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Science fairs

Schools encourage student curiosity and discovery; competitiveness is secondary

LAYTON — Ashlee Bennett killed eight fish with caffeine; Jazmin Ferrante ate a lot of burgers; Taylor Smith used pennies to measure the stickiness of everyday kitchen substances such as peanut butter and frosting.; Mitch Lilywhite tested cornstalks for their insulating ability; Carly Fowers studied dirt on restaurant floors.

Nearly 500 elementary school students and a group of secondary school entrants demonstrated for judges, classmates, parents and grandparents how they decided on a topic, formulated a hypothesis and then proved or disproved it.

The Davis County Science and Engineering Fair helps young students learn scientific methods of discovery. It's also a good way for parents and children to learn a little bit about each other. The competitive aspect is secondary, say teachers and parents.

Taylor Smith's mom, Shelley Smith, said she and her husband, Brian, helped Taylor but not until he had an idea in mind and had put together a presentation on his own.

"We had a really good time" working on the final project, Shelley Smith said. She estimates Taylor and his parents spent two to three hours for three or four evenings prior to the school fair then fine-tuned the display with computer-generated posters for the county fair.

Taylor said his parents encouraged him, but he came up with the idea on his own. He was curious about what foods are the stickiest and guessed, or theorized in science-speak, that peanut butter would be the stickiest.

In order to measure the various substances' sticky quotient, he devised the "sticky-mometer," which measured how many pennies it took to lift a glass stuck to a flat surface with these substances: peanut butter, frosting, hot fudge and cooled hot fudge, honey, jam and syrup.

Cream frosting was the runaway winner, requiring 310 pennies. Taylor's hypothesis was wrong, but he was happy with the results anyway, since his project was chosen for display at the county fair.

Taylor is the fifth child in the Smith family to be involved in science fairs, and Shelley Smith said her children have learned to look around at the world to observe "why things do what they do," to explore and to present their information to their peers and to other people.

At Knowlton Elementary School where Taylor is a student, children in fourth, fifth and sixth grades are all required to produce a science-fair project. Rita Stevenson, Taylor's teacher, said students and their parents are encouraged to come up with ideas of their own, and most parents are "very supportive."

But she emphasizes that most of the work and creativity should come from the child. Once in a while, a project appears to have been done mostly by parents, but that is a rarity, she says. Judges at the county level must deduct points if a student can't demonstrate his or her project and present information clearly, convincing the judge that the student thoroughly understands it step by step.

"We want to get the kids excited about science," Stevenson said. "The thrill of discovery is for everybody."

The competitive aspect of science fairs can be counterproductive, said Stevenson, and Brett Moulding, state science specialist for Utah schools, said competition should be played down.

"Science fairs are an opportunity for students to do science, to design and perform experiments," Moulding said.

But science fairs on the school level have as many faces as the schools themselves. Some students get lots of guidance from teachers, and some get almost none; some parents devote hours of time to helping their children, and some have little time to give.

"When a school is not as involved, parents get more involved, it seems, and the school helps," said Moulding. "Some schools have a teacher who gets very excited, and at other schools the parents drive it."

Knowlton's emphasis on widespread participation and downplaying of competition express an attitude being endorsed by researchers looking at science fair trends nationwide.

The Washington Post reports that overly competitive science fairs encourage too much participation by parents and teachers and less attention given to teaching all children what experimenting is all about.

"I have a great concern about whether they should be competitive," said Randy Bell, professor of science education at the University of Virginia, in a Post article. "It should be more of an affirming activity. An awful lot of critiquing could go on in a positive way, but do you have to have a winner and a loser?"

The big winners seem to be the family relationships of those who work together on projects. And sometimes the circle expands to include more than parents.

Jaxon Anderson, whose experiment involved dropping marbles through a funnel into a large box with pegs on one side to see how many would drop straight and how many would be diverted to the sides, said the project was a team effort for him and his dad. Jaxon's older brother Taylor was also demonstrating his project at the fair.

"They wanted us to win, but we did most of the work," said Jaxon.

"I'm not sure who gets most excited," said his brother, Taylor.

Their father, Troy Anderson, said between the two projects, the science fair became a "family project" that also involved his wife, Merilee.

As for the competitive aspect, Anderson said he felt the school and district handled it well but could have offered more feedback on why certain projects were judged best.

"It's kind of neat how they did it," he said. "We didn't know how it all fell into place until we went to the awards thing, but they used very positive language in what they did — all got superior or outstanding or excellent. But maybe they could have said 'you could have done this or that to get a higher rating.'

"Overall, we were really pleased with it, they felt they'd accomplished something," he said.

Jazmin Ferrante said she got help from her uncle Jeff Herr because "my parents don't know how to do science." Neighbors Mark and Cande Fitch got credit on Ashlee Bennett's display, along with her parents, Randy and Cindee Bennett.

Interest in science fairs and projects wanes as students get older, Stevenson said. No high schools in Davis County hold fairs, though some junior high schools do.

Mitch Lilywhite, a Kaysville Junior High student, said he is still interested in entering and hopes his project on cornstalk insulation is chosen for national competition. He said he entered science fairs in elementary school with help from his parents, but now he does all the work on his own.

Richard and Labina Jorgensen of Roy attended the Davis fair to see a second-generation science-fair participant in their family, granddaughter Jordan Jessop.

Labina Jorgensen said working on science fair projects with her daughter and watching her granddaughter put a project together have been a bonding experience for the family.

"Her brother had Scouting and the Pinewood Derby, and she had the science fair," the grandmother said.