A couple of weeks ago, a friend posted this picture of her son's social studies project—a shoe box decorated to look like a mummy's tomb—with this note: "Hours and hours and hours of work went into this, and I'm wondering what did it REALLY teach my son about ancient Egypt?" Sigh! I could relate—my daughter has made plenty of projects over the years that were heavy on glitter glue, and short on substance. In fourth-grade, she had to squeeze an entire book report on Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone on the sides of a tissue box. I understand that the teachers were trying to spark creativity and attempting to make it more fun for kids. But for my daughter and some of her friends, the angst of having to fit all the requirements on the tissue box outweighed the joy of reading the book--and wanting to share it with the class.
Still, I'll take a tissue box or a diorama any day over the Science Fair. Don't get me wrong: I'm all for more science education in schools and labs that allow kids to get hands-on experience. Why I don't like the Science Fair is simple—I'm never sure how much help (or any help) I should give. And kids whose parents don't or can't help (whether it's shelling out money for supplies or proofreading or brainstorming what the experiment will be) are at a big disadvantage in much the same way that high schoolers who can't afford all those pricey SAT prep classes are when it comes to getting into college. (Thankfully, the College Board is making some changes to level the playing field for the SATs.)
I got a hint of what the Science Fair was going to be like when my daughter was in third grade. For a classroom convention, she had to make an invention that used simple machines. On her own, she came up with the idea of making a washing machine for doll clothes (that's her project below). She had the idea to put a Bundt cake pan inside a box, but she couldn't figure out what she would use to make it turn. Then I thought a whisk might work. I helped her put it together—she did about 80 percent of the work and I did the rest. I felt incredibly guilty for helping so much until I walked into her classroom—and saw that one child had brought in a huge wooden bed frame that folded up with a pulley. He said he made it with his dad.
By the time the Science Fair rolled around in fourth and fifth grades, I settled on semi-helping. The idea had to be my daughter's, the work had to hers, but I proofread, typed, and help organize. She won ribbons both years. One of her friends did too and when I went over to congratulate her, she whispered in my ear, "My mom helped me." She didn't need to tell me. In looking through the projects, with complex charts, graphics, and some even with spreadsheets, it's hard to believe that any 9-year-old—even a tech savvy one—did that on her own. And what about those kids whose parents couldn't afford to drop 50 bucks at Michaels or didn't have access to a computer at home? They were ribbon-less. And it wasn't fair.
I promised myself that I wouldn't be as involved in this year's projects–and, thankfully, it's been a non-issue. My daughter's teachers focus on group projects that are done entirely in school. Recently, I loved hearing about travel brochure for the Paleozoic Era that she and a couple of other kids created in class. I wish that it had been this way all along. Let's tell teachers that we prefer this method.
How much help have you given your kids on their projects? Let me know in the comments.