Ugh. The science fair.

Earlier this year, Cari came home with a packet from school and a note that explained that since she’s in third grade, she would need to complete a required science fair project.  At first, I was really excited.  Cari showed early interest in magnets, so I jumped on the chance to help her with something she was actually into.  But in the months that followed, I (as mom) went through a ridiculous range of emotions.  Thankfully, this story ends well, because if it didn’t… well, I might not be sharing it here.


Blogging is eminently more satisfying than what I should be doing… that is, helping my daughter with her first ever Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Fair project.  For real.  I have so many feelings.  First, I have all of these uncomfortable flashbacks to elementary school, sitting at this very table, finishing some project or another while my mom gripes at me because I procrastinated.  Ugh.  That might be the worst part… the feelings that this project is bringing up in me.  Dread.  Angst.  Anxiety.  Reluctance.  Laziness.

Then there are the feelings of frustration with myself and with Cari.  I should have started this sooner.  I should have found a better way to get my kid engaged.  I should be kinder to my daughter when she gets bored and frustrated to keep her from shutting down.  I should be tougher on my kid when she gets bored and frustrated to build her stamina.  How will she ever become some important innovator without these skills?  How will she ever be successful in school if I don’t instill the desire to discover, to learn in her?

Finally, there are the feelings I have as a teacher.  I know that Cari should be doing this work by herself.  She should be learning the scientific process.  She should be engaged in inquiry.  She should be doing this work.  She should WANT to do this work.   But she’s in third grade, and much of the content we’re working through together, the nature of magnets, how they work–that in itself is pretty complicated, involving atomic level activity that I don’t really understand myself–and questions of scientific inquiry that I don’t know how to answer.  For example, the project requires that students construct a hypothesis:

The purpose of creating your hypothesis is to identify what you think will happen based on research that was collected.  The hypothesis needs to be worded as an “if… then… because…” statement explaining the cause and effect relationship that is being investigated.  Evidence from your research needs to be used to support and justify your thinking.

Cari wrote the following:

“If a magnet is heated, then it will be stronger because they will become warmer.”

Now, I realize there is some circular reasoning present here.  I’ve worked on that with Cari.  But to explain why she thinks a magnet will be stronger when it is heated requires some very complex research.  In fact, the research doesn’t support that conclusion.  There is no reason why a heated magnet should be stronger than a cooled magnet.  But this is what my daughter wanted to study.  So we studied it.  

I’m not opposed to this project.  Lord, I hope it helps Cari get interested in STEM, because as it stands, she’s very much her mother’s daughter, loving stories and the arts.  At least she’ll have a job if she loves and excels in STEM.  I’m not opposed to the time it has taken.  I am opposed to the implication that my third grader could independently complete a STEM project like the one she’s been assigned with any real scientific accuracy.  She doesn’t know how to effectively research scientific concepts, nor does she know how to construct a research plan.  She doesn’t know how to write a hypothesis or an abstract.  And I don’t know how to teach her.


We finished Cari’s project two days before it was due.  I’m ashamed to admit that there were tears, not only from Cari but from me.  I can only hope that Cari doesn’t remember her mother’s freak out, but the joy and pride she felt when she went to the school science fair.  Because that was all her.  For as much drama as the backboard caused, Cari was the one to present the information, explain the experiment to the judges, and communicate all she learned.  We must have done something right.


11 thoughts on “Ugh. The science fair.

  1. Congrats to Cari! That’s better than I did when I was her age. I hated the science fair in elementary school, and in high school. It was always a little over a third/fourth/fifth grader’s head with the hypothesis and scientific method. When I went to Cotee, we had the invention fair they year I was in third grade, for which I won an honorable mention. Then we had the science fair in the fourth grade, which I hated, and I got sick during it and barely finished it with my mom’s help since I wasn’t well enough to fill in the packet. For fifth grade it was back to inventions, and that year I won the school fair and went on to win second place at the county! If they hadn’t rotated between both of them, and I hadn’t had two shots at inventions, I don’t know what I would have done.

    Then of course it was back to the science fair in high school. I got a decent grade, and my teacher wanted me to go the the school fair, but I refused since I did mine on what type of cookie sheet is best. I didn’t feel I could compete with kids who had actual read science projects, nor did I want to.

    I’ve never liked science, and I dread the fact that this year’s summer reading is on STEM. How am I supposed to inspire kids to like science when I don’t like it and have a hard time getting it myself?

    • Ewwwww the invention convention! I remember that! What are you supposed to invent if you don’t have any ideas??? I *like* science, but I’m not good at it. Cari and I have about the same level of skill in that area, but I have better skills in GETTING information (as in, reading).

      • I invented a game that involved earning and spending money to teach how to count money in the third grade. In fifth, I invented the No Pain Surgical Drain Belt. I had drains when I had my surgery when I was a kid, and they were horrible, so I invented a belt with pouches to hold them so they don’t just hang there.

        I just never had a teacher that helped me to like science. I like medical science becasue I find it interesting and understand it, but the rest I’m not that interested in. I have much better skills now at finding and getting information than I did when I was Cari’s age. It’s hard to expect an 8-11 year old to do in depth research, especially since they now grow up with Google. Of course, I’ve had years of practice with all those papers for school, and I’m trained to help others find information.

  2. Your point about parents knowing how to help their children with their science projects is profound and something that schools and parents BOTH need to put their heads together to figure out how help the kids. You’re a great MOM for digging in to help, I can so see you in meltdown mode and I would have been right there with you. Bottom line, you both persevered and Cari has the medals to prove it! Love, Mom

    • Yeah, you know me well enough to know that I was in meltdown mode. But we made it, and we won’t have to worry about another one for a year. I feel great that she had so much success, but hearing from the judges (who were HHS students who know Stu and me) the best part of her project was her explanation. I’m so proud that she is confident and outgoing.

  3. I’m embarrassed (actually, thrilled!) to report that Art was the one who helped our daughter Karen through most of her school projects. I’m not sure he (or I) had a solid understanding of the scientific method, but we both wanted Karen to succeed at school. It’s hard to know where to draw the line on parental involvement–when is the project more a product of the parent than it is the child? There was at least one (I think it had to do with local history) I can recall during Karen’s school career that was more parental than child but, still, they worked together to produce it and I’m sure Karen learned a lot as a result.

    • Yes, a thousand times yes to this comment. I was a mess when I was in elementary school, but I figured it out. Cari will never remember the details of this project, but she’ll remember the how we got the thing done, the effort and dedication it took, and that she had a mom to help. So if that’s all she learned, well, I’m OK with that!

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