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Top Four Things You Can Learn from the Science Fair

Image this: an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” The main character: a parent who did a horrible job on her junior high science fair project. [Fast-forward to the present day.] The plot: the parent is now trapped in an endless cycle of producing science fair projects until she finally gets it right.


In all seriousness, I must confess that I approached the Challenge B science fair project with a mixture of fear and dread. By the time I reached my son’s age, it had already been decided that I was a literature and languages person, not a science person. Even though I found science texts interesting and I made good grades, by age thirteen, I already wholeheartedly believed in the airtight categories of science people, math people, English people, art people, and so on. Therefore, I did not try very hard to come up with a great project; after all, no one expected me to—not even me.

I was determined that my son would have a completely different science fair experience. I just was not sure that I was equipped to give it to him. Still, I started off by expecting great things of both of us. I am happy to report that he completed his project successfully and that we both learned a lot along the way. If you are at all like me, there are certain homeschool experiences that you fear and dread and maybe even avoid altogether. I hope our experience will encourage you to branch out of your comfort zone.


Lesson #1: Pick something interesting (and by this I mean, something which interests your child).


Earlier this fall, we set out to choose a project. My son suggested that we look for a chemistry-related project since I am teaching chemistry in Challenge III. Brilliant! After some quick internet research, we found what seemed to be the perfect project for a thirteen-year-old boy who plays a lot of tennis. We decided to build a colorimeter to test the blue dye in sports drinks like Gatorade.


Even though we had some rough patches throughout this project, he remained interested in the main question because it is relevant to his life. He drinks a lot of sports drinks.


Lesson #2: Pick something that is age-appropriate (and by this I mean, try to find a project which your child can complete mostly on his or her own, but one that is still challenging).


Here is where we fell down just a bit. The project we chose was labeled average in its level of difficulty. I later realized that the website’s label was intended for a much older student.


The first task for our project was to use a breadboard to build an electric circuit that would focus an LED light on a photocell. Then, we would place tiny containers of colored liquid between the light and the cell and use an electrical meter to read how the dye in the liquid had interfered with the transmission of the light. All of this was dependent on wiring the circuit correctly and getting our LED to light up.


Oops! This presented trouble of a kind that mom and dad could not solve since neither of us knows anything about building electrical circuits. However, we do know about how to find answers when we are stuck. So, as a family, we decided to head to Radio Shack to get some help (by this time we had roped in grandpa to work on the project, too).  This trip—and the two subsequent trips—taught us the next important lesson.


Lesson #3: Relish the learning experience (and by this I mean, enjoy learning something new even if it proves harder than you thought. Also known as: learning from people who have an interest in your topic.)


During our multiple trips to Radio Shack, we spent time with an employee who is working on a degree in electrical engineering and a customer who is working to patent a new microchip for street racers. These two young men spent a good deal of time showing Ben how to repair his circuit and, more importantly, explaining how each component in the circuit works. They showed him how to read engineering diagrams of electrical circuits.


After we had tried to research online documents and videos which would help us to repair our circuit, it became clear that we needed to take the old-fashioned approach—find a real, live expert.  Not only did we receive an impromptu class from these electrical hobbyists, but Ben received a healthy dose of enthusiasm for wiring electrical circuits. He brought home several project guides and is planning to expand on his newfound knowledge by building a doorbell and an alarm for his room.


Lesson #4: Practice the scientific method (and by this I mean, carefully and patiently complete your experiment and record your results).


Our Challenge B tutor bought each student a composition book to use as their research notebook. Ben carefully recorded his materials, hypothesis, definitions, procedures, and results. Essentially, this step taught him most important study skills for college level labs. He learned each step of the scientific method and then learned to carefully record each step of his project. Finally, his dad spent a few evenings teaching him how to create graphs in Microsoft Excel for display on his board.


Looking back, we are so proud of him for his persistence and diligence, and we are all excited by our newfound knowledge of electricity, chemistry, and graphing. In a recent blog post, I wrote that familiarity breeds curiosity. It is too true. Ben is now playing with electrical circuits and creating graphs on the computer for fun. We did it!

CATEGORIES: Articles, Dialectic Stage (ages 12 to 14), Rhetoric Stage (ages 14 to 18)

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