At first glance it looked like a traditional Middle School science fair, with posterboard trifolds set up on tables around the gym, and kids, parents and teachers milling around. But if you delved a bit deeper, looked a bit closer and listened to the conversations, it became immediately apparent that this was more than just a show of posters and end products; these eighth graders were demonstrating the process that went into their creations, charting each step of inquiry and experimentation; data sourcing; creative problem-solving successes and . . . yes . . . failures.
The assignment was to “create something new or improved” using computer technology, mechanical engineering, or chemistry-based reinventions of cosmetics, foods or related products. And, clearly, the eighth graders enjoyed their first go at this long-term, hands-on independent project. They created organic soaps, lotions and fragrance enhanced stress-balls; gluten-free cookies, mochi ice cream, and organic energy bars; games programmed to determine the missing side of a hypotenuse or to play Mad Libs; power generators, audio enhancers, a multi-speed electric toothbrush and a digitally programmed lock opener with parts made on a 3-D printer.
But more than just giving students the freedom to create a product of their choosing—something Calhoun kids know a lot about—science teacher Ardalan Parsa wanted his students to learn about trial and error, and the strenuous data analysis that is necessary in science. “I tried to focus this project a lot on the iterative process— to make something and improve on it,” explains Ardalan. “Oftentimes, science fairs are just about running an experiment 200 times, which is very beneficial to learning about an experiment, but this is more about the students figuring out their mistakes and growing from it.”
Throughout the four phases of testing, the eighth grade scientists had to evaluate both quantitative and qualitative data through surveys; identify the “junk data” (unusable feedback that won’t benefit the final product); graph data; and generate research papers with their recorded data, hypotheses and conclusions to demonstrate their understanding of their findings.
“Part of the product was the end product, but part of the real product you’ll see here are the things they tried that failed,” observed Dylan Hixon, who watched his son Casimir make multiple attempts at engineering a digital lock opener. “The product is the phases and the iterations, the changes they made to be able to succeed.”
Ardalan echoed Dylan’s observation. “This is much more like engineering than pure experimental science,” says Ardalan. “Part of science is failing; it’s not pretty, but in science, it’s okay to fail.”