Think Like a Proton and Stay Positive!

Our annual Middle School science fair was held on Thursday, January 23rd. The culmination of a ten-week process, during the fair all of our Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Grade students present their projects to visiting scientists who serve as judges, and explain their methods, findings and conclusions. Gateway students consistently win awards at the county-wide level and participate in the state science fair, so we sat down with Middle School science teachers Alli Birkhead and Michael Matthews to learn more.

Gateway: Why do we have students participate in the science fair?

Michael Matthews: Science fair gives students an authentic, facilitated chance to think and work like scientists and engineers. They get to pursue their personal interests at a high level and complete a large-scale project in which they can take pride. Along the way they practice and develop critical academic skills in areas such as scientific writing, public speaking and project management, as well as scholarly habits of curiosity and persistence.

GW: What are the steps to completing science fair?

Alli Birkhead: We have a very complete booklet that helps students keep track of where they are in the process, what they need to do next, and how to evaluate the quality of their work. For most kids, the process begins with coming up with an idea that they want to investigate. Then they give it a shot with a preliminary project, and use the feedback from that to make their idea better. And then they move on to carrying out a final project. But with some of the engineering projects they might draw a prototype first, rather than building it; for example, one student wanted to build a hovercraft, so he tried it out with a hairdryer on a tabletop, and ran into some problems that helped him think about the final project. Another child was interested in filtering for pH and did a bunch of tests and made a discovery about chemistry that hydrogen was difficult to filter, and so he switched from filtering for pH to filtering dye.

GW: How do you help students prepare for the presentation itself?

MM: Public speaking makes many people nervous, regardless of their age, so students are given a list of general questions that the judges might ask and practice with those at home. Then we had students present their projects to each other in class as a warm-up, and practice interviews with classmates. This year the 5th graders also interviewed the 6th grade, to give them an extra round of practice. But really, the best preparation is in the students’ experience with their projects. Because they’ve been so closely involved in these over the past two months, the core of the student’s success with their presentations lies in their deep understanding of what they hypothesized, how they went about developing their methods, and what they found. The step of interpreting those findings as conclusions, and extending those conclusions into new questions, is another important area where they tend to grow over the years.

GW: Who serves as a judge?

AB: Our judges are all scientists who have science degrees or work in the field, including some Gateway parents. We send out emails to judges from past years to see if they’d like to continue, and also ask them to reach out to their friends and colleagues, and that networking helps us recruit new judges. Some of the judges this year included an ecologist, an engineer, an astronomer, a statistician, an oceanographer/chemist, and a computer scientist.

GW: What’s the biggest challenge for students?

MM: It varies for each age group. Deciding on a question that they can answer in the time we give them is hard for everyone, and especially for 6th graders who are doing this for the first time; they think way too big, and then need to pare it down to something that is doable.  For many 7th graders, establishing a solid methodology for data measurement is a significant growth area, and they struggle to establish how to measure changes in their projects, like how much algae grew in a container. For the 8th graders, who are on their third time through and have a much higher level of scientific understanding, the main challenge is often finding something they are interested and curious about that matches the scope of their scientific skills and their access to professional tools, so that their innate curiosity can be satisfied throughout the project. And also by 8th grade they have to manage much more scientific writing.

GW: How do our students do at the county level?

AB: It’s really exciting that our students do very well at the county level. Typically we send 10-12 students to participate in various categories, and about half of them receive awards of some kind. And from there, usually 3-5 are invited to go to the state-wide competition, which takes place later in the spring down in Los Angeles. We’ve had 18 students go to the state competition in the past four years, and it’s fun to see how those students iterate on their projects as they move from the Gateway fair to the county fair to the state fair, and really step up their presentations each time.

GW: What do you love about science fair?

MM: Seeing students do multiple trials and engage in the process of gathering data and thinking through their protocols, or those doing engineering projects trying to make their thing move or fly. It’s really seeing them begin to think like a scientist that’s exciting to me. I went to college thinking I could be a scientist because of what I knew, but then I learned quickly that I didn’t really understand what it meant to do science.

AB: For me, the best part is when the students present their projects, and the sense of accomplishment that they and I have after this three-month process. Every project is unique, and we get to learn something new every year because the students pick topics in which they are personally interested.