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.


 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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

“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!


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?”

Elementary Science Fair!

During the month of March, the elementary students at The New Century School undertook an exciting new collaborative adventure  . . . (drumroll please) . . . The Science Fair! They did two projects, one in English and one in Spanish (not yet complete). Taste the Rainbow, the first of their projects, will be the focus of this post.

Taste the Rainbow

The Scientific Method

The scientific method drives the whole experiment!

First learning about the Scientific Method, the kids next brainstormed about what topic they wanted to investigate. The story goes that one curious young fellow, upon discovering that multi-hued Rainbow Blast Goldfish® taste no different than run-of-the-mill Goldfish snacks, surmised that perhaps he had expected a difference in taste due to the difference in appearance. Other kids realized that they too had experienced similar disappointments with certain candies; one student described how once she had been enticed by the pretty pink color of a piece of candy only to find that it was “disgusting” when tasted. (We’ve all been there—boxes of chocolates often contain a stinker or two, belied by their beguiling exterior. It’s an age-old injustice.) As elementary teacher Mrs. DuPrau explained, “We begin the scientific method by asking a question.” So the kids had to next figure out how to formulate their idea as a question to be answered.

Elementary class

The class (minus a couple of students) poses with their teacher and their project board.

Let’s see how our little scientists did it!


Can our eyes fool our taste buds? Can the color of a food or drink affect a person’s perception of its taste?


This project looks at whether people’s view of what something tastes like will be changed by what they see.


We think colors can fool our taste buds at times. (Note the sophistication of their qualifier “at times.” Not easily taken in, this group.)


  • Three containers of white grape juice
  • One pitcher of water
  • Red and green food coloring
  • 78 small, plastic cups
  • 26 test subjects
  • Paper
  • Pencil


  1. With the food coloring, dye one container of juice red and one container of juice green.
  2. Pour a couple of inches of juice into each cup so that you have 26 cups of red juice, 26 cups of green juice, and 26 cups of uncolored juice.
  3. Place one cup of each color of juice in front of your subject.
  4. Ask your subject to taste the red juice and tell you what flavor it is.
  5. Ask your subject to taste the green juice and tell you what flavor it is.
  6. Ask your subject to taste the uncolored juice and tell you what flavor it is.
  7. Record their answers.
  8. Repeat steps 3 to 7 for all of your subjects.
  9. Analyze your results.

(Note: subjects were not told ahead of time specifically what they were going to be participating in.)


Note that as long as a subject identified each sample as tasting the same, that subject was considered “not fooled.” So, even if he or she labeled the juice apple instead of grape, for example, if all three were apple, that subject was not duped by the variation in color, which was the main point of the study. Also, even though the professional students kept their subjects anonymous, we can’t help but let the readers in on a little secret—our Head of School was one of those whose eyes fooled their taste buds! Shhh . . .


Through this experiment we learned that some people’s taste buds can be fooled by their eyes. Not everyone was fooled; however, most were, especially children under the age of 6. Seventeen out of twenty-six subjects were fooled. Out of the twenty-six subjects, nineteen were children 6 years old and under and seven were adults. More children were fooled than adults. Fourteen out of nineteen children were fooled, and three out of seven adults were fooled. In conclusion, beware because sometimes your eyes can fool your taste buds.

This project is a real winner—and the kids did it all themselves, including the typing and graphics for the project board. The Spanish project will be next, which our multilingual investigators are conducting entirely in Spanish. This one involves las plantas, so stay tuned.