Thursday, May 17, 2012

Emphasize Student Interaction at Science Fairs

While there are some aspects of the science fair, that I an not crazy about, what I appreciate most about  student research events is the interactive experience my students receive as they mingle with other student-researchers. While its easy for students to be self-absorbed on this day (after all, they've been preparing for this culminating event for at least several months) students can gain a lot of insight on how science is done, by talking with OTHER students. However, no matter how social your students are, they are not likely to interact other students from other schools without a little motivation from you, their teacher or parent.

I always encourage students to mingle and talk with others about research. Even if they don't understand the topic another student studied, they do understand the scientific process they used. Therefore, they automatically have something in common with everyone at the event.  To help prepare my own students, I hold a pseudo-symposium day in class where they set up their posters and in two shifts, they move from poster to poster. This accomplishes two importance objectives. First, it give the presenters practice. And secondly, allows the rotating students acting as the audience, practice in interacting with others. I encourage presenters to invite those who are walking by their poster into conversation to avoid those awkward moments, not knowing if the passer-by wants to stop or not!  I remind them that students from other schools are just as nervous as they are, and while not presenting, their teacher has told them to move around the room. I tell my students that they are actually helping other students out by engaging them in conversation about their own research!   

If you are a teacher taking your own students to an event like this, I would highly suggest that you find a way to "encourage" students to seek out students from other school with whom to talk. I have found the most success with an assignment that forces them to mingle. While "force" is a strong word, they need some motivation or the peer pressure to just hang out with their own friends will inevitably win out! I've seen teachers assign a variety of tasks:

  • A scavenger hunt (to make sure they see posters on varying topics)
  • Notes page; where presenter initials  (so you know how many students they interacted with)
  • Seek out posters on similar topics, and summarize (maybe finding ways to connect to their own research, or find elements that were not kept constant) 
  • Student's choice award...have your students vote on the poster/presenter they feel is worthy of recognition (with an explanation of why)
  • Critical review of one or more posters; where they give strengths, weaknesses, and a way to improve upon the research design. 
While one of the event's purpose is to provide them an opportunity to explain their own research, as much value comes from their interaction with others. After some practice, I'm alway impressed with the level of question students are able to ask about topics they know very little about. Their confidence comes from having completed a project themselves. Just like real scientists, they become invested in their own projects, but also feel connected to others who have had similar experiences.  

Professional Social Skills

Whatever type of motivation you choose to encourage students to mingle, don't let the details of the assignment overshadow its purpose.  Emphasize before you go, that you want students to practice their professional social skills.

Professional social skills include, but are not limited to:
  • Good eye contact 
  • REALLY listening
  • Applying what you have learned about the scientific method so you can    
  • Ask relevant follow-up questions (not just "Why did you like your project?")
  • Be courteous to all students, particularly if their projects are much better (or worse) than your own
  • Identifying strengths and weaknesses in the study, and discussing it professionally
I can't emphasize enough: Be sure that your students have an appropriate level of humility. No matter where your students fall in the spectrum of research projects, they should be polite and courteous to all students. I'm always amazed the snide, disrespectful remarks I've heard students say to one another. Not everyone has the same classroom resources, or has done research the same amount of time. While the quality of projects will vary,  there is no reason to put down another student. 

While the day of the fair or symposium might be a stressful day for young student-researchers, encourage them to have fun and show off what they have learned. Find ways to best prepare them for the event, and you'll be surprised at what they can accomplish. 

What have you done to prepare students for a student research event?

1 comment:

  1. I can't tell you how wonderful it is that you encourage your students to interact at poster sessions. I love the tasks you assigned to get them out there and *gasp* talk to other groups. Interpersonal skills and intellect are separate strengths, but both can really advance them in STEM fields. Love your site!


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