The late afternoon sun poured liquid gold through the west-facing windows. A girl, a dog, and a mom stood by the lit stove in a quiet house, methodically adding sugar to water in a pan to create a super-saturated solution. As the steam from the open pan drifted upward, the sun illuminated the molecules and transformed the moment into something extraordinary.
What Do Students Learn From Science Fair?
Sure, we were “just” following the scientific method as we conducted my daughter’s Challenge A science fair experiment. But, in the quietness of that moment, my eyes were opened to see more than an assignment. I saw ownership, order, and an expression of wonder and delight as my daughter interacted with her physical world.
Science Fair Encourages Students to Take Ownership
From the beginning of her Challenge A experience, my daughter had an unwavering desire to grow sugar and borax crystals and develop an experiment for science fair that would allow her to test a dependent variable. She enthusiastically watched YouTube videos, one after the other, of different (but remarkably similar) ways to grow crystals. She talked about crystals, made shopping lists for supplies to grow crystals, set out rows of food coloring drops to make psychedelic crystals, and created a plan for producing and then presenting her classmates with edible crystals as part of her science fair presentation. She read her Challenge A guide faithfully, followed the weekly assignments, and utilized the feedback and support her Challenge A Director offered. She was on top of it, ready to go, eager to get started.
And then she hit a roadblock.
She had not designed a good experiment. Although there are plenty of resources for planning and executing a crystal-growing science fair project with good experiments, she had discounted any need for outside input. “I’ve got this mom!” she told me, all about the science and blissfully confident in the process. And it was when she bumped into herself and her unaccounted-for barriers that her ownership of her science fair project began to soar.
Back to research and YouTube, she went! A review of her notes from Challenge A seminar, her guide, and her Director’s feedback were in order. She asked lots of questions, employed dialectic skills through the five common topics, and reset her course. She had a new hypothesis, a new experiment, and a measurable dependent variable for which she could expect satisfactory results.
She did it! Without too much drama and with steadfastness, she kept hold of science fair as her project. Mom wasn’t there to “bail her out.” Instead, I supported her steps. I let her hold the responsibility and discomfort of her initial mistakes. And, as I let her endure this modest failure, she overcame her frustrations, renewed her efforts toward a project she still loved, and took hold of her experience and bore up under its requirements. Indeed, the theme of Challenge A, “Attention Leads to Ownership,” rings true!
Science Fair Shows Students Order
Science fair in Challenge A is beautifully planned. There’s nothing left to chance, guesswork, or up to the parent or student to invent. The Challenge A guide does a commendable job of moving your student along weekly. Its appendices are the perfect balance of supplemental information. Equipping and encouragement are available on CC Connected. And your Challenge A Director is sincerely interested in your student’s project and is a wealth of support and motivation!
It’s probably not fair to say that science fair is easy. There is quite a bit of work involved, and sometimes the “extra” elements may catch you off guard. For example, I hadn’t understood just how much sugar my daughter would need to complete her crystals, nor did I anticipate the totality of what she hoped to gift her classmates! But, on the flip side, it’s probably not accurate to say that science fair is difficult. It falls somewhere in the middle. And, in the scope and sequence of the Challenge years, Challenge A is its “sweet spot”!
There are character issues that come up. Ordering one’s time, following instructions, responding appropriately to authority, following through — all these and more will be a part of the science fair experience. And I would not be honest if I didn’t disclose that there were indeed times when the disorder of my mind or my daughter’s attitude was evident. But it was our behavior in the difficulties that arose which allowed us to break through, reorder our efforts, and move forward. We returned to order, and our path grew smooth.
It is important to note that the classical tools of learning play a vital role in shaping the order of the science fair. The five canons of rhetoric naturally guided much of our inquiry and activity. The canon of invention helped us engage some of the big ideas necessary for us to understand the elements of our project and helped us identify the resources we needed. We used the canon of arrangement to organize our thoughts. My daughter delighted in being wholly responsible for generating her lab notebook, presentation board, and research report. It was necessary to use precise language to describe the process and report findings. The canon of elocution helped my daughter articulate her thinking and conclusions well. The canon of memory required attention and practice as my daughter had many big words to learn to pronounce correctly, some detailed technical information to share, and an involved process to explain. And finally, this all came together in the canon of delivery as my daughter stood before judges, shared her abstract, detailed her process, shared her conclusions, and, of course, offered them some sugar crystal candy!
Science Fair Allows Students to Wonder and Delight
My daughter never grew tired of growing crystals. Instead, she delighted in each new batch as if it were the first time she’d ever seen such a thing. She held regular science fair chats with her dog, believing all along that Primrose (her pet) was equally interested in the unique formations growing on our kitchen counter. She acted as if she was the first human being to understand sugar crystals because, in a way, it’s as if she was the first— because it was her discovery!
In A Different Kind of Teacher: Solving the Crisis of American Schooling, John Taylor Gotto says, “The primary goal of real education is not to deliver facts but to guide students in the truths that will allow them to take responsibility for their lives.”
This is the beauty of the science fair. My daughter encountered truths about her physical world, herself and her capacities, and how to take responsibility for an extended project. In a small and impactful way, she took responsibility for her life in active participation in science fair.
What is the Challenge A Science Fair?
I’m not incredible at remembering to take pictures, but we took some that golden afternoon. The light was so intense you can see individual steam droplets rising in the photos. My daughter stands confidently in front of the range, her dog obediently at her feet, and my daughter’s face is composed; her eyes sparkle, and it is evident that she was experiencing the harmony of the ages as she quietly stirred.
After all was said and done and the project board tucked away for memory’s sake, I was asked to write my response to the question, “What is the Challenge A science fair?” Now, I could offer academic, philosophical, or characterological answers. Still, they wouldn’t ring as true as this: science fair, in our particular case, is a gift. It is an unanticipated joy. And, it now remains a precious memory of a specific afternoon, a successful project, and the treasures of ownership, order, wonder, and delight.
Not yet a Classical Conversations member and interested in our community-based approach to homeschooling? We’d love to hear from you! To learn more about us, click here.