TNCS Science Fair 2016: It All Starts with a Good Question!


Fist bump for science!

The annual Science Fair is always a highly anticipated event at The New Century School, and 2016 was no different! Last week, parents and students came out in droves to see what science experiments TNCS 2nd- through 5th-graders undertook and what they learned from their experimentation.

Headed up for the second year by STEM teacher Dan McGonigal, this year’s Science Fair had a slightly different focus than last year’s (read about Science Fair 2015 here). Explains Mr. McGonigal:

This year we focused on the Scientific Method as opposed to the Engineering Design Process like last year. The students selected their own testable question related to Physical Science. We focused on creating tests that used manipulated variables versus creating a demonstration of a science concept. For example, instead of showing what happens when you combine baking soda and vinegar, a predictable reaction, I encouraged students to compare the amount of gas released by baking soda and vinegar to Alka-Seltzer and water. Or, instead of building a potato clock, students were asked to compare the volts of different produce to see which would produce the greatest amount of voltage. This helps improve instruction to more closely match how scientists actually work.
Mr. McGonigal also shared a “prezi” to give parents and other Science Fair attendees a closer look into how he framed this year’s endeavors. An important point is that students were encouraged to follow their own interests rather than replicate standard Science Fair experiments. The thrust was to start with a question then follow what various avenues that question presented, always maintaining a logical next-step approach.
“We worked hard on our projects,” said Mr. McGonigal, “and the projects were 100% representative of the students’ own work. I did not correct, edit, or change the student’s work in any way, but they were guided to stay focused on their scientific thinking and reminded of certain measures to help create accurate, neat work, that would be valid. The instructional focus was on the thinking, not necessarily the content related to their projects.”

As always, Mr. McGonigal’s enthusiasm for science adds a special touch. “The results and feedback were very positive about the student’s work. We had a lot parents show up to support their student’s science education!”he said. One such parent (and TNCS Co-Founder), Jennifer Lawner, said, “Mr. McGonigal give a wonderful presentation to parents about the goals of the science fair.  In particular he talked about how he did not do their work for them. For example, the write-ups are imperfect—he reminded them of the rules of punctuation and left them to write the work themselves. The students came up with testable questions, procedures for testing the questions, and reported on their data. There were flaws, but the date it was reported accurately. I was really impressed!”

TNCS lower elementary students also got a chance to see the projects and were given first-hand explanations by the older students. (Stay tuned for an upcoming post on the K/1st Science Fair!)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

And the exploration will not end with the folding up of the three-paneled cardboard displays. As a result of their self-led science journeys, students will continue asking themselves, “What did I learn? What do I still wonder about?” for months to come.

TNCS Elementary Science Fair 2014!

The second annual Science Fair at The New Century School came off with a bang! Actually, it was a drip. And a slide. And a buzz and a whir. There was Jell-O™ . . .

Despite numerous weather-related school closings, TNCS elementary students were hard at work in February and March, designing science experiments to conduct and present. “There are two different projects in each class. The pre-1st and 1st-grade class created an ‘Art Bot’ (a robot that draws pictures) and worked on centripetal force. The 2nd–3rd-graders worked on mass flow rate along with friction using an ice ramp and a dry ramp,” said Alisha Roberts, elementary STEM teacher.

To decide what experiments they were going to do, says Ms. Roberts, “I had them make a list of what they might be interested in. I saw lots of boys versus girls suggestions, like who can exercise longer. Those were all great ideas, but I was looking for topics we’ve covered, things that incorporate other parts of our STEM program, so combining math and science, for example.” Getting ideas and generating interest was not difficult, she says, quite the opposite. “They were very eager to get started!”

Once they nailed down their project topics, they dutifully followed the Scientific Method, like any good scientist worth his or her NaCl. In groups of 3 or 4, they started by asking a question about their project, then did some research (some teacher guided; some independently at the computer) to get background details, then formed a hypothesis based on this information. Next, they implemented their procedure. Each group had collaborated on what procedure they needed to follow to conduct their experiment and wrote out the individual steps in their journals. “They even typed them up independently for their experiment displays,” said Ms. Roberts. “They did all the work. I’m just there to help monitor and answer questions.” Finally, they report results and form a conclusion on that basis. “But,” said Ms. Roberts, “they tested each experiment several times to make sure they get accurate, reliable results to report.”

Pre-1st and First Grade

Art Bot!

The lower elementary had been learning about electricity, ultimately building snap circuits in class. “They were obsessed with snap circuits, said Ms. Roberts. “That’s all they want to do! They love being able to make something work. They can make it make sounds, they can make it flash, make it move in a certain direction, or make pieces of it fly off.” So, building a DC-motor-powered robot that can draw held immediate appealed. How will it work best with different weight distributions? Will vibrations in the motor make it move a certain way, or will they cause it to tip over?

Centripetal Force

Another class topic was Newton’s laws of motion, which are essential to understanding, say, what keeps you in your seat on a giant loop-de-loop roller coaster—centripetal force. For this, they constructed a bucket with green jello on the bottom, red jello on the top, and a marble in the middle. They then spin the bucket around the same way every time to observe movement in the marble.

Predictions included that the marble would change color and that jello would explode all over the room. They were very excited about this latter prospect. Supercool! Instead they learned that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. A little more prosaic than jello-covered walls, but still awfully cool!

2nd and 3rd Grade


To study friction (also related to Newton laws), the older elementary kids soaked a board and then froze it to compare movement along the resulting icy ramp to that of a dry ramp. When sand is poured on it, which one produces more friction and why? At what height and “slip angle” create slide? Ms. Roberts explained that a practical application of this experiment for kids is to learn about slipping on ice or being able to come to a stop from a full run.

Mass Flow Rate

To study the concept of mass flow rate (the mass of a substance which passes through a given surface per unit of time), the students fitted a funnel in the top of a box and measured out the same weight in certain materials like dried pasta, coffee, and water. Then, they pour each substance down the funnel and time how long it takes to flow through. What travels more quickly? Why? Placing the funnel in a box was an ingenious way to control for height and eliminate the possibility of that variable affecting the results. “Everything must be precise!” said Ms. Roberts. They also brought in some math skills with this experiment and learned to measure and cut so that the holes on their boxes would be evenly centered.

“The students have been working extremely hard on their science fair projects and are very excited to share the results with you!” says Ms. Roberts. “The science fair will be held the week of March 24th-–March 28th from 8:00 am–8:30 am. Please feel free to visit the fair as many times as you would like during this week with your child!”

What is it that has the kids so excited about doing these experiments and presenting them? “They just want to know,” said Ms. Roberts. “Was my hypothesis correct? That’s what it comes down to—did I get it right?”