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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Science Fair – Learning Abounds


(Guest Post - Jack Gates is COO of Sales Lab and a frequent contributor to the Junior Academy) 

The Junior Academy of the Washington Academy of Sciences judge school science fairs in the Washington DC area and I have the honor of participating as a judge.

WAS Judges - Paint Branch HS
Science & Media Signature Expo March 2012
What a delight to listen to the students presenting their projects, what they thought would happen, what actually happened, and what they discovered. How refreshing to see their passion and enthusiasm as they share what they learned – learning by doing – and their pride of accomplishment as they speak with the judges.

Each student participating in the science fair receives a certificate acknowledging their participation and the accomplishment of presenting the project. It has the student's name, their school, the date, and is signed by Dick Davies, the Vice President – Junior Academy – the certificate is presented to the student after the science fair. How do they feel about receiving the certificate? They appreciate the acknowledgment of their contribution and value a reminder of the accomplishment of doing and learning. How do I know what the students' think? They offer comments about being a part of the science fair and what they get out of their participation. Positive and meaningful!

Last year in a discussion about awarding a certificate to each student, I offered an observation about sports teams that give a trophy to each player regardless of their contribution – the better players have devalued the trophy as it is no longer evidence of their competitive ability.
Jack Gates

But a science fair is not a competition – it is participating in learning and sharing what is discovered, was the response to my point. In this light, I had to agree. However, when I heard from the students about their feelings on receiving a certificate, I was transformed into an avid supporter of 'certificating' students. In fact, I feel if you want to generate enthusiasm and engage the student, award a certificate to commemorate the student's accomplishment and contribution – it will add another dimension to the event.

Last year, the science leaders at Paint Branch High School - Jeanette Dixon (Principal), Brian Eichenlaub (Signature Head), Pamela Leffler (Science Head) – reinvented the Science & Media Signature Expo (science fair) from the traditional format: shifting it to the evening so more parents can attend, staging the projects in locations throughout the building with science posters and items in the hallways, and encouraging the students to have fun and share what they learned – it was a carnival atmosphere with plenty of fun. 

Brian                                       Pam

As a result, this year the number of exhibits increased from approximately 150 to 500, and the Expo took over most of the first floor in the school. As visitors entered the exhibit halls, students would greet them eagerly and try to entice them to visit one or another of the demonstration stations where students did live experiments to show a specific scientific principle followed by a crisp explanation of what happened and why. The students were having fun, the visitors were engaged and learned – and stayed for hours – and the teachers, planners, and judges saw potential scientists and life-long learners.

The students discovered what happens when an experiment works or doesn't work and that you can learn from both. The Paint Branch HS science leaders made changes which enhanced the program by greater community participation – students, parents, schools staff. We learned that certificates are placeholders for student accomplishments and achievements – saved and shown to others with pride.

Would you share other initiatives that engage and excite the students in hands on learning?

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