Jana Simandl loves science: she’s an adjunct professor of chemical engineering at McGill University, has judged numerous science fairs and is sending her two children to Royal Vale school in N.D.G., which has a focus on science and math.
But last year, when her then 9-year-old daughter wanted to raise compost worms for a science fair project, the Montreal mom admits her enthusiasm started to wane. “I wasn’t keen on the idea,” she says, particularly as the worms would be wiggling about in containers of compost housed in her garage.
However, Simandl managed to control her squeamishness and agreed to the project. Her daughter and another classmate researched worm composting, visited an Eco-Quartier office where they met with the city’s worm composting expert and set up their experiment (the goal was to see how nutrition affected a worm’s growth). Even her daughter’s younger sibling got involved by helping to count the worms. For Simandl, the experience reminded her, once again, why science fairs can be an effective way to get kids hooked on science.
“The fairs offer an opportunity to learn in a more in-depth way about a specific topic in an environment other than the classroom,” she says.
Start with a good question
But figuring out how to help your child with a science fair project isn’t always easy, especially if science was the subject you hated most in school. Evelyn Castillo, program director for Live Stuff, a company that offers after-school science classes and preparation for science fairs, says scientific discoveries start with a question, such as: What happens if I leave a banana in my locker for three weeks? So one of the first steps in preparing for a science fair is to raise a number of questions. And don’t let your own fears or distastes get in the way of your child’s discoveries. Decomposing food, compost-producing worms or some other topic with a high “yuck” factor can all be fascinating to a budding scientist.
Castillo, who has worked as a judge at various science fairs, says that once a topic has been chosen, the next step is to do background research to find out if others have explored the same or similar ideas. Then comes the creation of a hypothesis — basically an educated guess about the answer to the question the child has asked.
A child will need to write the protocol, which Castillo compares to a detailed recipe for testing the hypothesis. It is here that projects usually get derailed. Without a solid protocol, you won’t collect the information needed to make accurate and solid conclusions. After the protocol has been written, kids perform their experiments, analyze the results, draw their conclusions and present their findings.
A successful science fair project requires a great deal of planning — and that’s where parents can provide assistance and support. Discussing the project with a child, helping them assemble the needed equipment and maybe offering a helping hand with things like stapling pictures to poster board are all productive ways to be involved. However, parents need to keep a sense of perspective.
This is the child’s project and pushing a young person to tackle a more complex or difficult topic isn’t doing anyone any favours. At many science fairs, participants must explain their work to the judges — who can quickly figure out if a child is simply parroting a script or actually has a deep understanding of what the project is all about.
Luckily, over-involvement by parents is rare, with most finding a balance that allows them to support their children’s learning.
“Science fairs can be such an enriching experience for the child”, Castillo says. “It can guide them into a career in science.” A child who has researched and explored a topic feels a sense of responsibility and pride, she adds. “It’s their project. They identify with it and they are proud of it.”
And, adds Simandl, the idea behind the fair is not to create stress for families but to encourage a love of science. “The point of the exercise is for children to have fun with science and to stimulate their curiosity and creativity,” she says. “It’s important not to lose sight of that. Parents need to have perspective and a sense of humour.”
Live Stuff helps students participating in science fairs as well as offering hands-on workshops focusing on different scientific topics. For more information, call (514) 830-2850 or visit www.livestuff.ca.
The Expo-Science Bell website, www.exposciencesbell.qc.ca, has information (mostly in French) and ideas for participating in a fair. Click on the section “How do I participate” for links to documents about designing a science project.