Community Science STEM

ISP backed science fair workshop a powerful learning experience

(February 21, 2018 by Molly Davis)

On a Saturday afternoon, local elementary school students and their families filed into a classroom for the “Getting Started with Science Fair” workshop, ready to spend the next few hours preparing to apply the scientific method to a question that interested the students. The group listened intently to the opening presentation on science fair registration, project options, and specifics for implementation. For the rest of the afternoon, the room was filled with the sounds of excited conversation as the students divided into small groups led by Washington University volunteers to begin planning their projects.

This annual workshop is sponsored by the Institute for School Partnership, the K-12 Connections Program, and the Academy of Science St. Louis Science Fair with the goal of informing parents and students while equipping them to implement a science fair project. K-12 Connections, one of the Gephardt Institute’s K-12 and Youth Initiatives, works to link the WashU community with local schools, primarily through classroom field trips to campus and special events. K-12 Connections typically operates based on requests from teachers, youth organizations, and community members for the type of visit or event desired, allowing the events to be as useful and beneficial as possible to the communities and students served. Campus tours are very popular as they allow younger students to interact with older students and get a sense of what the college experience is like.

Skyler Wiseman (back row, left), curriculum and instructional specialist with WashU’s Institute for School Partnership, works with students and their families during the annual “Getting Started with Science Fair” workshop, held February 10 on the Danforth Campus.

Laura Motard, AB ’18, is the Gephardt Institute’s K-12 Connections Coordinator. This was Laura’s first year to organize and coordinate the workshop but her third year participating. She shared that her favorite thing about the event is interacting with the students. She said, “They are creative and ambitious and have so many ideas.” Laura believes that science fair participation is a powerful hands-on learning experience. She emphasized the skills gleaned from implementing a project and seeing it through, saying, “They gain broadly applicable skills like problem solving and critical thinking. The students learn to formulate a testable question and practically adapt their ideas.” She noted that one of the challenges is often found in helping the students turn their exciting and ambitious ideas into questions that fit the scope of the science fair. Laura encouraged WashU students of all levels and interests to get involved in K-12 Connections. The program is particularly well-suited to volunteers who enjoy doing a wide variety of activities with diverse groups of students.

The elementary school students and their families were enthusiastic about the prospect of implementing their science fair projects. Iyannah, a 3rd grade participant, arrived at the workshop hoping to build a rocket for the science fair, but after talking extensively to a WashU student volunteer, she changed her mind and was considering pursuing one of her other interests by investigating snake life cycles. Darrion was a 6th grade participant interested in electricity, and Madison (2nd grade), who attended with her parents and brother, wanted to use a lemon to make a charger. Other students like Nevaeh (5th grade) were undecided and looking for project inspiration from the workshop.

The WashU student volunteers were just as excited as the participants to begin planning the projects. Sam Martorana, AB ’20, and Emma Reusch, AB ’20, are both K-12 Ambassadors for the K-12 Connections program. This was Sam’s second year to volunteer at the workshop. He recalled that he learned many interesting things from the students last year, from origami techniques to information on hydroponics. Sam said, “It’s amazing to see that these kids are so passionate at such a young age.” He shared his own experience making a flexible solar panel with grapheme through a program called Chemagination that involves applying chemistry to hypothetical future problems. Emma also has fond memories of her own science fair projects. She tested algae to see whether it gives off electricity (it does!). When asked about her motivation for getting involved with the program, she referred to herself as a “science geek,” saying, “I’m excited about this opportunity to get kids, especially young girls, interested in STEM.” Naimah Turner, AB ’19, tutors with Each One Teach One, another of the institute’s K-12 initiatives, where she learned about the opportunity to participate in the workshop. She cited her dual passions for science and youth education as the reasons that she chose to volunteer. The workshop was also an opportunity for her to learn more about science fairs since she had never participated in one herself.

The “Getting Started with Science Fair” workshop is not only an opportunity for local students and families to gain the tools and information necessary to carry out a science project but also a chance for WashU students to learn, connect, and engage with their community. K-12 Connections seeks to inspire young future leaders with the help of emerging student leaders from the WashU community. The workshop is just one of the many opportunities to support high-needs urban schools with the goal of reducing the educational equity gap.

Learn more about our K-12 & Youth Initiatives here.

(Molly Davis is a marketing & communications intern at the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement)