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Science Fairs, Scientifically Speaking

Hopeful skepticism best described my apprehension as I entered the church activity building. Conflicting reports had previously left me undecided about home schooling, but now I was about to see first-hand examples of home schooling efforts. The quality of the home school science fair which I was to judge would certainly reflect the quality of home school education, at least in the sciences. Suspicions subsided as reasonable, even excellent projects were set up. When the judging was finished, I concluded that the quality of the projects from this group was comparable to that I had found at conventional schools. The following year I was asked to judge again; the fair overall and the projects in particular were even better the second year.

Why have a home school science fair? Are there any real benefits beyond some social interaction? Yes, there are several benefits; the most important is learning about the process called science. Once a student actually does a science project he is more likely to understand the process, be is less intimidated by science and is better able to discriminate between scientific conclusions and conjecture. Science, by strict definition, involves using the scientific method. It also consists of careful planning, data recording, analysis and presentation of the work to peers. Just from knowing that his work is going to be seen by others many be enough to make a child do a better experiment or in-depth report.

Planning a science fair for a home school support is no small job. A building or large room must be reserved, the group notified, rules made, and judges chosen. The physical considerations are perhaps the easiest to decide. The space needed will be dictated by the number of projects; about half of an eight-foot table per project will be sufficient in most cases. Make sure the area has plenty of electrical outlets and good lighting. Map out and number the tables or spaces ahead of time, and assign them to participants prior to the day of the fair.

The date and time of the fair should be decided by the support group. Each home school will likely be on different teaching schedules, and parents may differ on what part of the school year they want to incorporate a project. Saturdays seem to be favorite days since working parents and other family members are more available then. The date of a regional science fair may affect the choice as well. Allow at least half a day for the fair. The length of time needed increases with the number of project entries. Extra time should be allotted if this is the first year for a fair.

A committee or coordinator should be chosen to set the judging criteria, choose a judge(s), and plan awards. Some groups choose not to have competition or awards. If several support groups join together or get enough participants for a fair, they should try to have committee members from as many groups as is feasible. A visit to another science fair, conventional school or home school may be of great benefit to the committee members.

The committee should set the judging criteria, including categories of competition and guidelines for scoring. If at all possible, the grade levels should be separated in competition. If the group has few participants, however, some levels will need to be combined. If the committee or group feels able enough, separate categories could be made for experiments, models, collections, and demonstrations. These categories are appropriate for elementary students but not for junior and senior high. Pure science projects for junior and senior high students should include experiments. Separate criteria for biology, physics, earth science, etc., may be possible with larger groups. Score sheets, indicating the categories for scoring, and the relative importance of each category should be provided for the judges. Such criteria may include scientific merit, originality, visual appearance, written report, oral presentation (older students), and Biblical application. Scientific merit is always assigned the majority of the available judging points and rightly so. Pure science absolutely requires a controlled experiment, and that is the key ingredient in the scientific merit category. This is why collections and demonstrations are not desirable for older students in a science fair.

After the committee has agreed on the judging categories, judging criteria, and scoring guidelines, the parents and students should receive a copy of these. One page of rules is enough since too many guidelines will only add confusion to an otherwise enjoyable time. If plans are made to send the winning project on to further competition, those rules should be reviewed since they can be very lengthy and exacting. Have a group meeting with the parents and students to explain the criteria and guidelines before anyone begins a project. Parental help should be discussed as well and a list of project ideas suggested. Be careful to point out that the project suggestions are given only to stimulate thinking. The best ideas are usually developed by the students themselves. Avoid experiments with live vertebrate animals since this is illegal in many states.

Distribute registration forms for project entries in the fair with a due date several weeks before the fair. A registration fee to offset the cost of awards, honorarium, and building rental of $2-5 per exhibit or family may be necessary. Special needs, such as electricity or protective floor coverings, should be indicated on the registration form.

The committee is also responsible for choosing judges. One judge is enough if the group is small. A qualified judge should have a b background in science. Possible judges include doctors, science teachers of good reputation from conventional schools or local colleges, or college students in a science curriculum. If you need more than one judge, try to choose individuals with different backgrounds (two electricians are likely to have subconscious bias for electrical projects). The judges should come from outside the group to prevent even the appearance of favoritism. Hopefully, at least one should have judged a science fair previously, although this is not a requirement. Consider an honorarium for the judges in addition to the customary payment of travel and meal expense. An honorarium need not be cash; gifts or gift certificates are appropriate.

Obviously, the best projects should get some sort of an award; ribbons are typically given. Some fairs give every student a participant ribbon or make enough categories so that everyone wins, particularly in the elementary grade levels. This point needs careful consideration for the higher grades; the goal may be to try to encourage each student, but the students with the best projects deserve to know that their projects were the best. Awards should be given either as soon as the judging is completed or later that same day at an awards program. A time for everyone involved and for the general public to view all the projects with their ribbons is appropriate. The awards program may only last ten minutes or could be part of a formal group meeting. In some areas winning projects can go on to regional and state competitions or may be invited to participate in fairs at local conventional schools.

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