The Science Fair- It’s not always science, and it’s not always fair…

Today’s post is a reflection on the Boston Latin School (BLS) GId Science Fair unit by the librarian, Susan Harari.  Thank you for this contribution.

“It’s not always science and it’s not always fair.”

This sums up my reaction to science fairs generally in my career as a school librarian. Before coming to BLS, I worked at an elementary school in an upper-middle class suburb of Boston, populated by parents who worked in the medical profession, in R & D, in software development, and in graphic design. I saw some great projects triggered by genuine interest (I’ll always remember fondly the display of “Rocks I found in my backyard”, complete with kid-produced signage) and ones obviously completed by students with doctorates. We definitely had our share of the latter in BLS, but to me, the phenomenon of students replicating experiments they found online, without evidence of genuine interest, posed a far greater problem. Because they chose projects without much attempt to identify personal interests, and because they sometimes caved to what a partner wanted to do, the science project seemed to work against cultivating the passion the students would need to persevere through the arduous timetable. 

The 7th grade science project forms the bedrock platform for information literacy learning at BLS.

In years past, the science teachers have been very generous in ceding some of their precious class time so that every BLS sixie (sixth grader) gets the same three foundational lessons in identifying keywords/searching databases, evaluating sources using the CRAAP test, and creating citations using Noodletools. I cannot stress enough how important these lessons are in setting students up for future success. But, I also observed that three lessons taught parallel to the science project but not collaboratively planned with the team, left something to be desired. I imagined an ideal world in which the search for background information formed the basis of the student’s decision making process, introducing them to the world of experimental possibilities in their day-to-day routines. 

I think Courtney’s stated learning goal for the reconceived project really set the tone. Understanding that thoughtful experimentation contributes to a common reservoir of science knowledge meant that students now leaned toward an area of interest first, gathering information about their topic and hopefully funneling that knowledge into a project. Compared to years past, I found that far more students came to me looking for meaningful resources, rather than coming with an experiment in mind and then scrounging around for articles to pad their bibliographies. They did still struggle with developing keywords, especially once they moved from the concrete (their topic) to the abstract; one student ended up (memorably) with 4 almost identical reference articles on yeast. Some also struggled to progress from their content immersion to imagining a workable project. Going forward, I would like to see us add more whole group readings or videos during the Explore phase that would illuminate the process. Having some common sources on experiment design, or explaining independent/dependent variables would also be a great entry point for citation practice!

Initially I was skeptical about having the students find four articles from the databases (see the above yeast example.) But, reading through their projects, I was pleased to see that corralling them into that playground (predictably) resulted in far fewer totally inappropriate resources, possibly less reliance on premade experiment sites (i.e., Science Buddies), and probably facilitated citation. It allowed sixies to concentrate on the easier aspects of the CRAAP test (currency, relevance), which ended up being a more age-appropriate (read, less overwhelming) task. Meanwhile, looking forward, 8th grade science and social studies focused on current events projects this year, which allowed us to collaborate with those teachers on lateral reading skills to discern authority and purpose. This progression makes sense in terms of the larger scope-and-sequence for middle school information literacy skills.

Lastly, I think the role of technology really shone this year. Although we were thrown into pandemic panic, in the end, that made the use of Google Classroom and the library’s Libguide imperative and forced us to rely on them in a completely new way.  Both tools and the timetable coordination of the 15 classes gave incredible scaffolding support for students, some of whom had no science or library exposure before coming to BLS. And the Libguide will serve as a repository for all the collected materials, which will make organizing next year’s project much more convenient as well as helping with potential staff transitions. 

Susan Harari, Librarian

Harry V, Keefe Library

Boston Latin School


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