Mentos in soda bottles. Plants watered with vinegar. Hamsters forced to run through mazes. Creative science fair projects, true, but ones that have been done over and over and over. Why does the science fair project still exist?
In the age of MythBusters and YouTube, it’s hard to think up a truly original experiment. And why do we need to? Hours of scientific discovery can be found on screen. My kids love watching other kids mix up a batch of flubber or make water walk. And the thought of designing and implementing an original experiment by specific deadlines to be later displayed among a gymnasium filled with other attempts at greatness is dismaying for families this time of year. Where’s the educational value?
I hated science fair projects as a kid and I hate them as a parent. But… I don’t want them to go away. While it’s painful to watch your child repeatedly mess up the scientific process and even more painful to watch them try and draw straight lines while outlining their photos of deflated soccer balls, and even more painful to see projects at the fair that have an obvious parental boost, I still think the science fair is worth pursuing. Here’s why.
- Learn to use the scientific process. Following the scientific process is a hard thing to do, but once you learn it, it’s a great tool and not just for science. Deciding on variables and testing them one by one is a great practice for critical thinking, which we use, or try to use, in all aspects of school and beyond. Critical thinking and creative thinking are the twin ballasts on which success is built!
- Blowing up stuff is fun. Okay, maybe don’t encourage your kid to blow stuff up (unless they’re doing it in a very safe, supervised way) but experiments are the way to go when you want to remind your kid, and yourself, that science is actually very interesting and can be way more fun than playing video games.
- Research is fun, too! Maybe not as fun as the actual experiment, but in our world of Google searches, where key words are crucial, the ability to obtain information from reputable sources is a skill all kids need to have.
- Not everyone wins a prize. Maybe it’s different in your town, but I’ve yet to see participation prizes handed out to science fair participants. Usually, there are three winners for each age group, and everyone else goes home empty-handed, like you’re supposed to if your project wasn’t better than everyone else’s project. So many sports involve trophies just for being there that it’s refreshing to find an arena in which the best are truly honored.
- Deadlines and failure are a part of life. The benefits of science fair season often get lost among panic over deadlines or tears that erupt when an experiment goes wrong. But these, too, are learning moments! Let your kids learn how to deal with them while they’re young.
So yay for science fair projects!