When I was doing science outreach programs in public schools, I usually left several minutes at the end of each session for brainstorming ideas for individual projects. At one school, a bright young lady shot her hand up first and announced that she would be doing a science fair project on the echolocation of dolphins.
• My first question was: “Do you own a dolphin?” (Answer: no)
• I followed that quickly with “Do you know anyone that owns a dolphin?” (Answer: no)
• And finally “How are you going to measure echolocation from a dolphin if you don’t have
access to a dolphin?” (No answer)
Needless to say, she didn’t do a project on the echolocation of dolphins. She did, however, do an outstanding project on the effect of temperature on the frequency of cricket chirping and won top honors at the school, region, and state competitions. Together we figured out that she was interested in animals and found an idea that was testable: Are crickets the poor man’s thermometer?
As the coach, remember that a science fair project is fundamentally different from a school report on a science topic like dolphins, rocks, hurricanes, or global environmental variability. It is also different from building a model such as a volcano, solar system, or hover craft. A science fair project involves conducting an experiment to answer a question or solve a problem. The key to a successful project is determining what you can and can not measure.
So when your child/student comes to you with what might seem like a crazy, expensive, dangerous, or silly project idea, please do not just say no. First ask “How are you going to measure that?” Encourage them to think through the experimental design to determine if they can find a creative way to tackle the problem.