Critical ThinkingEducationPrimary EducationScience

Tackling Science Project Turmoil

Science Fairs can sometimes get a bad rap. As a recent viral image illustrates, these school projects are often met with dread by students, families, and yes – even teachers. But I’d like to propose that science projects – done properly – are a valuable tool in teaching children how to think more clearly and critically. And I’ve got a few tips to help you solve some of the trickier issues.

Why Assign Science Projects Anyway?

First off – science projects integrate major skills and subjects that are essential for kids to know and practice – research, collaboration, analysis, informational writing, creativity, etc. A true inquiry process is the way critical thinkers successfully solve problems in the “real world”. We’re teaching life-long skills here! Secondly, these projects encourage a spirit of scientific inquiry that will never be nurtured by a worksheet. And with some practice and creativity – there can be some serious tangible rewards. Did you know that Intel International Science & Engineering Fair gives out over $4 million dollars a year in various awards and scholarships?

Tips for Tackling Problems

Despite their clear value, science projects can turn ugly. (The “Parent Project” is notorious at science fairs.) However, if you see the benefits but are turned off by the turmoil, or if you’re in a district that requires participation in a science fair (like mine!) – here are a few suggestions to help you out.

Problem #1 – Procrastination

Students have trouble with long-term projects and their procrastination leads to crap work.

Solution – Break the project down into chunks (Question / Research / Hypothesis / Procedure, etc.) and set due dates to check in with students on their progress.

Problem #2 – Lack of Creativity

Students just want to make models or pull something from the web and do exactly that. Ugh…. do we really need to see another volcano, lemon battery, or lava lamp?400px-Heath_Middle_School_Science_Project_Ongoing_at_Paducah_Site_(7609897118)

Solution – Help them turn their not-so-original idea into a true experiment by adding some variables. Which citrus fruit makes the strongest battery? Which lava lamp design glows the longest?

Problem #3 – Skipping Steps

Students jump to the procedure without doing any research to inform their hypothesis. If they even HAVE a real hypothesis!

Solution – Pre-teach the Scientific Method. Yes – again. Yes – they were taught it last year. Teach it again anyway. Have them sing it! Have them dance it! But most importantly, have them apply the scientific method by running through a short inquiry project together as a class. There are lots of great ideas out there, and I’ve also compiled some resources on my Scientific Method Pinterest Board (see the Resources section below). Discuss and complete together every step they’re required to do – including making that darn poster board. Remember – you’re integrating content areas so it’s time well spent!

Problem #4 – Variable Confusion

Students don’t understand why all their plants can’t be in different pots or why their windmills should all be the same size.

Solution – Watch a few fun videos like this one and this one. Music helps makes info stick better!

Problem #5 – Inequity of Resources & Parental Involvement

This is a huge one, and frankly the hardest to tackle unless you can supply your students with everything they need (time, money, resources) and do every part in class. But doing that would take away a critical aspect of the process – collaboration and the chance to spark an interest in science outside of school.800px-US_Navy_101016-N-6536T-263_Kellie_Irwin,_a_science_instructor_with_the_Ocean's_Institute,_teaches_a_student_how_to_touch_sea_life_at_a_science_fair

Solution – Shift the focus away from the end product and emphasis student learning instead. For example, this year when I conferenced with kids individually at check-in points, not only was I providing them with feedback but I was also assessing how well they understood and could articulate aspects of their inquiry project. Was their hypothesis research based? Could they identify and explain their variables? And if those parts were not well-developed yet, they had another chance to fix it up before presenting in front of the class and then submitting their project for the Learning Fair. While meeting with students the others can be working on their project with supplies from the classroom or doing research on the computers. We even sold poster boards for $1 right at school.

Are my students’ science fair projects now perfect? Absolutely not! But they are a heck of a lot better than they used to be – with less stress and more learning. How do you tame those science fair troubles?


  1. Scientific Method Pinterest Board:
  2. Scientific Method Song –
  3. Variables Videos:–dGnNJtI  and
  4. Discovery’s Awesome Science Fair Site –

Photo Attribution:

By ENERGY.GOV [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Elizabeth Thompson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Corrina is an elementary school teacher living in Central New York with her writer husband and their two young daughters. She’s been an educator for over a decade - most recently teaching 5th and 6th grades. She is the current President of the CNY Humanist Association and also writes for In her off time, she loves to read, play Scrabble, crochet, and binge-watch shows on Netflix. You can follow her on Pinterest ( or Twitter @corrinaaallen.


  1. March 22, 2015 at 8:12 pm —

    #5 is a HUGE one and one that has definitely guided me in my last two years as one of the regional “best of fair” judges. This year I get the special task of helping to run the regional fair, and that has its own special list of ridiculousness…

    This is a great list of tips!

    • March 23, 2015 at 5:58 am —

      That sounds like a fun experience! (Was it?) At our school, students have to participate at our grade level but so far there is no judging. With more and more time turned over to Math and Literacy, It’s a fantastic chance to actually DO science rather than just learn facts ABOUT science.

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