Science fair projects: Should parents help?

Mar 29, 2009 at 12:54 p.m. ET

Should parents help kids with their science fair projects? I may be a geek, but I think science fairs are lots of fun. I enjoy walking around the exhibit hall (gymnasium) seeing all the work put in by the kids - and the parents. Some projects are obviously all kid, some distinctly parent, and some a hybrid. This all begs the questions: Whose project is it anyway?

Science Fair

The goal of science fairs is for the kids to learn about a topic in conjunction with the scientific process. Yes, they need parental support and encouragement - and help, especially at the younger grades. But sometimes, parental help crosses the line, and the project becomes more about the parent than the child. Some parents are even proud of calling their kids' projects "my" or "our" project. But doesn't that defeat the purpose?

Child versus parent work

Several years ago, Alfs completed a project on a steam boats for our local science fair (our first), including making a small steamboat using balsa wood, copper wire and a votive candle. As it was out first experience with the science fair, we tried to limit our assistance to organizational support, time management and close supervision as tools were used to create the boat. The write up, the display, and the visuals were all him (and a little messy, we admit). We were incredible proud when he received 2nd place in his age and category. He had been excited about his topic and it showed.

I went to look at the winner of his division, and was stunned by what I saw. This project was so obviously parent made that I was more than a little taken aback. Several perfect paragraphs of text (they were in 3rd grade at the time), not a stroke of color outside of lines, and so on. However, the fair was over. There was nothing to be done. Mad - and a little jealous (ostensibly on my son's behalf), I resolved to help him more the next year.

The next year came, though, and I knew that it was wrong to help him too much. I didn't. I maintained the same role I'd had the previous year: organizational support, encouragement, and general supervision. Again a 2nd place finish to a project with obvious parent work. But this time, I knew that his 2nd place was truly earned, and we could all hold our heads up high for that.

How much is too much?

Granted, it can be hard to know how much help for such projects is too much help. While some projects and science fairs have very specific guidelines about what a parent can and can't do, some are looser, and there is far more wiggle room. Clearly, our science fair is on the more wiggle room end of things; organizers choose to trust the community to do the right thing. Unless presented with specific evidence otherwise, it takes projects at face value. While most parents respect this, there are always a few who take advantage.

I personally think that the best way I can help my kids is with organization and project management - and even with that, I prefer to ask leading questions to help them figure out what to do rather than telling them. From there, I facilitate time to work on the project, encourage, and so on. I do not write for them, paint for them, tell them what to read or what experiments to try. I generally try to ask myself, "If another parent were to see this project, would they feel it crossed the line?" If the answer is even a remote, "maybe," I back off. Never mind that if I do all the work, the kids don't actually learn anything.

My kids have had mixed success with their projects. Sometimes they do well, sometimes they don't. Sometimes the projects that win are very parent-led, and sometimes they aren't. I know, though, that at the end of every science fair season, my kids have learned and tried on their own, and they can be very proud of their efforts no matter the outcome. No matter whose project it is - parent or child - the real goal of the science fair is child-led learning and investigation, not the awards at the end of the day.

Tell us: How much do you help your child with their science fair project? Comment below!

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