“So what do I do now?” Frances, a sophomore in my after-school science class asked me.

It was the end of the District Science Fair awards and he was leaving empty-handed. This was not a common experience for such an intelligent, self-motivated learner like himself.

His mother even questioned me whether this was because he had too much on his plate and should not take on any more extracurricular activities.

“We are just going to have to start from the basics and try a new approach,” I explained.

For the last four years, Frances was moderately successful finding experiments in textbooks and changing some parameters to make it different enough for a science fair project. He didn’t have a mentor presence, besides my editorial suggestions, and he seemed fine floating along on this journey until this point.

I wondered, “how did doing a science fair project fail him?” I had never experienced such despair after completing an experience so time-consuming and where learning occurred.

But did learning occur? Did this project push Frances beyond his boundaries to learn?

 

Frances and I agreed to take a different shift in project types and work with a mentor, a professor at the local university, to expand his knowledge base. From that summer, Frances spent every free moment in the laboratory, learning techniques, perfecting procedures, and shuffling through result printouts. With a year more of work, Frances was proud to stand in front of his new science fair project with a feeling of ownership, engagement, and confidence.

This is the learning outcome that Frances needed. He didn’t need any more books to read or tests to prove his intelligence, Frances needed to learn how to learn — from a mentor who could push him intellectually to find success.

Each student has a different learning curve to experience success. Not every student needs to produce a project at Frances’s level, but every student needs to expand beyond what they think they can initially complete.

Now, when I think about how we assess our students in school, do we ask our students to successfully complete a paper-and-pencil test for a level beyond what they may achieve? That seems like a terrible idea, considering how much emphasis test scores weigh on teachers’ records. Rather, the only way to truly impact change in assessment is to push forward with authentic assessment.

Authentic assessments are pieces in which students are able to demonstrate their content mastery through works of their creation, rather than filling in the bubbles on a multiple-choice test. As we begin to roll out the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) by 2018, and continue to implement Common Core, the desire for authentic assessments heightens.

Some wonder whether these types of assessments are even possible to complete in classes. Don’t teachers have enough work as it is to keep up with all of the student work, and now we are adding another component? This is why we need to find ways to cohesively work together between the classroom and the community to develop and maintain authentic experiences for our students’ learnings.

Science Fair is not a new concept. In Hawaii, we are celebrating our 60th anniversary of the Hawaii State Science and Engineering Fair this year.

This showcase of student work draws together sectors of education, politics, industry, and philanthropy into a celebration of student innovation and perseverance. Hawaii’s First Lady, Dawn Amano-Ige, addressed the state competitors last year and exclaimed how “the future solutions to Hawaii’s problems will be solved by the students in the room.”

This is a beautiful collaboration of private, public, and charter schools, a melding of nonprofits, government organizations, and private industry, and a meeting place for politicians and protesters alike. Judges at Science Fair seem to appear out of the woodwork, professors and researchers from all around the islands, all volunteering their time to engage with students.

We don’t need to reinvent the wheel when thinking about authentic assessment — it’s already right in front of us. On every island, there are school and district opportunities to showcase student work and it is an exemplar of STEM learning and creation. We just need to get involved in the process.

However, why is it that when I introduce Science Fair as a project in my biology class, I get groans, complaints, and sheer hesitation from my students? When I inform parents at Open House that we will be completing Science Fair projects, I get impulsive, knee-jerk reactions. Rightfully so, I figure, if parents have been doing these projects for students in previous years.

But that does not develop science efficacy and ownership in students. The only way to develop this is by letting go, and letting students figure it out on their own. I don’t require that Science Fair projects be crafted in a high-tech lab, or that hundreds of dollars need to be spent on specific supplies. The essence of Science Fair is to ask a question, figure out a way to investigate that inquiry, and go do it!

Helping our students develop a question that is intrinsically intriguing is half the battle and the rest will be done by them. Students are naturally inquisitive — even as they move through middle and high school — they just have Google there to answer most questions rather than raise their hand in the middle of class. The questions that cannot be answered by Google are the gems that we need to cherish and help them discover for themselves.

In full disclosure, I was a Science Fair participant back in middle and high school. I chose to complete science fair projects in lieu of taking other classes, because I found research to be the most compelling part of my high school experience.

I didn’t have a groundbreaking discovery by any means. Rather, I just enjoyed the process of asking a question and finding out the answer through observation and experimentation. This passion for novel investigation and having the outlet to dialogue with experts in the field was invaluable and will remain a highlight of my educational experience.

Going through the interview process, an oral defense of my research with expert judges also developed my public speaking skills — which proved well during college and career seeking processes. I didn’t view it as an assessment of sorts, but I would have been more comfortable presenting my research that I had crafted than ever sitting in the sterile cafeteria with my entire class as we took state assessments with our No. 2 pencils.

These experiences here are not unique to Frances or me. I think of the numerous students that I have mentored or my peers from high school who have the same sentiment on how science fair has changed the way they interact with the world. If we promote science fair as a means of authentic assessment in science and STEM education, we provide opportunity for local students across the islands to collaborate, compete, and coexist in a world that may have once seemed foreign to them.

But that foreign world is now their world, and that is how we will find the local solutions for our islands’ problems.

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About the Author

  • Whitney Aragaki
    Whitney Aragaki is a high school science teacher at Waiakea High School on Hawaii Island. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, serves on the Hawaii State Science Work Group, and is a part of the Hawaii District Science and Engineering Fair Steering Committee. A former Woodrow Wilson-Rockefeller Brothers Fund Aspiring Teachers of Color and National Science Foundation GK-12 Graduate Fellow, she was born and raised on Hawaii Island. Whitney has a BA in Biology from Swarthmore College, and an MS in Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science from the University of Hawaii at Hilo.