in the same spot and made every effort to be consistent with the effort he used to launch it each time.

A tape measure was laid out upon the ground and he measured the distance it flew (using the nose of the fuselage as the reference point). He flew the glider three times with each airfoil, recording the distances flown in his journal.
aeronautics_testing

 

Results

He discovered that there was no significant difference between the airfoils he had used; the average distance that each airfoil flew varied by only a couple of centimeters. He surmised that this was due in part to his low launch height, the design of the glider (would it have been better to have a slot in the fuselage so that the airfoil was lower?), and the similarity of the camber (perhaps the airfoils were not different enough; it was difficult to sand the thin Styrofoam without breaking it).

He was very disappointed but understood (after a few tears and much consolation) that his project did not fail.  Regardless of the result, he had a great time, bonded with his dad, and loved telling his friends about his project at the science fair.

 

 

Wonder & Asking Questions: 6 Steps to Project Based Learning

As a homeschool family, we have read about the first European colonists in the Americas and constructed paper models of Jamestown.  We have explored the ecosystems of North America and created posters to illustrate food webs.  We have created travel brochures to teach others about Alaska. We have even created multimedia news reports to share our experiences at Chinese New Year.  And the lapbooks.  When we first started homeschooling, we created many, many lapbooks. Sound familiar?

These are common examples of the kind of assignments that teachers and homeschool parents bill as projects. A classroom filled with student work may suggest that students have engaged in meaningful learning. However, it is the process of students’ learning and the depth of their cognitive engagement— rather than the resulting product—that distinguishes projects from busywork.

A project is meaningful if it fulfills two criteria. First, students must perceive the work as personally meaningful, as a task that matters and that they want to do well. Second, a meaningful project fulfills an educational purpose. Well-designed and well-implemented project-based learning is meaningful in both ways.

Many students find schoolwork meaningless because they don’t perceive a need to know what they’re being taught. They are unmotivated by a teacher’s suggestion that they should learn something because they’ll need it later in life, for the next course, or simply because “it’s going to be on the test.”

With a compelling student project, the reason for learning relevant material becomes clear: I need to know this to meet the challenge I’ve accepted. Teachers can powerfully activate students’ need to know content by launching a unit in a way that engages interest and initiates questioning.  This can take the form of a video, a lively discussion, a guest speaker, or a field trip.

Come along with me as I share an example of one particular project we have recently undertaken utilizing the Project Based Learning Cycle. You’ll discover that the cycle isn’t a concrete, step-by-step approach, but a fluid, natural progression of learning and growth.

PBL Cycle6 Steps to Project Based Learning

1. Identify the Problem

A good driving question captures the heart of the project in clear, compelling language, which gives students a sense of purpose and challenge. The question should be provocative, open-ended, complex, and linked to the core of what you want students to learn. It could be abstract (When is war justified?); concrete (Is our water safe to drink?); or focused on solving a problem.

On a Roots & Shoots nature walk a few months ago, we observed that the population of native pond turtles had significantly declined.  In the past, we had observed many pond turtles basking in the sun but this time, we saw only two native turtles and a large number of non-native Red-eared slider turtles. 

This led us to question, “Why the change in population size? What was happening to the native pond turtles and what could we do to combat the decline?”

2. Analyze the Problem

In terms of making a project feel meaningful to students, the more voice and choice, the better. However, teachers should design projects that fit their own style and students.

You may choose to limit the choices, allowing learners to select what topic to study within a general driving question or choose how to design, create, and present the final product. You might provide a limited menu of options for creative projects to prevent students from becoming overwhelmed by choices. On the other end of the scale, students may decide what products they will create, what resources they will use, and how they will structure their time.

A few days after our outing, the coordinator emailed the kids suggesting they take action to increase public awareness and ultimately, prohibit the sale of red-eared sliders in pet stores.  My daughter was quick to pick up the challenge. She was eager to make a difference. 

3. Field Studies & Investigation

Students find project work more meaningful if they conduct real inquiry, which does not mean finding information in books or websites and pasting it onto a poster. In real inquiry, students follow a trail that begins with their own questions, leads to a search for resources and the discovery of answers, and often ultimately leads to generating new questions, testing ideas, and drawing their own conclusions. With real inquiry comes innovation—a new answer to a driving question, a new product, or an individually generated solution to a problem. The teacher does not ask students to simply reproduce teacher  or textbook provided information in a pretty format.

On a family walk a few weeks later, we observed numerous Red-eared sliders once again (a different location than the first).  My kids both lamented pet owners releasing these turtles into the wild without considering the consequences. My daughter began to further her questioning, “Where is the population of Western Pond Turtles the largest? Where is the population of Red-eared sliders the largest? Is the population of Western Pond Turtles changing at the same rate at Mary Lake as it is at Turtle Pond?” 

As she posed these questions to me on our walk, we discussed strategies for answering the questions.  She expressed an interest in collecting real data – capturing and tagging the turtles.  “I can bring my fishing net and I can paint a number on the back of their shell so I don’t count the same turtle over again.”

I suggested she reach out to local agencies (Fish & Wildlife, Parks & Recreation, Forest Service, etc.) to see what efforts the resource specialists had made (if any) in this regard.  Would they allow her to pursue this is more depth?

4. Identify Resources & Research

A project should give students opportunities to build such 21st century skills as collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and the use of technology, which will serve them well in the workplace and life. This exposure to authentic skills provides the project with an educational purpose. A teacher in a project-based learning environment explicitly teaches and assesses these skills and provides frequent opportunities for students to assess themselves.

One step in the research process is to understand the natural history of both the Western Pond Turtle and the invasive, Red-eared sliders. My children have kept nature journals for years and so it was a natural decision to illustrate the turtles in their journals as a way to record their knowledge and research.  See my earlier post, Saving the Native Turtles: Part One – Naturalist’s Notes.

5. Test Solutions and Revision

Formalizing a process for feedback and revision during a project makes learning meaningful because it emphasizes that creating high-quality products and performances is an important purpose of the endeavor. Students need to learn that most people’s first attempts don’t result in high quality and that revision is a frequent feature of real-world work.

In addition to providing direct feedback, the teacher should coach students in using rubrics or other sets of criteria to critique one another’s work. Teachers can arrange for experts or adult mentors to provide feedback, which is especially meaningful to students because of the source.

At every step in the learning cycle, the kids have been making changes and revisions. As my daughter brainstormed ideas to investigate the population size, she modified her action plan with suggestions I made.  When she meets with the resources specialist, she will undoubtedly make additional changes to her approach.  As the kids work on their posters and letters (see step 6 below), they will create a rough draft and seek feedback from one another as well as from their parents.  

6. Present Solutions & Engage the Public

Schoolwork is more meaningful when it’s not done only for the teacher or the test. When students present their work to a real audience, they care more about its quality. Once again, it’s “the more, the better” when it comes to authenticity. Students might replicate the kinds of tasks done by professionals—but even better, they might create real products that people outside school use.

One of the projects the kids have planned is to create posters to educate the public about the dangers of releasing exotic pets into the wild. They have invited their friends to join them in this service learning activity and they intend to hang the posters at local pet stores and the science center. They have also begun to write letters to their state congressmen to encourage them to take legislative action.

Plastics & Polymers: A Plastics Lab Activity

Plastics are everywhere – from airplanes to drinking bottles to sports equipment. They are most commonly derived from petrochemicals but many are partially natural.  Typically, plastics are organic polymers (or chains of carbon atoms with hydrogens hanging off), but they often contain other substances.

Each plastic is chemically unique and has distinct properties that make it suitable for certain products. These different characteristics (weight, durability, stacking, and even consumer appeal) are taken into consideration when packaging is considered for new products.

plastics lab activityPlastics Lab Activity

Plastics can provide hands-on, inquiry based lab activities with which students can investigate materials that are common to your everyday lives. To begin our initial plastics lab activity, I asked the kids to name as many things as they could that are made of plastic. Are all plastics the same? How are they different?

I then displayed a number of plastic materials I had collected and we talked about the characteristics of each. [Alternatively, you could do this lesson in two parts and ask the students to bring in samples themselves.]

resin codes

I explained that plastics are classified #1 through #7 and I showed them how to check the bottom of the object to locate the number inside the recycle symbol. Even though some recycling centers only accept certain numbers, all plastics with this symbol are recyclable. Markets just don’t exist for all recycled products.

After our discussion, students were asked to sort the plastic bottles and containers according to their numbers. Then, students were asked to brainstorm different physical properties that are characteristic of each type of plastic and test them.  The students were encouraged to make a table in their science notebook and record the physical properties of each type of plastic.  This data table would then be used to help them classify a set of unknown plastic pieces

  • Density – Does the plastic float or sink in water? (Cut plastics into pieces before dunking in water. #2, #4, and #5 float while #1 and #6 sink.)
  • Transparency – Is the plastic clear or opaque?
  • Luster – Is the plastic dull or shiny?
  • Brittleness – Does the plastic break when bent?
  • Rigidness – Is the plastic flexible or tough?
  • Color – Is the color the same for every sample number?

Mystery Plastics

In advance, samples of #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, and #6 plastics were cut into small pieces (about 1 to 2 in.). As many were not distinguishable by sight, I cut each number into a different shape. For example, I cut #1 plastic into squares, #2 into triangles, and so on.  I made a key that identified each plastic by its number. A mixture of all types of plastics were then placed into a bag for each group. 

When the students’  data tables were complete, I gave a bag of mystery plastics to each group and challenged the kids to identify the different plastics by their physical properties. Could they assign a number to each sample? Once a group was finished, they could check their predictions with the key.

Take it Further

During the testing process, one of the students made an interesting discovery in class – he had pulled on a strip of plastic cut from a bread bag and discovered it stretched quite a distance before breaking.  Another plastic (a sandwich zip baggie) took significantly more force before breaking.  This lead us to talk a little about tensile strength.

I encouraged the kids to pursue this further by cutting strips (approximately 2.5cm by 12cm) from a variety of different plastics (freezer bags, food wrap, microwave wrap, trash bags, grocery bags, or any other type of similar plastic) and developing a test to determine the weight needed to break each of the plastic strips. As you slowly pull the ends apart (stress), you can feel the resistance of the material as you pull it (strain).

Note: If you choose to pursue this, be certain to cut out plastic strips that are consistent in size and either parallel or perpendicular to the grain of the material.  [By holding the bag to the light, the lines you see indicate the general direction of the polymer chains. The direction in which these chains are lined up is also known as the anisotropic nature of the material, or the direction of extrusion.]

 

 

The Science of Ice – Inquiry Activities for Middle School

With the Winter Olympics right around the corner and much of the east coast battling winter storms, many families are cuddled up inside learning about the history of the games.  But for the skaters, curlers, hockey players, lugers, and bobsledders in the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, their sport is about just one thing ~ ice.  With the recent popularity of Disney’s Frozen – there is no better time to explore the science of ice.   How much do you really know about ice, after all?

science of ice

NBC Learn and NBC Sports, in partnership with the National Science Foundation, have created a collection of ten short videos focused on the science and engineering design efforts behind Olympic and Paralympic athletes and the tools that each hopes will help them bring home the gold,  The Science and Engineering of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games.

Begin your science of ice unit study by watching Science of Ice from the video collection to see if your thinking aligns with current ideas.  The short video discusses some of the physical and chemical properties of solid water and how this substance is produced to optimize performance for a particular ice sport. In this short video, athletes J.R. Celski, Britanny Bowe, and Gracie Gold talk about the ice they like and mathematician Ken Golden of the University of Utah explains why the unique surface of ice enables the slide and glide of winter sports.

Steps you can use with your students to initiate inquiry activities:

  • Guide a discussion to find out what students know about ice and ice rinks.  If possible, show students examples of different forms of ice (snow, shaved ice, crushed ice, a frosty glass, etc.).
  • Show The Science of Ice and encourage students to take notes while they watch.
  • Stimulate discussion of the molecular structure of ice and how ice is made in Olympic venues.
  • Choose one question and phrase it in such a way as to be researchable and/or testable. For example: How does the cleanliness of water affect the properties of ice? How does the salinity of water affect the freezing point?
  • Collect measurable data and create graphs to communicate what you learned.
  • Challenge students to make a model of an ice rink (use a petri dish) and vary the properties of ice. Choose one question and phrase it in such a way as to reflect an engineering problem that is researchable and/or testable.  For example: What is the quickest way to repair holes (pits and scratches) in ice during competitions? What is the best way to get a smooth surface across the surface of the ice?

When undertaking these activities, you may wish to consider using an Non-contact Infrared Thermometer.  An infrared thermometer is a thermometer which infers temperature from a portion of the thermal radiation emitted by the surface of the ice. For the purposes of these inquiry activities, an infrared thermometer will give a more accurate temperature reading.

Wanting more?  The Science of Ice Integration Guide (click link for PDF), produced by the National Science Teachers Association, provides additional lessons, activities, and ideas for research, teamwork, projects, and interdisciplinary connections.