Teacher Challenge: Middle School Science Fair

Last Friday's graduation was amazing: Ayanna's valedictory was lovely. It's nice to see kids move on to college. This Friday we have our first 8th grade promotion ceremony. Can't wait to get them up to the high school.

It's bittersweet, though, when staff move on. You're glad for their new opportunities, sad 'cuz you'll miss them. The flip side of a talented team is they're in demand elsewhere, too. Jorge is moving to SF and will work for KIPP National as "Director of High School Leadership Development and Associate Master of the Universe." Jared will head up Great Oaks Charter in Newark. Alia is getting her MBA at Columbia, having rejected our overtures to accept Harvard's offer (and thereby remain 3 miles away). Chris will become the best science teacher Denmark has ever seen (including Niels Bohr).

And Tyler is joining the UP turnaround school in Boston. I don't know him as well as the others. But I do know that when I randomly chatter with kids, they rave about him. For a last hurrah, he ran a hell of a science fair for the 8th graders. I asked Lisa (the principal) for her thoughts on it:

That science fair was SO legit. What did it take?

It takes a teacher who was really passionate. Chris coached him on specific pieces needed to make a science fair successful (a lot of details to nail down right), but it was all Tyler.

He used his resources really well too. MATCH Corps tutors served as "presentation feedback coaches" on a few tutorial sessions -- which is why kids nailed down the professionalism last night.

Also, the projects weren't up to par at the start of last week so we had about 15 students come in over the weekend to make them better. Tyler's entire family came out to help the kids!

I asked Tyler:

You've taken part in 2 crappy science fair (your description) and 1 pretty good one (which everyone who attended said was amazing; you are a tough grader). Big picture, what have you learned?

He replied:

Having seen both ends of the science fair spectrum first-hand, I can probably offer up three big picture lessons.

1. First, quality control. Middle school science fairs are typically synonymous with mediocrity.

At a typical MS science fair a visitor sees a bunch of projects that have:

a) a disaster-zone poster (lots of hand-written stuff, typos, etc), b) boring presentations (kid lectures, talks into poster, reads from poster) c) no evidence that any scientific concepts were learned (think the classic vinegar and baking soda volcano) d) some combination of a, b, or c.

In trying to avoid these types of projects, we could have either

a) only presented the ones that met a certain standard or b) taken a more hands-on approach and made sure that every single project was on track to be good enough.

We ended up presenting all of them, but there were some groups that would not have been invited to present had they not made some drastic improvements within the last 24 hours.

2. Second, have the kids practice their presentations a ton. We had a three rounds of practice prior to the real deal. Round I consisted of them writing scripts in class. Kinda painful, kids didn't really enjoy it, but it made them think explicitly about who was going to present what and how they were going to engage the audience.

In Round II I had kids present in front of class. They had 4 minutes and I was strict with the stop time. Immediately afterwards, the audience (students) offered up one thing they did really well and one part that needed some working out. The feedback was generally very good. Common bits of constructive criticism were to speak up, improve the speaking ratio (kids presented in pairs), and engage the audience.

After Round II I was genuinely concerned as the quality of presentations kinda sucked. Huge improvements were made in Round III where did a speed dating set-up with students presenting to tutors. Kids presented to tutors for 5 min., then tutors gave 2 min. of feedback including one positive and one delta. This took the overall quality of presentations from OK to very good.

3. Third, provide LOTS of structure early on. In the past I had opened it up and let kids pick their own question to investigate. Surprisingly bad idea.

I found that many kids started off with questions that either couldn't be tested scientifically (eg. "Which flavor of soda is the best or most popular?") or would lead to more qualitative than quantitative data sets (eg. "What happens when you shine a laser at a fish in the fish tank?").

So I provided kids with a predetermined list of 25 questions that they could chose from. This still allowed them to be creative with how they set up their experiments and ensured that all kids started off on the right track.

I remember my science fair project back in school. There was no actual question posed. No experiment. No evidence. No hypothesis.

It was like a mini book report about how heat pumps work. To this day, I have no clue how they (or air-conditioners) work, much to the dismay of my pop, an engineer. Dad -- just teach the grandkids yourself. Okay to skip a generation.

I just recall that I got some heat pump brochures sent to me in the mail. Carrier was the name of the brand, I think. Cut them up. Mounted them on foam core. Done. And mine was one of the better projects.