Science fair projects can help students unlock the mysteries of what is unknown through an inquiry-based process. As school principals, we want to ensure that this experience for students is one that challenges their assumptions, reveals their creativity, allows them to explore, and helps them develop a love for the sciences.
So, imagine your school’s science fair and think about a few questions. Who participates and which students excel? Who judges? Who gets to see the projects? How is the workload of the science fair coordinator? Are all students excited to participate?
Freshman students were questioning the relevance of their participation in a science fair as part of an online forum for English class during my first year as principal. They stated they would put so much effort into their projects, for months at a time, but wondered if it was worth it. They asked what impact was made if only a small percentage of them advanced to the district and state fairs. They shared that their family and friends could only see their projects over a two- or three-day time span. Others were discouraged that after all their hard work, their project remained in the garage or attic, never to be seen again by anyone.
Other challenges included transporting the cumbersome tri-fold display boards, making arrangements during Christmas break for students to work on group projects, and the limited time frame to receive feedback, make adjustments, or refine projects before they were put on display. In our school, the science department would set up hundreds of science fair projects the weekend before parent night, struggling to judge all of them as they came in. Teachers and students wanted to know how it could be done differently.
Online Opportunities—and Challenges
Discussion between the English teacher and the science fair coordinator led to an idea for an online fair, adding value through technology for all students, not just the few who advanced to district and state fairs. This tied into the questions that we were focusing on through our Schools of the Future Project (SOTF): What did we want students to know and be able to do for their future? We realized using digital tools, along with the teaching of six critical skills (collaborative leadership, communication, critical thinking, creativity, cultural competence, and citizenship in a digital age) could inspire our students to be leaders on a local, national, and global stage. Students would be equipped for any challenge, including occupations that have not even been created yet. Most importantly, the school creates a growth mindset culture to stimulate the love of learning.
Moving online would be a challenge—technology infrastructure and professional development would need to be considered. The SOTF team researched other schools’ ideas, like the Conroe Independent School District in Texas, which had their students create online blogs about their projects. At my school, a team of teachers, students, and administrators sought out grants to support reform toward a STEAM, 21st-century skills focus.
The creation of MyOnlineFair.com (MOF) would house and display science projects (and eventually projects from English, history, math, art, etc.), and served as the flagship program, promoting a critical skills training plan. To supplement the MOF program, faculty professional development included institutes, workshops, learning communities, and initiatives related to student learning. The SOTF team created the website (graphics and layout) on Google Sites. They wanted to make it look as professional as possible. Students start with a premade template but can customize it to their needs.
We had ambitious plans at the beginning, but some of that had to be changed because of time and resources. We decided to keep the interface as simple and functional as possible. After hours of meetings, we decided to focus on developing the MyOnlineFair portal using Google Sites. There were setbacks, and the group had to go back to the drawing board numerous times. There were fears about using new technology by both students and faculty. Now that the world could see their work, a typical fear was “other people might make fun of it.” All of those issues came about through surveying of stakeholders; then we worked to addresses those issues.
Creating a collaborative learning environment was a huge part of this process. We have talked with schools from across the United States and Asia and have invited science experts and colleges from across the globe to help with judging. Students can collaborate with peers as they construct their projects and receive feedback from teachers without having to bring their tri-fold board to school. Most of all, faculty could see the progress of their students and assist as needed. Students could make changes with the click of a button.
Proof of Concept
Our first year (2009–10) was a big test. We were particularly pleased with these results:
- 92% of science fair projects contained pictures
- 21% of science fair projects contained video
- 92% of science fair projects contained files (Word, Excel, Google Forms, etc.)
- 85% of students were pleased with their websites
- 83% of students preferred an online display to a physical display
Positive student feedback has included comments such as, “Their project looks professional and not just something that was cut out of construction paper.” Students like that they can add video or a Google Doc and that other people can comment on it. What is most enjoyable is that they can personalize it and have their virtual science fair board wherever they are, even on their phones, to work on or to show to others.
To create an authentic learning experience, science fair projects have focused on topics dealing with real-world situations. We believe that the idea of science making an impact will engage students in the purpose and importance of inquiry. Students do a presentation in which they explain their research to their peers. Students also conducted sessions sharing their work on their Google Site, which educated others on specific Hawaii marine animals and issues.
Students not only have qualified for the state science fair (by printing out their displays) but have won some of the top awards. We also used the experience gleaned to have students participate in national science competitions, which include the inaugural Google Science Fair. One of our students won the national Science Buddies Astronomy Project Ideas award at www.sciencebuddies.org.
MyOnlineFair.com is now seven years old. We are beginning to ask questions about how we can make it an even better experience for students and explore new technologies that are available. We are asking what we need to do to prepare students for an ever-changing world. It took a group effort of people from different disciplines to make it happen, and I couldn’t be more proud of the impact that the SOTF teachers and students had on the learning and culture of our school.