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How to Help Children with Science Projects Without Doing It for Them

by Courtney Corda

Courtney Corda

"Science Mom" Courtney Corda is the Vice President of Science Buddies. Read more »

Sorry, Courtney Corda is no longer taking questions.

Science Fair season means that parents everywhere are preparing to help their children with their projects. When your child works on a science project, she is putting the scientific method into action and learning more about how to actively understand the world around her. Her assignment is clear, but as a parent, how involved should you be? Where is the line between too helpful and just right? The following guidelines can help you support your child in an appropriate way.

1. Keep in Mind the Goal of a Science Project
Science projects let children explore a topic and, at the same time, demonstrate certain curriculum-based and grade-appropriate skills and concepts. It is important to keep in mind that your sixth grader is not being asked to conduct a Nobel-prize-worthy experiment. What your child will learn may be something you already know, but your child needs to go through the process of hands-on exploration to really see and comprehend the scientific principle studied.

2. Help your Student Locate an Appropriate Project
It can be tempting to guide students into an area of science that matches your own interests, but your student will find greater joy and put more effort into her project if it ties into something she likes or about which she is curious. Also, keep in mind that science can be found in the most unlikely places, as these sports-and music-related project ideas demonstrate:
Which Team Batting Statistic Predicts Run Production Best?
Guitar Jingle: Discovering the Locations of Harmonics
If your child already has a science question in mind or an area of science she wants to explore, go with that! If not, using the Science Buddies Topic Selection Wizard tool can help your student find a science project that matches her interests and grade level.

3. Be a Chauffeur and a Sounding Board
During the research and planning stages of the project, your child will need your assistance in many ways. While you should not sit down and perform the research, you can help get the ball rolling by talking to your child about the selected project and any materials she has already read in preparation. Help her brainstorm a list of keywords for additional research and suggest strategies for online searching or drive her to the library.

You might also help your child find some good YouTube videos or DVDs related to her topic. You'll need to help procure materials, too! During these early stages, be available as a sounding board so that you are aware of how the project is progressing. It’s okay to ask questions like “What will you use to measure it?” or “How many trials do you plan to run?” but be careful not to take control of the process; let your child work out the steps, figure out what is needed and do the legwork herself.

4. Leave the Experiment in Your Child's Hands
After an age-appropriate project has been selected, your child should be able to perform the experiment independently. That doesn't mean you can't watch; you'll both have fun if you're able to peek over a shoulder during particularly cool moments of the experiment. Depending on the nature of the experiment, your child might need a bit of family help to pull it off. My son recently ran a marble through a 20-foot long track. He operated the stopwatch at the end of the track and directed his assistants: me (who held the track steady), my husband (who started the marble on my son’s cue), and my daughter (who recorded the times called out by my son) to help with additional steps.

5. Let Your Child Interpret and Showcase the Results
Whether your student proves or disproves her hypothesis, something happened in the experiment and there are results to be analyzed and conclusions to draw. Your child should make any charts or graphs that will be used in conveying her results herself.

Many science projects culminate with the creation of a project display board that summarizes and shares all stages of the project. Don't take over! Your student has gathered all the information that is needed for the board and will need to make choices about the design, layout and presentation. Encourage her to look at pictures of project display boards online to get some ideas. Help your child stay on track in terms of timing, but let her take charge as she brings the project to a close. For example, you might sit with your child and the family calendar and map out in advance which afternoons she’ll set aside to work on the display board or practice her oral presentation when other activities won’t interfere.

Ultimately, a science project should be a rewarding experience for your child. As you watch her engage in a project that lets her actively ask questions, explore, learn and grow, you will have plenty of opportunity to be proud of her as a student. And you may find that talking about the project offers fertile ground for bonding over science, which is a wonderful thing!

Sorry, Courtney Corda is no longer taking questions. Feel free to comment on the article and let us know what you think about the topic.

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