March STEAM Madness Continues: 2017 STEM Fair!

At The New Century School, March means STEM Fair time! When STEM instructor Dan McGonigal joined TNCS back in 2014 (see post), what had been the annual Science Fair evolved into its current incarnation.

STEM Fair: Where Do They Get All That Energy?

This year, the theme was, indeed, Energy, and the boundaries were expanded so that students could choose to do a traditional experiment, demonstrate a scientific concept, or do an engineering project:

  • To do an experiment, students made a hypothesis and tested it, adhering rigorously to study design (i.e., they followed the Scientific Method).
  • To do a demonstration, the student demonstrated a physical principle related to energy (an example is what makes ice packs work). This required more research than the other types of projects.
  • To do an engineering project, students could engineer a solution to a problem or improve an existing technology and report on the engineering design process.

Offering more possibilities of types of projects, explained Mr. McGonigal, was so that students were able to adapt as they went along and “find a way to make it work.” In some cases, the type of project morphed as the student worked, resulting in some overlap—some experiments featured some demonstration elements and vice versa, for example. “It’s not really about perfection or getting everything precisely right,” he added. “There might be errors, there might be problems, it might not be beautiful—that’s the whole process of learning, to get better by doing these projects and presentations and to get thinking scientifically.” It was “controlled chaos”

They could come up with the idea for their project on their own, or they could derive inspiration from LiveBinders, ScienceBuddies, or another student-friendly website so long as the topic fulfilled two very important criteria: to be “feasible and interesting.” The work of doing the projects was completed in class, and most materials were obtained at school because Mr. McGonigal wanted this endeavor to be as student-driven (and hassle-free for parents) as possible. Apart from his ongoing guidance plus some parent volunteer support during class time, students did their own work, from choosing a topic, to testing their ideas, to reporting on the results. Although it created a bit of “controlled chaos,” in the classroom, “I am a big believer that children need to do their own work and learn from that experience,” said Mr. McGonigal.

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 Expectations were a little different for each type of project and for grade level. The 2nd- and 3rd-graders worked with a peer on the same topic, but each created his or her own display. The 4th-, 5th-, and 6th-graders worked completely independently. A third cohort of 1st- and 2nd-graders worked in groups on projects. Grading rubrics also differed, corresponding to grade level and type of project (experiment, demonstration, engineering).

The Projects!

Although Winter Storm Stella interrupted the scheduled date of the actual presentations, the STEM Fair proceeded on three separate days (you’ll note lots of red clothing on Math Kangaroo Competition Day as well as lots of green on St. Patrick’s Day), starting with the oldest group of students. Parents were instructed to circulate and ask questions: “The students have been practicing presenting to each other and to younger TNCS students so that they are experts in their fields,” said Mr. McGonigal.

Projects included “How to Make a Plane Invisible to Radar” in which the student tested uncontrolled variables against controlled variables in true experimental fashion involving flashlights, special equipment, and black paint. “I noticed the sleek design of the world’s fastest plane and wondered if the design had something to do with what made it so stealthy,” he said during a presentation to parents. “I tested three shapes made out of paper inside a black box to see which would refract the least lux and be less visible to radar: a cylinder, a U shape, and a W shape, and my hypothesis was correct—the cylinder refracted the least lux.”

The best part of this very sophisticated investigation? It just made him even more curious. “Next I want to find out if the color of the designs would necessarily impact the lux bouncing off. Why do they always use black? What would happen with white, or green, or red?” he asked.

“How to Make a Solar Oven” was a very popular project among all three divisions, chosen by multiple students to take on. Not only was the energy theme (and heat transfer, another recently explored STEM theme) addressed, but solar ovens have the potential to reduce hunger in developing countries as well as cook using renewable, sustainable energy, aspects that 21st-century-minded TNCS students evidently found very appealing. (Probably equally appealing was the promise of taking their ovens home to use for making s’mores and melting butter for popcorn, other extremely valuable features!)

Another popular project also incorporated solar power: “Bristle Bots” involved constructing an artistic robot. (And getting to don goggles and gloves like any card-carrying scientist should.)

But most students ventured out into uncharted territory and produced some very cool stuff. This slide show is captioned to help explain some of the work.

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“I’m very proud of the work they produced. They worked really hard over the last 2 weeks, and they all became good problem solvers. It’s reflected on their project displays,” said Mr. McGonigal. Want to read about past years’ projects? Click for posts from 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016.

Yay science!

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