Whose Science Project Is It, Anyway?
When teachers assign projects, parents are often unsure how much they’re expected
to help, particularly if the child seems overwhelmed by the assignment.
By Marian Wilde, GreatSchools.net Staff
Imagine that you’re 7 years old and you’ve just been
asked by your teacher to make a diorama of a Native American village.
Over the weekend you dig up an empty shoe box in the garage. You
ask your parents for ideas on how to make teepees and rocks and trees. You “borrow” your brother’s toy forest
animals. By Sunday evening, you’ve assembled, glued and painted a humble and adorable replica of a Native American village.
The next morning you enter your classroom with your handiwork,
only to be confronted by a three-foot-by-four-foot rendition of the meeting of the Sioux nation at Little Bighorn, complete
with a working waterfall and 50 intricate tiny teepees. Instantly, you know that this is the work of Jennifer. Or rather Jennifer’s
mother, with Jennifer working as the assistant.
Your heart sinks as you ditch your diorama under your desk. You
join an ever growing group of awestruck children gathering round Little Bighorn.
“We want to
see what the children can do themselves.”
— Linda Eisinger, third grade teacher
Sadly, similar dramas unfold with unfailing regularity in schools around the country.
And, we may wonder, is it worse for the kid who didn’t make the fancy diorama or for the kid who did (and must live
with the fact that everyone knows she didn’t actually make it)?
This is one of the trickier aspects of parenting: How far should a parent go to help
their child with a project? At a time when many teachers are desperate to get parents involved in their children’s education,
there are others contending with the opposite problem: parents who want so much for their children to succeed that they regard
the child’s homework as their own.
Helping with Your Child’s Project
- You can help define ideas
for a project, but let your child make most of the decisions.
- Purchase necessary supplies
for the project, but don’t spend large amounts of money. Help your child brainstorm less expensive ways to make parts
of the project if his plans are bigger than your budget.
- Provide encouragement.
- Help your child break down
a complicated project into smaller sections to help her schedule her time.
- Be available for editing
- For the middle and high
school student, if possible, help make connections in the community for resources and advice.
What’s not appropriate:
- Don’t do the project
yourself (with your child as your assistant).
- Don’t outspend the
other parents in the classroom by a wide margin. Ask the teacher what is expected of you financially.
- Don’t take away your
child’s independence and ownership of the project
Linda Eisinger, a third-grade teacher in Jefferson City, Missouri, and Missouri’s Teacher of the Year in 2005, notes, “We do have guidelines for parents
now, but you have to be careful how you word it. Basically we say it has to be the child’s original work. It can get
kind of touchy if you don’t think it’s the child’s original work and they’re telling you it is. However,
if you have the child in your classroom, you’re pretty aware of what they’re able to do on their own.”
“We’re a little bit loose with that when the children are 8 or 9 years
old,” she adds. “We know that they have to have some guidance and we’re happy to have the parent involved.
It’s just difficult for parents to know when to let the child take over.”
In Eisinger’s classroom the children are asked to make a milestone chart as
one of their projects. “They have to do a timeline of their life,” she says, “and of course being only 9
years old they have to have a lot of their parents’ input, only because they’re not going to remember a lot of
the milestones. I have some children that, even though the parents give them the information, are allowed to put it together
in a format that you can tell is the child’s idea. But then some come in with work that is all computer printed and
with clip art, and it’s obvious that the child had very little to do with it.”
To combat the tendency some parents have to get over-involved in a project, Eisinger
has started having her students do their projects in the classroom.
“Projects are my chance to see them spark,” she says. “To see them
sparkle and be creative, because everything else is ‘this is what we need to know in science’ and facts, facts,
facts. So it’s fun to see them cooperate with each other. It’s fun to see who becomes a leader.”
from a Science Fair Winner
Ben Fohner, now a student at Stanford University, won first place as a high school student in
the botany category at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in San Jose, California, in 2001. Fohner believes
that his parents’ support was crucial to his success, but he did the work himself.
“I did the research at a plant pathology lab,” he explains, “a
connection I had made while working on a previous science fair project.” [This connection was facilitated by his father.]
“I worked there over a summer and ended up focusing a lot of my time on a project that was of interest to the company.
The company grows geraniums in Guatemala and they had problems with a certain bacteria being transmitted from one plant to
another, and they couldn’t really figure out how it was happening.
“So my project was basically to identify the water as the cause of the contamination
and then to show that the bacteria could survive in the water for a long period of time and could infect the other plants.
I wrote it up over the year and entered it in the Santa Clara County science fair. I won and the grand prize was a trip to
the Intel International Science Fair. I competed in that at the end of my junior year and ended up getting first place there.”
always be there to help out, but never to become overbearing.”
—Ben Fohner, international science fair winner
His Parents Helped
Fohner’s description of his parents’ involvement is sound advice for any parent looking
for ways to support their children.
“You want the student to come up with the science fair project idea. You want
them to do all of the writing. You want them to come up with an idea for the display,” he says. “What parents
can do that is really helpful is to make the connections with people that might be able to help, and to be there to bounce
ideas off of. Being there to say when something makes no logical sense. Being a support structure. I think the support level
is definitely the most vital.”
Fair Judge’s Perspective
Roger Falcone, a professor of physics at U.C. Berkeley and a former school board member,
is a judge with the Siemens-Westinghouse Competition in Math, Science, and Technology, which is a national high school-based
Falcone points out that kids can suffer when parents are either too involved or not
“There could be a negative side of demoralization for school kids based on
the perception that projects, be they science fair projects or art projects or even written work, are at an especially mature
level and that obviously there was more parental participation than they might have had,” he says.
“On the other hand, the other extreme is where parents have no involvement
in encouraging their kids to be on schedule, in doing some editing of written work. Or there’s no involvement in helping
them if they have some art concept in their mind, in helping them to get art supplies and not asking them to make something
out of scotch tape and chewing gum, but bringing them to an art supply store where they might be able to get some clay in
“That kind of participation is a very positive thing. It encourages the kids
and opens up an understanding and capabilities for them to express themselves more.”
really hard to have parental involvement dominate in an oral presentation.”
—Roger Falcone, Berkeley physics professor
While science fairs at the local level might not have safeguards in place to prevent
over-involvement from parents, science competitions at the national and international level do, says Falcone. "There’s
a period when the students and the projects are opened up to the public, so the students have to engage with the public. Students
have to talk in front of their peers and explain what they did and explain why it’s important. It’s really hard
to fake it there or to have parental involvement dominate in an oral presentation. Even at the elementary level, I think one
of the fun things is when the students get to present their projects to their peers. That’s where the added value really
comes in. How do you communicate the science that you did to your peers? That’s a real high energy situation.”
Recent studies conducted at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign suggest that parents can best support their children’s
learning by refraining from becoming too involved. The optimal approach is to encourage children to do their own work. As
tempting as it may be to rush in and get the job taken care of, or to help a child to be a classroom star, the long term effect
of such actions is to cause children to disengage from the learning process.
How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students by Denise Clark Pope. Yale University Press,
The Over-Scheduled Child by Alvin Rosenfeld. St. Martin's Griffin,
Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety by Judith Warner. Riverhead Hardcover. 2005.
America: Experts, Parents and a Century
of Advice About Children by Ann Hulbert. Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.