Elementary School Science Project Tips
Elementary School Science Project Tips
Tiffani Chin (Founder/Executive Director, EdBoost Learning Center) gives expert video advice on: What mistakes do parents often make with children's science projects?; What do teachers look for in science projects? and more...
What mistakes do parents often make with children's science projects?
I Think that science projects are probably the bain of most parents' lives. Parents do not look forward to science project season. It comes in the spring, and everyone kind of is waiting for it, and it hits, and it's just a disaster. There's a lot of mistakes that parents make. One of the biggest ones is--sometimes they suggest them, other times they let their kids talk them into them--projects that are just really difficult, very technical, very time consuming, and basically guarantee that Mom or Dad is going to be locked in the garage over the weekend constructing the electro-magnet or constructing the exploding volcano. It requires all sorts of tools the child's not allowed to use and doesn't understand, and it becomes not the child's project at all. Another common mistake that parents or kids make is they choose things that require, for instance, plants to grow. But, they start the project three days before the project is due, and there's not enough time for plants to grow and then feel the effects of whatever it is you're going to do to them. So, anything you're going to do involving plants needs to start really early. And the other thing that parents do is they tend to take over their kids' science projects. Once again, teachers don't expect second graders to do professional science projects. They expect second graders to do second grade level science projects. You want to keep your eye on the ball. You want to make sure that everything that's done is something that your child could actually do himself, and wants to do, and will do.
What is the secret to making a great (but manageable) science project?
The secret to having a really fun and successful science project is starting with something that your child is actually interested in. If your child is interested in plants, then start there. If your child asks, "Why does the ice in my soda always melt before I'm ready to be finished with it?" Try a science project about ice. It doesn't have to be complicated; it can be something as simple as that. Or, why does my chocolate melt? Why does my chocolate bar melt when I put it in my pocket? Or, why does the bread on my sandwich get stale if I don't seal the plastic baggie? There's all these everyday things that kids wonder about that you can tap into for a science project. I think that's the first step. The second step of a science project is to think about how much time you have and make sure that whatever you want to do can be done within that time. The third thing to remember when doing a science project is to make sure whatever you're doing you can document. Everyone has a digital camera nowadays. Take a picture of your child as they're doing each and every step of the science project. Have your child take pictures of the results of the ice melting, or the bread getting moldy, etc. Then you have a wonderful visual display to put together from the pictures you've been taking over the course of the entire science project.
What is the "scientific method"?
The scientific method is the basic process that all scientists use. Even your nuclear physicists in a lab at a university are using this basic process. Step one of the scientific method is to ask a question. Secondly, you make an hypothesis, or your guess, as to what the answer to the question is. Thirdly, you have a procedure, an experiment that you go through. For example: first I put ice in two cups; I put one cup in the sun and the other in the shade; then I measure how quickly the ice melts. Next in the scientific method you have a results section, and the results section is just facts. Ice in cup one melted in six minutes; ice in cup two melted in eight minutes. Lastly in the process you have a conclusion. The conclusion is where you usually do a little bit of background research - you look at what made the ice melt. Your conclusion is really your answer to the general question from the first part of the scientific method. The conclusion is not, "Ice in the sun melts in six minutes," but, "Ice melts because the sun is hot, and when the temperature of ice rises, it hits the melting point and becomes water." Your conclusion is much more general. Your conclusion is the section of the scientific method that answers a broader scientific question using the experiment that you did.
How are science projects supposed to look?
One of the tricks to making science projects really interesting is the pictures. I can't stress this enough: you've got to take photographs from the very beginning. A lot of kids want to start taking pictures at the end when all the interesting stuff has already happened, but you want to chronicle that path to the science project as you go along. You want to go on the computer or even use a big piece of paper and write neatly, but write out a heading for each part of the scientific method: Your question, your hypothesis, your procedure. Write out all your steps of the science project; you can do this in different colors. Some people print them out on paper and put them on colored backgrounds before putting them on a posterboard. (You can buy a premade posterboard.) I just take a posterboard, plus two piece of posterboard cut one in half, tape the halves onto a central piece of posterboard and create a three sided display. You lay that on the floor and with your child and arrange everything on the board. Before you glue anything for the science project, before you write anything on the board, you arrange everything, and rearrange it and see what else you need, or need to change. Before you make anything on the science project permanent, you get it all arranged and you put it together, remembering to keep it simple, and usually they turn out pretty cute.
What do teachers look for in science projects?
There are a few things that teachers are looking for when they're grading science projects. One is that the child did the work. Trust me, they really do care that the child did it. Secondly that the child kind of recorded what was going on, whether they're doing it in pictures or they're making a graph or they're using a timer and recording the times at which ice melts, that there's some sort of really watching of the experiment as it goes through. And the third thing, which a lot of people don't realize or don't think about is that they would like an experiment with a comparison. So it's not just 'how quickly does ice melt?' but 'does ice melt more quickly in the sun or in the shade?'. One's a treatment, something that you're doing something special to, and one's a control, the normal conditions. One of the other mistakes that parents make is they'll do a model or they'll do a display rather than doing a proper experiment. And so they'll make this absolutely gorgeous volcano that erupts and does all these fun things but when they sit down to actually write up the experiment, they don't have one, they didn't do an experiment. There's no results, there's no procedure, there's no hypothesis, and it's just--the kid ends up writing 'I thought my volcano would look like a volcano' and although it turns out really cute, they really struggle putting together the report and putting together the final display.
What are some easy yet informative science projects my child can do?
I love experiments with plants, actually. I just did experiments with plants earlier, just because they take a long time. But, experiments with plants actually talk a lot life, and you can get little flowers from the nursery or grow little bean plants. But, you can give them vitamins drinks, you can give them coffee or coke. You can give them different kinds of chemicals or aspirin or Excedrin. There are all sorts of things that you can do – if you kind of want to see what kinds of affects these things have on people, you can use plants as a proxy. So, there's lots of questions that kids are interested in that you can do that with. Mold is really fun. Mold grows on bread and mold grows on fruit and mold grows fast and it's pretty, visually interesting. So, mold things are fun. I like electricity things – electricity things are fun for them to do. Magnet things are fun for them to do. And, none of them require a whole lot of expertise or a lot of tools. It just requires bread being left out on the counter or a battery and a light bulb to hook up together to do a circuit. There's a lot of things that we do. One is – under what condition does mold grow better? So, it could be wheat bread or white bread, it could be bread with jam versus bread without jam, or bread with peanut butter versus bread without peanut butter. But, you spread your different kinds of bread with your different kinds of condiments – you can use as many as you want. You want to have one that's plain. That's your control bread. And, you find a place and you lay them on the counter or you put them in the frig – or you, you know, you do whatever you do and you check them every day – every day you check them – and you take pictures of the mold and you record – you measure the mold spots or you count the mold spots. Your child does this – she has a piece of paper and she writes down how big the mold spots are or how many there are – and by the end of the experiment, she's got a whole record of a week, or two weeks, or three weeks of mold growing at different rates on these pieces of bread.
What are some "last-minute" science project ideas?
Sometimes kids have to do a science project and it's due tomorrow. Or it's Friday and it's due on Monday and you don't have time to grow plants or grow mould or grow anything, so there are a couple of things. Magnetism is really easy. You do it right then. So, do magnets go through plastic? Do they go through glass? Do they go through hands? You get some magnets and you can see if magnets will pick up paper clips through your hand, through a piece of board, or through whatever. You can do little electric circuits. What conducts electricity? You need a battery. You need a light-bulb. You hook them up with wire, and the light bulb goes on. You hook them up with string, and light bulb doesn't go on. What if you hook them up with tin foil? What if you hook them up with pennies? All these are different things you can try. Ice; does ice melt faster in red cups or blue cups? Put them out there. It will melt certainly in less than a few minutes. So, you can take pictures and record it all right then and there. Then there are social experiments. Sometimes, I'll have kids do things aren't actually a physical science but really a social science. So, sit by the corner at a stop sign. How many cars make a complete stop? How many cars roll through? Are red cars more likely than white cars to stop or roll through? You can look at people in the grocery store. Are women more likely to buy fruit than men are? There are all these kinds of questions that you can ask. You just need to find a place to where you can go and watch, take notes, make your little tally marks, and put together a report.