Students often view the science fair as an unwanted assignment because they must devise a project year after year. However, when students leverage their resources and choose to use their science project as an opportunity to explore areas of interest or learn about complex topics, then interesting projects, and engaging learning experiences can result. Ms. Reese, a science teacher at Arlington Tech (AT) stated, “It has to be something that they are invested in, that they like. If you choose a project that you are just doing […] and you are not invested in or have a personal connection with it, then it is not meaningful to you. And, also, you need to have something that is meaningful to others. (Ask yourself) how will you apply it to the real world.”
If a student wants to take his science project to the next level, it can be submitted to VJAS (Virginia Junior Academy of Science). If it is accepted, the student can present it in front of a panel of judges, and if the project is better than the other applicants, then the student has the ability to advance to more prestigious levels. Because of the practically limitless options when choosing a project, a student should always try to find a project that is interesting to him/her.
Even in the past few years, AT students have completed, or are currently working on some interesting and challenging science fair projects. A good example of a student following his passion through the science fair is Ethan Densley who stated, “I’m going to be shooting stuff to see how it reacts to bullets of various sizes and forces to evaluate and better understand what can stop a bullet and why. The procedures are probably going to be something along the lines of shooting three different kinds of guns through a tank of water and depending on whether I can get the necessary resources, possibly also tanks of other fluids.” Ethan used his project to examine something he was genuinely interested in, and when asked what he would do if he didn’t have any funding barriers, he replied, “If I had unlimited resources I would, honestly, I would set up a bunch of, just giant tanks of Jello and ice cream and every random substance you could imagine and shoot them, just because I’m honestly really curious how much it would take to stop a bullet, and if it could because no one has ever really done that.” Ethan is a good example of how the science fair can help motivate students by giving them the opportunity to explore areas that interest them.
The science fair also gives students the opportunity to learn about topics that interest them, regardless of the complexity. One student, Kyle Heaton, built a Lockwood-Hiller pulse-jet jet engine in eighth grade for his science project as a proof of concept, so that for his 9th grade project he could test if the amount of fuel could affect the amount of thrust produced. Because he was in eighth grade at the time that he started the project, he had to learn the math and physics concepts necessary to build and design a project around a jet engine. Kyle stated, “I learned a little bit on Khan academy, I talked to my dad, my dad has a few patients who are aerospace engineers. I talked to them, they explained to me how some of the physics will work and they taught me how to do the math.” To complete the project, Kyle needed to understand the topic enough to write scientific papers on it and to design experiments that would be relevant to the kind of people who build pulse-jet jet engines for fun.
Another reason students may choose a topic is the science fairs’ ability to create real world value in the data that is uncovered. Rayan Rhomari and Tariq Thomas are working together on a science project that will, in the words of Rayan, “Our project is testing the effect of sandblasting on the performance (light transmittance) of the transparent shielding used on solar panels”. This project uses sandblasting to model the effects of sandstorms and erosion on solar panels. This data could provide relevant data for a large amount of solar panels because solar panels are often installed in deserts to take advantage of the almost permanently unobstructed sunlight. This project’s draw for the team was the practical applications for the data.
Other students may choose projects that simply interest them, and the passion those students have for their ideas can elevate a project from mediocre to a semifinalist at VJAS. One such student is John Miller, who last year, “Added a dehumidifier to a solar evaporative sill to improve to rate of condensation.” In simpler terms, last year he measured the role a dehumidifier played in the rate of condensation. This year he plans to measure the rate of condensation by directly altering the ratio of heat to dehumidification. He chose to continue a previous project because, “I liked it a lot last year, it did really well last year, and there is still so much more I can do with it.” He believes the project has major real world value, “The world has a shortage (in the) supply of water; clean water, it is a necessary thing for human life. Humans require about 2.5 to 7.5 liters of water per day, and we have trouble acquiring that in lots of places[…] and so my project uses dirty water, and it uses light, via solar panels or just evaporation, to purify water. It can evaporate quickly, but the problem is is that there is so little condensation, it takes so long to condense, and the dehumidifier supplants the condensation by collecting the water from the air.” The level of dedication to the development of a comprehensive understanding of the problem and the research needed to uncover a solution are apparent within John’s project.
One recurring theme among the students was the desire for more funding. Some students simply wanted more trials to further verify the results, and others wanted the ability to increase the number of testing groups to increase comparison studies real world value. Some students want funds to allow their testing environments to more closely simulate the real world in order to gain more accurate results. Overall, students thought that more funding could push their experiments to the next level, and it could help uncover more relevant and real world data.
The science fair gives every student the ability to follow their passion and develop a project that interests them. It gives students practice solving real world problems, and it helps them understand the complexity of solutions. In summary, the science fair helps instil a passion for learning by doing.