7 Things I Learned from Running the STEM Fair
This past Thursday, I ran the first STEM Fair at Central Avenue School. The other two elementary schools in our district have been holding science fairs for years, but ours has not. I knew it was a missed experience for our kids, so I took on the task of starting one at our school.
Running the fair reinforced and taught me many things:
Our town's three elementary schools can all gain a lot by working together. Running our STEM Fair could not have been nearly as successful if it hadn't been for Colleen Taddeo, the mom who has run the Science Fair at TJS for years. When I first reached out to get tips on how to organize the fair, she was so welcoming and willing to help! She gave me copies of every paper they distributed, including their detailed schedule, catalogs where they bought their medals and presentation boards, and even gave me her kids' old projects to use as samples when I visited our classrooms to explain the STEM Fair. Any time I had a question, she immediately answered it. She even came to our fair at night! I hope that our schools learn from this openness and that they start sharing ideas more often.
It's ok if everyone gets a medal. Our STEM Fair did not have "judging" and "winners." Every participant received a nice medal. Though many people may be against the "everyone gets a prize" mentality, this event was not about competition, but about exploring a topic that interested a student, and seeing it to completion. We wanted the projects to be decided on and completed by the kids, not the parents. If we awarded 1st, 2nd, 3rd prizes, I feel the focus would have been different. One parent told me about her son's reaction to the medals: "I thought the medals were going to be real cheap because everyone got one, but these are like the real deal!"Parents and district science teachers did a great job as STEM Experts!
Our district's science and technology teachers are awesome -- and so are the parents! So the kids had accountability for their own projects, we did implement a "STEM Expert" time. We enlisted 5 science and technology teachers from the high school and junior school, the science and technology supervisor, and several science-oriented parents to be STEM Experts. Each Expert visited about 7 booths, and spent about 5 minutes asking the kids about their project. They then awarded the medals to the students. Each of these Experts volunteered to do this on their own time. They all did an amazing job asking the kids questions, showing an interest in the projects, and instilling an interest in science in the kids.
Kids love science! Our STEM Fair was open to kids in grades 3-5. While I would have liked to have opened it up to the whole school, I feel it would have just been too big to manage. Of the 244 total kids in these grades, 121 volunteered to participate! That is almost half! These kids had never seen a fair like this in their school, so they didn't have much of an idea what it was all about. They did 100% of the work at home, not school. The topics they chose included bottle flipping (my son's project), freezing various types of salt water (my daughter's project), counting the number of M&Ms of each color in a small bag, growing crystals, making a cardboard castle, feeding plants various types of liquids, and nanotechnology! Every kid can find a science topic that sparks their interest. Nurture that!
An event like a STEM Fair can spark interest in science even in kids who didn't participate. One second grader I know has already decided on his project for next year's STEM Fair. A mom of a kindergartner who came to see her brother's project, said that her daughter has insisted that they do science experiments at home before school each day.
You can have a gym full of kids and adults who are excited by science! With 121 participating kids, plus their families, I estimate that we had about 450-500 people at the nighttime STEM Fair. There was no food, no candy, and no sports teams to cheer for. They were all there to visit kids' projects, watch the high school robotics team demonstration, and enjoy a night of science.
If you are crazy enough to start a STEM Fair at your school, parents will help out! My partner in crime for the STEM Fair was Steph Dalessio, who also is one of the co-leaders with me for our girls' Brownie troop. She made the program, helped manage the Thursday night and Friday school day events, and, in general, listened to my crazy ideas. The event would not have been the same without her. Turns out, each and every one of the 17 girls in our Brownie troop participated in the fair, too! Way to go girls! So proud of you! Because these projects were all done at home, parents had to agree to have their kids participate. I truly thank all the parents who encouraged their kids to explore topics they enjoyed, and make this such a great experience for all!