What science projects are and are not.

Science projects can be awesome.

Science projects can be awesome.

The most hated two word phrase kids, and parents, hear is…science project.

The reason for that is that most science projects are useless make-work activities that prove nothing and produce nothing, other than frustration and anxiety.

Here are some of my “favorites”. A model of a cell made out of Styrofoam or clay. A model of the solar system. A diorama of an ecosystem. What do these prove? Where’s the application to real-world issues? How does having your kid make a model of a cell out of clay prove understanding of cellular structure?

Google returns over half a million hits on “science project”. That’s how wide-spread its use is. Unfortunately the term has many different meanings based on the context in which you use it.

Many associate this term with science fair projects, but in the context of designing science lessons for your kids, this is not what science projects are all about.

In the true definition of the term, what is really meant is a project using science as its core topic. The term could very well be “history project” or “math project” or “music project”.

The word project is what’s misleading and confusing. Many will call an experiment a project, or a presentation a project. Some will confuse an activity as a project. But that’s not what science projects are.

In the context of inquiry science, the term project is a long-term investigation of an open-ended question that results in a unique product. This is the key concept in inquiry science because it allows your kid to be involved in real-world applications of science in addressing a question or issue. These projects are not “recipe” projects since the outcome is usually not known.

Anatomy of a science project.

Here’s an example.

After watching the well-known documentary “Super Size Me” in my anatomy classes, one of the things that struck my students was how slanted the movie was. Many of them picked up on the fact that Morgan Spurlock, the star/subject, increased his caloric intake to over 5,000 calories per day. They knew that anyone who increased their caloric intake to that level, on any type of food, would gain weight.

At this point I challenged them by asking, “Can you design a fast-food diet of 2,000 calories per day”? This became the driving question for a science project that was real-world since they all ate fast food. It was meaningful to them because of all the media¬† hype about the health concerns surrounding fast foods.

We established that the diet had to cover a 14 day period, had to consist of three meals per day, no single meal could be repeated two days in a row, and you couldn’t eat in the same restaurant more than twice in a day or two days in a row.

Many of the kids successfully designed a 14 day diet that met all the guidelines.This project was successful because the kids had ownership. This was a science project that had obvious real-world application to their own lives.

The results were a surprise to all of us as we all assumed that just by the very nature of fast food, it couldn’t be done.

This was a real simple inquiry based project since it not only answered a question, to which we were not certain of the answer, but it involved the kids doing the research on the nutrition of fast foods and the construction of a diet plan. The product in this case was the 14 day diet plan.

An extension of this project is examining the nutrition behind those 2,000 calories per day to see if it’s really healthy.

The process of science project planning.

There are a number of criteria that go into designing a science project that you have to consider. Among these are:

  • you must organize it around an open-ended question or challenge
  • you must be sure the driving question creates a requirement to know basics of the subject being studied
  • you kid must creating something new and individual
  • your kid develops critical thinking, problem solving, and various forms of communication
  • your kid works independently
  • your kid uses feedback and revision to arrive at his results
  • ideally, your kid will present the product or performance publicly

Science projects don’t have to be enormously complicated. They can be, but I prefer to keep things simple since there is always the opportunity to extend the project with additional questions.

Science projects reborn.

Inquiry-based science projects work because they involve the kids at a level that makes sense to them. When they are involved in the process of investigating a question that has no clear cut answer, you are tapping into their innate curiosity. It also gives them a sense of ownership. This is their work, these are their results, and this is their product.

The lessons and activities you’ll find at ScienceLessonsForKids.com are designed not only for an inquiry approach to science, but for stimulating ideas for meaningful science projects.

Use the contact link above to let me know what kind of science projects you would like to see you kids do.

John Turano




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