“What is our goal for this year?”
I’m getting nervous, so I ask this question to settle my own excitement as much as to remind the kids not to let the spirit of competition ruin their experience.
“To just enter and see what it is all about.”
“I would say we met that goal. Anything else that happens today is a bonus!”
I am so proud of these kids from my homeschool chemistry class. We didn’t stumble upon the Middle Tennessee Science and Engineering Fair (MTSEF) until it was almost too late to do anything about it. Almost.
I scope out the competition and feel confident that in spite of the rush to get everything done, their projects are at least as good as the majority of the other entries. However, there are always those few that stand out.
I notice my group collecting around a professionally printed poster with Vanderbilt University’s logo prominently displayed in the corner. The project is on cancer research and the list of scientists at the top tells me this student was working as an assistant in their research labs.
My students look intimidated.
“Look at this one, mom. Ours are nothing like this.” She can’t help herself. She is competitive to the core.
“Ah, this is a poster for a research project they are doing at Vanderbilt. I’m sure it is the same one the professors use when they present their research at poster sessions. But it still needs to have everything yours does. Where is the abstract?” A requirement for the fair.
“Is that it? It isn’t clear.” She looks critically at the poster.
“And how many people worked on this project?”
“A lot.” Seeing the string of names across the top.
“What do you think the professors had the high schoolers doing in their lab? Do you think they designed their own experiments? Or wrote this information themselves? Probably not. They were assistants. They probably did lots of little things like run samples and wash a lot of glassware. I hope they can answer all the questions the judges ask.”
They look a little relieved.
“Still,” I add, to be fair, “it is a great experience these kids have had to work in a top notch laboratory. I’m sure they learned a lot. But any of you here could do this type of work too.”
I left them standing by their posters ready for the judges and went outside to talk with the other exiled parents and grandparents as we waited. These are the types of things I really wanted for my kids when we began homeschooling seven years ago. It is so much work to get everything done and turned in on time, but the reassurance that they can stand shoulder to shoulder with their peers and compete makes it worth it.
I jotted down notes for next year: Have their papers out for the judges to see. Larger sample sizes. Provide a section on the science used to prove the kids understand it. Add more graphics and data analysis. I wondered if they would even want to do this again. It had been a lot of work and they might feel dispirited after being questioned by judges. They finally came out, looking exhausted but upbeat. It looks like the science fair adventure was a success.
We didn’t do badly! Of the three projects we entered this year, two placed first in their categories and one placed third. The kids learned a lot and came back with lots of ideas on how to improve their projects for next year. Yes, I think we definitely met our goals!
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