Science Teachers, I Love You, But Science Projects Can Go to Hell

by Melissa L. Fenton
Originally Published: 

I love you, teachers — I swear. I’ve worked in K-12 education, and I’m well aware of how completely soul-sucking your occupation can be sometimes. Teaching is not just a job, it’s truly a vocation. And it’s something that only the most patient and awesome people on the planet are called to do.

And I love science too. Hell, I can recall with total clarity some of the cool science projects I did as a kid, both at home and in the classroom. I can tell you with impressive detail the amazing labs I did in high school biology over 25 years ago. I can describe how that same bio teacher had an uncanny resemblance to Bill Nye the Science Guy (right down to his white lab coat, wavy dark hair, and clear safety glasses), and how totally rad it was to mate fruit flies and filet a dead splayed frog right after driver’s ed.

I follow Facebook pages like “I fucking love science” (among others) and I cheer for more STEM funding in schools, better-outfitted science labs, and more robust science budgets. I have a high school junior who is seriously considering a career in medicine due to the fact he had one of the most incredible biology teachers ever during freshman year.

But for the life of me, I think traditional science projects can just go suck it.

And maybe it’s because every single year for over a decade I’ve had to help a kid do one, but from the second I start hearing the words “trifold board” and “hypothesis,” I start to shake, and full-blown science project anxiety kicks in.

I may love science, but god help me, if I’m not the furthest thing away from a person who thinks scientifically, then I don’t know who is. I’m also not the type of parent to overmanage my kids’ science projects or to just take over and do it for them. (I’m talking now to that parent. You know the one? The one who is a hydro-engineer by day and whose kid just happened to invent a desktop water desalination plant. You are ruining the scientific process for everyone. Stop it, OK?)

Listen, I’m well aware of the educational benefits of project-based learning, and I realize that what makes a science fair project so fundamental to learning is that it involves active learning, inquiry, research, writing, and deadlines. It also necessitates a child be highly organized, not a procrastinator, have a strong love for the topic at hand, and be extremely interested in the scientific process as a whole.

And therein lies the problem. What if your kid isn’t any of those things? What if the thought and process of creating and completing a successful science fair project sends your kid into a panic? (Kind of the same way there are kids who have high test anxiety and crumble the second you hand them a No. 2 pencil and a Scantron sheet.) Is it possible to offer an alternative to the traditional science project that is just as effective, but also appeals to the non-scientific kid?

Can some innovative and brilliant science teacher out there please develop one? New educational pedagogies happen almost weekly, with old-fashioned forms of traditional teaching having all been thrown out the window, so can’t the way we assign and complete science projects get a little wiggle room as well?

I get it. I get that science is science is science, and there is a method to the madness of teaching scientific method. But as a mom, I’m also weary of the stresses these projects inevitably bring to my entire family.

Even this year, though I literally did not help my son with one single aspect of his project, there were still tears and frustrations about his not being “good enough,” and other parents were helping his friends, so why couldn’t I?

Maybe it’s the fact that a kid’s simple science project has morphed into a family affair, where parents often take over the entire process — perhaps in frustration or in a desperate attempt to ensure their kids’ projects earns a blue ribbon. And if we’re not helping, we’re neglectful parents, right?

By my calculations, I have only three full-blown science projects left in my life. Like weekly spelling tests and math fact drills, I know science projects are a school rite of passage. I also know there is immeasurable inherent value in assigning them and completing them, but I can’t help but think there must be an alternative way to get kids engaged in the scientific process that doesn’t require a trifold board and rubber cement.

If you find it, let me know.

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