Lipman’s annual Science Fair has been a middle school right of passage or torture session, depending on who you ask, for over 25 years. Some thrive, some survive but all are exposed to the “real world” long-term projects they will have to negotiate as working adults.
Beginning in October, students brainstorm, discuss and research the science involved in topics that excite them. While sports, hobbies and natural phenomena are common areas of interest for many students, other students come to the project already having interests in specific areas of science. Everything is on the table at this point in the process.
Choosing an idea for an experiment is one of the most difficult steps in the science-fair process. Many of the students have ideas that are simply not testable, so they keep on trying, practicing the life skill of perseverance until, finally, they have an experiment that will elicit data.
The next step is research. Students work on researching their ideas in their language arts classrooms in order to gain a deeper understanding of the scientific principles that underlie their experiments. Research on vision, sound, laws of motion, behavior or basic chemistry are common endeavors. This research allows them to form a hypothesis — what they believe should happen in their experiment.
Finally, students design a method to test their question. The experiments begin! This part of the process can go smoothly, but it often requires students to adjust their experimental design. This is such a valuable part of the process. Students have to critically look at their ideas and figure out new paths or scrap things and start over with a new idea. For many students, once the experiment is underway, it can be a very social endeavor. They are performing experiments on peers they have never met, asking questions that take them out of their comfort zones, and building relationships.
Projects over the years have ranged from an investigation of Bernoulli’s principle, through the building of different types of airplane wings, to an examination of age and homophobia. We’ve had students study how praise affects both performance and self confidence, and the rate at which different fruits ferment, measured by a hydrometer. Middle school students are always interested in working with their peers, so we see a lot of experiments investigating taste, memory, strength and vision. This year we saw our first experiments around racism and LGBTQ rights.
The Lipman Science fair asks students to deeply explore the scientific method, research, write, collect, and analyze data, put together a clear report of their findings based on evidence, and present their findings to peers and adults. It’s a big deal for the students, and we believe they are better prepared for their next academic steps because of it.