I was a science fair nerd from the 3rd to 10th grade, so I can say with certainty that I put my parents through seven years of unabridged science fair hell. Parents who are working on those projects now, can you imagine? Seven years of what you’re doing right now?
Hopefully this post offers you some solace, because your cursing of the science-fair-powers-that-be is not unique. In fact, I’ve been watching science fair rage trickle across my social media feeds all week, and hearing about it for decades (from, ahem…my mom). So if you’re one of these frustrated parents, just know that you’re not alone. There are many, many others trying to guide their children to success on this required and often exhausting homework project.
I do have mixed feelings about science fairs, because as a student I loved learning about science through my participation in the fair. However, I should be clear: that only happened AFTER I was being guided by actual scientists for my projects. We’ll get to that in a moment.
What you should know is that the frustration you’re feeling as a parent (or are about to feel) is normal and officially generations old. Parents or not, most of us understand this feeling since we also remember what it was like as kids to put these projects together. I’m going to go out on a limb here and hypothesize (oh-ho-ho!) that the whole process was nearly as ridiculous then, as it is today.
Case in point: my first science fair project involved an asinine idea on my part to plant seeds and take photos of them to demonstrate how they grew. Because 1) I had to come up with a topic on my own and I didn’t know what the heck I was doing, and 2) It was apparently important in my adolescent mind to prove that plants grew, despite the fact it’s clear that plant life exists on our planet. What is the hypothesis there, exactly?
Clearly, I didn’t prove a thing. Except that there was no legitimate way to half-ass three weeks of plant growth over the span of three hours for my time-lapsed Polaroid pictures. It was hilariously awful. I remember my mother asking 9-year-old me if I was crazy, and also, “what exactly are you trying to teach people?”
“About plants growing!!” I declared.
What does that even mean? It made so much sense at the time, since I, like many of our children, didn’t have any hands-on experimental science lessons to compare it to, and the scientific process and its complexities were way beyond me at my age-9 level of cognitive development.
Somehow, though, I managed to get my frustrated parents on board year after year, with each subsequent project becoming more involved, more intense, more extreme. Each year my parents became more adamant that this was the LAST TIME that we as a family would be gluing those presentation boards together at 3am the night before they were due.
But I persisted. One year it was the effects of soda on our stomachs, and I insisted that we marinate beef in soda. Why? I don’t know. We’re not made of beef. We ended up with some disgusting photos and a smell memory that 20 years later, I still can’t shake. One year it was global warming – I stuffed lots of plants in tubs and “measured” condensation by looking at it with my eyes! Oh, and forget about controls. For kids, we basically just make it up as we go along. Could that be any less scientific?
In the backdrop of all of this were my exhausted parents with bloodshot eyes, rubber cement fumes wafting about them, holding stacks of construction paper and pairs of scissors, assembling cardboard displays and project binders with me. Given the timeline and requirements, a typical adolescent tendency to procrastinate, and the massive amount of homework I was dealing with on a daily basis, I couldn’t have done it completely by myself.
So like your children, I had to rely at least somewhat on my parents’ help. Annually we worked late into the night, and left the windows open to air out the tell-tale smell of fresh glue on the presentation board. Looking back, I know there was no way I could have independently produced what was expected of me within the timeline allowed, let alone a competitive project, without parental or professional/scientific input. That’s not exactly the point of these independent projects, which are mostly required and worth a substantive part of children’s science grades.
Many of the parents I connected with over this article had similar thoughts:
“I hate them!! I let my kid do his [on his own] the first year he was required and everyone else’s was obviously done by the parents. So the next year I was much more involved and he still didn’t make it to the actual science fair…the most frustrating thing to me is that he still has to do his other homework. When do they just get to be kids?” – Jessica Sandvig, parent
“Putting together a clean presentation is so much work for parents; 2nd and 3rd graders can’t even type yet, so expecting them to try to look up information, or cutting and pasting is a nightmare. But you don’t want your kid left out if they don’t have at least a neat looking project” – Lorinda Maya, parent
“When I was a kid science fair projects used to be done by the kids. Now expectations are so high partially because the parents get involved and turn them (and all projects) into these works of art. It gets so expensive and the kids don’t learn anything.” – Cinsi Spoor Hippard, parent
And from a teacher who has faced grading parent-made projects:
“As a teacher I wonder what grade I dare to give the parent when nothing has been accomplished by the child. The wrath of the parent is something I’d like to avoid.” – Grace Kalnin, parent & educator
My involvement and growth did rapidly change at one point, so there is hope if you’d like your children to learn some science from these activities. A family friend was adjunct faculty at a local university and connected me with a lovely group of entomologists there. They studied bugs, did cool things, and I was hooked. I ended up working on a series of actual science projects with a faculty member and PhD student there, and I loved it. My projects became fascinating, complicated, and a component of greater research programs. The real science – the labs, the petri dishes, the controlled environment, experimental design, data gathering and data manipulation – was exhilarating.
My projects began to win, and I managed to make it to the state science fair three years in a row, placing third one of those years. Massive trophies, Best of Show awards, medals, monetary prizes. It is without a doubt where my love for science first developed. But for students who don’t have that access point, as I didn’t have in the years before? It’s awful, and practically a disincentive to pursue science.
My best advice for parents, from both me, and my mother, seven-year project veterans. As my mom puts it, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel: “This too shall pass! Soon you’ll never have to do a science project again, so just hold on tight for now!” From me, I strongly believe that if you want to inspire your child with science, legitimately, search for science mentors, contact local research centers, and find passionate people who study science for a living.