Science Fair Success

There is something exciting about planning for a new project. You get to start with nothing and slowly build something into your own. Oddly enough, I feel the same way about the Science Fair (Read: NERD). So, when they announced the Science Fair information at the PTA meeting months ago, I got a little excited.

Now, I can see where your brains are going…Megan is pumped about the Science Fair so she’s going to have all these crazy experiments for Max to do. And forget it if he balks because she’ll just finished it for him…because Megan likes science so much. He WILL have a project and it WILL be perfect.

And there, my friend, you would be wrong.

One night while putting Max to bed, I calmly (See? I can contain myself) told him that we got an email that registration for the science fair was open. I explained in six-year-old language what a science fair was and asked if he’d like to do it. I said he could think it over and let me know.

And before I could say, “Nighty-night. Sleep tight,” my son said, “Sure, we can see which water makes plants grow the most.”

Say whaaat? I resumed my spot on the side of the bed and said: “That sounds awesome. Let’s do it. Now go to bed.” Just kidding. I didn’t say that last part.

Fast forward to the morning, and after some clarification Max shared that he meant which water temperature made plants grow the most.

Amazing! Sometimes my kids simply amaze me. He just threw out a project idea like he had been waiting days to say it. And for the record, if he had said he didn’t want to, I would have honored that too…

After asking a couple of days later…

Just to be sure.

And while in my head, I could have thought: Plants are so overdone. Everybody does something with vegetation – even dating back to my Science Fair days – but it was HIS idea and it was HIS project. Onward, good soldier, you had your day.

So why am I sharing this? Because here we have an opportunity as parents. We hold the power to be life lesson-makers. Children are natural scientists. They are inquisitive beings, constantly on a quest to figure out how things work. That persistent question “Why?” that haunts you during car rides and bedtime is proof that their brains are in a constant state of wonder. Expound on it!

I can appreciate the jokes about the Science Fair and how stressful it is to a family because I was that kid who had a complete psychological and physiological breakdown for each project ever assigned. Ever. Ask my poor parents.

As an adult I can see how to lessen that anxiety and need for perfection, but as a kid I couldn’t verbalize the pressure on my heart to do my absolute best. I wanted to make my parents proud and my teachers prouder. I wanted to show I could do it…and sometimes just the getting started of it all was enough to drive me to tears.

Enter the life lessons.

Numero Uno: When we want to do something, we make a plan of attack. We organize ourselves. There’s no jumping in willy-nilly.

In this case, is our experiment doable? Have we set our sights too high? Can Max do this independently (with supervision, if needed)? After a reality check, we were ready to make a list of what we needed to get started.

Enter Life Lesson 2: Make a list. Check it twice. Measure twice. Cut once. You get the idea.

We already had one list – the components of the Scientific Method* – which really ensured we were covering our bases as we got everything set up. We also needed the items to conduct our experiment. I knew what we needed, but I sat with Max and walked through the process of making a list. We crossed off what we had at home and kept what we needed at the store. Does anyone else derive great satisfaction in crossing things off a list??

Life Lesson 3: Once we have committed to something, we follow through. Write on the calendar: “Water plants”. We are consistent (as things must be with science), and we write/draw our data each time. There were days that Max whined and said he didn’t want to do it. Instead of fussing I reminded him that he made a commitment, and that other famous scientists probably wanted to give up but they didn’t. I also bought the tri-fold board early so I could show him: We have to fill this up with information! Stick with it!

Number 4: MOST important of all (and this I carried with me to college and grad school so PAY ATTENTION) is to allow time to pace-out the project. Count back from the due date and plan your attack. In the instance of the Science Fair, if we want to do 3 trials of water temperature then we need three weeks in which to carry out each test. I also need to give Max and myself time to put together the presentation board and work through the data. That meant purchasing our materials 4.5 weeks out. **I also noted what I wanted pictures of so that we could capture each step of the experiment.

Max doesn’t know we need all of this. I am his guide and we have to work as a team. You know that without time, people become rushed. With rush comes anxiety and frustration. Give yourself – and your child – the gift of time.

So, the time (ha ha) came for us to prepare the presentation and I sort of dreaded this because, well, Max doesn’t know how to read much yet…or write much. His IEP includes OT goals for handwriting, spacing, letter/number size…you see where I am going with this. My guy digs science but the paper and pencil thing is HARD for him. So instead of sitting him down to write, and meet with frustration and failure, I thought: Let’s make this fun. There are a number of ways to get words on a poster so let’s get creative. I went to the dollar store and got punch-out letters. I let him type on my laptop. I let him dictate to me what to type, and, in the end, I had him write (but only a little).

Remember that time thing? We did two of these things each day. If I sat him down to accomplish all of this in one night, we’d be locked in a padded cell. Separate padded cells, I assure you.

We also worked in layers. Nothing was written directly on that tri-fold board. We made lots of parts that we then glued on. You know why? Because once upon a time there was a little girl who tried to draw Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s face on a poster for her presentation. She messed up so many times that she nearly erased a hole in the middle of said poster. And then she cried…and cried and cried…and that poster paper was covered in gray smudges in between which a very small and poorly drawn MLK existed. Nobody was happy. The End.

Lesson learned? Oh yes.

Once the board was all together, the look of sheer pride and amazement on my son’s face was just awesome. HE did that. He could not wait to share with his peers. In fact as we were getting on our shoes to go to the Science Fair he exclaimed, “I have been waiting for this moment!”

We got to school early. We are never early. Max likes to be on time but Quint usually drags his feet. By osmosis, Max’s excitement had transferred to his little brother. Q had been witness to this project and its components from the very beginning. He wanted to dress up like Max did and wanted to know if he could do a Science Fair project when he gets to kindergarten. SO cool.


Though we had practiced, actually talking to (mostly) strangers about his project was a little tricky at first, but Max found his stride. I encouraged him to use a strong voice and make eye contact with the person with whom he was speaking (things that are also challenges for him). As the night progressed, his confidence grew. I just love that our school handed out certificates, feedback from a “visiting scientist,” and a science pin to those who went the extra mile. Those children all accomplished something by being there, and definitely deserved the attention and recognition!

Now, I get that this whole thing might not be your deal, but what if your child wants to take part? It’s hard to jump into something enthusiastically when the very thought doesn’t exactly inspire…excitement. Fortunately Max and I were on the same page with this, but I think about how I might react to an eventual disparity in interests. I sure hope I can look beyond my own opinions and be a cheerleader for my sons regardless of that in which they choose to participate. If it makes them happy, then my heart will be also.

After all, when we set our minds to completing something and actually finish with a product in which we are proud, we feel confident in attacking new challenges and our self-esteem gets a boost. It also helps to have the support of your loved ones to cheer you on from the sidelines.

Max said at the end of the night that the Science Fair was, “beyond awesome.” His pride lit up the room. Science Fair Success indeed.

If you are in the market for a science fair project, here are some cool sites to check out:

*And since I made reference of it, here are the components of the Scientific Method. Never leave home without ’em. 😉

1. Question

2. Hypothesis

3. Materials

4. Procedure

5. Data

6. Results

7. Conclusion


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