Science Fair Parental Involvement

Fri Jul 14 02:11:04 EST 1995

   A friend passed along Karen Allendoerfer's query regarding science 
   projects as she knows I have been very active in the Monsanto/St. 
   Louis Post-Dispatch Greater St. Louis Science Fair, the largest fair 
   in the nation.  I coordinated our internal corporate science fair 
   committee for some years and had specific responsibility for the 
   $20,000 in Monsanto science fair scholarships.
   Ms. Allendoerfer's question about excessive parental help is an 
   important concern I think most science fair organizers share and 
   agonize over.  Solutions are not readily apparent without creating a 
   science fair police force, an impossible and undesirable solution.  
   Despite some percentage of this unfortunate tendency, our experience 
   is that most projects are done primarily with student inputs and 
   that the fair is overall a positive experience.  In the almost 50 
   years of our fair (it is the 3rd oldest in the nation), we have 
   many, many letters of testimonial about how some aspect of the 
   experience changed people's lives and led them into science careers 
   or somehow else led to more productive lives.  Many women said when 
   they went to school in the 50's, 60's and 70's that the science fair 
   was one of the few affirming experiences bolstering their self-
   confidence, giving them the assurance that they could succeed in 
   science or other male-dominated fields.
   While strongly believing science fairs are an overwhelmingly postive 
   experience -- despite some real problems we need to continually 
   address -- a greater problem with parents is apathy, I think.  There 
   are so many students who would do so much better and really get 
   excited if only their parents would take them to the library, sit 
   down and read the books with them and help them over the tough 
   spots, help organize the student's thinking a bit and help them 
   figure the first thing to do, and make a few calls to track down 
   equipment, set up an interview with a scientist, etc.  Of course, 
   inner city children face this even more so.  One innovative hope is 
   the city churches.  I would never had thought this, but one day I 
   received a phone call from a Sunday school teacher who wanted 
   scientist volunteers to come in and tell kids how to do science 
   projects.  She explained that the parents were simply a hopeless 
   source of help, and that the only unifying force and resource in the 
   children's lives was the church.  Astounded at such an unexpected 
   plea for help, I asked our best and most articulate science 
   volunteer to get over there quickly. 
   Specific to the question, though, there are some concrete things we 
   do in St. Louis to address the problem of parental overinvolvement 
   or otherwise unfair advantages some students have over others:
   1.  Our formula for judging follows the international fair criteria 
   and no more than 15% of judging points can be awarded for visual 
   presentation.  Thus, slick graphics from NYC publishing houses (or, 
   more likely, Macintosh PowerPoint graphics) can only take a project 
   so far.  The meat and potatoes of hypothesis, references, expt, 
   discussion, etc. are the primary judging points.
   2.  We strive to recruit top-rate judges.  We use 450 judges each 
   year and well over half are academic or industrial scientists, or 
   scientists from public science institutions (researchers from the 
   zoo, botanical gardens, etc.).  Scientists can readily determine 
   that a GC chromatograph in a 5th grade project is a bit much -- they 
   can ask tough questions and potentially disqualify projects with 
   more authority than many teachers.  [This is not to question 
   discernment of high-caliber teachers -- somehow, parents questions 
   tough measures less when a professor makes the decision than a local 
   3.  Our regional fair of 3500 projects is too large to have the 
   students present their projects, but this is an excellent way to 
   feret out if the student can explain how they did their magnificent 
   work.  If they can't, the conclusions are obvious.  What we do is 
   encourage our school fairs (which feed the regional fair) to recruit 
   judges among practicing science professionals and then make 
   interviewing the students parts of the process.  This separates a 
   lot of the excessive parental involvement if the kid "fails" on 
   being able to answer basic questions on their project.
   4.  For our HS Honors Division, we do have the liberty of 
   interviewing the 30 or so students who commit to above-and-beyond 
   projects for consideration for scholarships and  a trip to the 
   international fair representing St. Louis.  Our approach is much 
   like that described by Amy Walker of Stony Brook in her response to 
   this science fair query.  For the $20K in Monsanto scholarships, our 
   team of academic judges (we do not use Monsanto people here because 
   students sometimes test our herbicides or Nutrasweet products) often 
   gives a $4 or $5 K scholarship to a "diamond-in-the-rough" project.  
   That is, there might be a very classy genetic engineering project on 
   one hand, and a bit amateurish "testing pigments of lobsters grown 
   in home aquaria project" on the other hand. The latter might clearly 
   be the fruit of a student's diligent efforts in her home basement 
   (this is a true story).  The other guy, who did credible work and 
   learned a lot, simply did what he was told to do using standard 
   methods in a professor's lab.  Our judges will generally award the 
   former more handsomely.  The guideline is something like this:  
   Considering the resources at the student's disposal, how much did 
   they invest in the project and how far did they take it?  This does 
   not penalize the student with superior advantages, there is simply a 
   higher expectation. An example of a student with superior advantage 
   AND superior performance was a guy a few years ago who had access to 
   sophisticated computing power and resources and then developed a 
   novel, marketable software package for topographical mappping, as I 
   remember.  He won top scholarships.
   This same approach is used by the separate team that makes 
   selections for who competes are the international level.
   Going back to the general question and perceptions of elitism, etc., 
   I think there are problems and needs for continual improvement but a 
   broad look shows a restatement of the problem is an important 
   positive.  What are we talking about really?  We are talking about 
   the problem of parents spending time with their kids and working 
   with them.  This is actually a pretty good problem to be having.  We 
   need more of it in a way. Whether it is reading books to kids or 
   working on science projects, our children desperately need this 
   interaction with parents.  
   There was another question regarding the value of competition vs. 
   working on teams.  The good news, related to this question, is that 
   the international fair has created a teams category and now allows 
   and promotes this.  In the St. Louis fair this has been adopted 
   (allowed through grade 4 or 5, I think) and schools are taking 
   advantage of them.  More and more often, elementary school classes 
   opt for a single class science fair project.  I am in the minority 
   who is not too enthusiastic about this -- I hope this is not a 
   result of an errant Y chromosome!  The way this is being done is 
   that the team projects compete in the general arena with all the 
   individual projects.  My observation is that young kids can not 
   really coordinate and complete their project -- particularly when 
   working with such large groups -- and that the teacher in the end 
   designs the experiment, establishes the hypothesis and completes the 
   writeup.  The result is that my children or anyone else's are 
   competing against an adult.  Full circle -- we are back to our 
   discussion of excessive parental -- or teacher -- involvement.  But 
   specific to the comment of promoting team involvement and the idea 
   that this might be suited more to a female approach, this trend 
   might be considered positive.
   If readers are unaware, there is also a science olympiad competition 
   which is literally a team competition of some kind.  Others may know 
   more about this.  I think HS students are required to complete a 
   laboratory analysis in so many hours or somesuch. Seems quite an 
   interesting approach.  This is a different program than science 
   From personal anecdotes, the value of science fairs can be 
   underestimated by even it's most enthusiastic proponents (such as 
   myself).  I have two daughters (ages 9 and 7) who have done 
   challenging projects each year since grade K.  It's a real drain on 
   me to help them and keep the right balance of letting them do all 
   the work with just some guidance (I mean, I could do it myself 10 
   times faster).  Sometimes I question the enormous effort it takes to 
   devote four months or so to this each year.  And then the benefits 
   crop up in unexpected ways.  One day my 3rd grader told me, "Dad, I 
   really like doing my projects because I learn a lot of new words 
   that help me in reading class."  And last night a news segment on TV 
   reported on the Galileo probe descending towards Jupiter and my 
   daugher excitedly ran to get her log book from her 2nd grade Jupiter 
   project to show us her drawing of the Galileo probe she made 1.5 
   years ago.  She was just dimly beginning to understand how long it 
   REALLY takes for space travel.  Or my wife, who volunteers at 
   school, reports on how the oldest daughter has exceptional self-
   confidence from doing these projects and is always picked as team 
   leader for whatever -- school plays, geography projects -- because 
   she knows how to get organized, how to make assignments to team 
   members and how to coordinate completing something.  Similarly, she 
   readily takes on the challenge of speaking before the class and 
   loves to field questions -- it's old hat to her (and fun).  My wife 
   won't hear of me backing out on helping the kids with science 
   projects -- she judges them as much too valuable!
   This is a good question about the value of fairs and one that should 
   be constantly explored.  I hope our local experiences in St. Louis 
   are useful as your conversation continues.
   Best regards,
   Darryl E. Brock
   Monsanto Company
   Agrochemical Product Registration
   St. Louis, Missouri 

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