Inquiry-Based Science Fairs

Each year, students in grades seven and eight are challenged to choose a scientific question that he or she would like to answer as part of the annual Science Fair Open House at Woodstock Christian School (WCS). After spending time researching the question to find background information on their topic, they formulate a hypothesis and design an experiment. Their results are posted on a display board and are presented to teachers, classmates, and the community during the Open House.

While science fairs are nothing new in education, the kinds of questions that students are being encouraged to ask are surprising.

“I really like walking around the gym and seeing all the different things that people learned about,” shared Rachel, a grade five student at WCS. “There are so many things that I would never have thought about researching, and now I can ask questions about what they’ve learned and see their cool displays.”

Some students chose topics that they were already passionate about. Grace Ann, a student in grade seven at WCS, lives on a dairy farm, and their family makes a lot of their own cheese. She wanted to see if she could find a material that would work better than the separator and coagulator that they normally use. Other students discovered new interests along the way. Chelsea, in grade eight, decided to test her classmates to see if they could tell the difference between food brands, and discovered that she enjoys the challenge of finding ways to save money without giving up the quality or taste of foods she loves. Still others found that that the projects sparked an interest in a subject that may eventually lead to a career in a related field later in their lives. Amber has always wondered about how advertising gimmicks work, and she decided to do her own research to investigate whether the dish soap with the picture of the baby duck on it is the best product to clean oil, as it advertises.

Regardless of the way that students arrived at their topic choice, one thing was common among each of them—creating a science fair project provided a unique opportunity for them to learn about something they may not have taken the time to learn about otherwise. “I’ve always wanted to actually try to answer the question that people ask jokingly sometimes—why is the sky blue?” shared grade eight student Halli. “But I don’t think I would have done this on my own. This science fair gave me the chance to do the research that I wouldn’t push myself to do, and it’s so worth the time it took to do it!”

Science fair projects have been a part of the learning culture at WCS for close to twenty years. “What makes a science fair project such a great learning experience is that it involves so much more than just science,” shared WCS principal Carol Verbeek.  “There are so many aspects that tie into the process of creating a science fair project that connect to the learning goals for the students—writing the research report, researching topics on the internet, honing precision skills, and learning about plagiarism.”

Communication is another skill that Ms. Verbeek named as a key component to Science fairs. Students are asked to discuss their projects and to relate the learning process to an authentic audience of fellow classmates, their teachers, judges, and members of the community who attend the Open House. “It’s incredibly valuable for students to be able to articulate their learning to others,” she shared.

Of course, the scientific method of learning is at the heart of any science fair project. “Our society relies on the scientific method for learning in many ways, and science fairs are a great way for students to recognize what is going on in the creation—the forces that are at work all around them—and to inspire the desire to understand more about the world that God created,” shared Ms. Verbeek.

Preparing a science fair project is an excellent example of a learning style that Ms. Verbeek feels their school needs to keep moving towards—a hands-on, inquiry-based learning approach that allows students to ask questions and then to explore the answers. “It starts already in their earliest learning years!” shared Kindergarten teacher Linda Westerveld. “When we provide the opportunity for students to learn this way, we are allowing them to wonder about things and then encouraging them to explore, to research, and to communicate to others what they’ve learned.”

“It’s a different philosophy of teaching,” continued Ms. Westerveld. “Part of the role of the teacher is to listen to the questions that students are asking, and at times that means putting aside your own agenda so that you can help a student move from asking a question to exploring the learning process. It’s saying, ‘Let’s find out about that!’ when they ask a question about something.” (To read more about this approach to learning, you can read our 2016 article, “Kindergarten Teachers: Leaders in Inquiry-Based Learning”.)

One of the challenges that teachers face when using this inquiry-based approach in their classrooms is finding the best way to guide their students through the learning process and to help them to manage their time well. “Teachers need to invest a great deal of time into checking in with students to see where they are at, to arrange conferences with them, and to help them when they get stuck—they have to be prepared!” acknowledged Ms. Verbeek. “However, once the students have gained the skills to plan a project and execute it well, they have learned something that will benefit them for a lifetime!”

Although the emphasis on individual science fair projects rests mainly on the intermediate grades at WCS, the primary and junior grades are encouraged to create group displays that come out of their previous classroom learning. Grade one student Annalise, for example, loved the unit that her class did recently about water and the way that it affects sound and buoyancy. “We were putting stuff in the water to see if it would sink or float, and then we tried to see what sounds we could make with our hands in the water,” she shared. “The most fun part was guessing what would happen and then doing the stuff to see if we were right or not.”

While the students in grades seven and eight unanimously agreed that there is a great deal of work involved in creating science fair projects, they were eager to share the things that they’d learned over the past six weeks. “Science fairs are such a fun and interesting way to learn,” shared Halli. “The project ideas really get you thinking outside of the box and let you get involved in things that you’re actually interested in learning more about.”

Chelsea agreed. “It was fun to be the expert on something—to take an idea that fascinates you and to research it and share what you learned with others. There’s so many things we don’t know about—why not explore them? It’s so much better when you don’t stop at just asking the good questions.”

Ms. Verbeek is excited about the positive impact that science fairs have on the students at WCS, and it is her hope that their learning will continue to be enhanced through authentic and engaging experiences that are driven by a sense of curiosity and wonder for the creation that they live in.

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