OGDEN — The science fair is not what it used to be.
“It’s less likely now that you’re going to see that straight hypothesis (project) — ‘What’s going to happen if I give one plant orange Fanta and one water?’ We’re way beyond that,” said Eve Bean, sixth grade teacher at Burton Elementary in Kaysville.
Bean organized a STEM open house held at Burton on Wednesday afternoon, where 120 children contributed to about 80 projects across two categories. These categories were an “Invention Convention” and a STEM fair, which sixth graders enter if they want to advance to the Davis School District STEM fair. This is the first year the school held the Invention Convention category, Bean said.
“We decided to change it this year because the science fair is kind of antiquated now anyway, and we need to put more emphasis on the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) with the engineering design model,” Bean said, “so we opened it up to all of the students, kindergarten through sixth grade.”
Students weren’t just testing other people’s products, as might have been the case in traditional science fairs. They were designing and creating their own.
Bean said the open house featured a variety of projects — but time-saving and cleaning were two of the themes that emerged.
One second grade boy turned his mom’s broom into a Swiss Army Knife of cleaning he called the “Cleaner 3000,” Bean said. It included a broom, mop, scraper and a place to put a cloth, she said.
Another boy came up with an eco-friendly glass-cleaning machine and formula that doesn’t use harsh chemicals, since organic products are important to his mom.
A team of fifth grade girls designed a product that would water plants and monitor soil moisture.
These themes likely emerged because the participants were encouraged to talk to their parents about practical problems in everyday life, so they could use those problems as a launching pad for their inventions.
According to Teach Engineering, a curriculum resource produced by University of Colorado Boulder, the engineering design process starts with asking questions to identify a need, then researching the problem, imagining solutions and selecting and planning a solution. Using the plan, the creators build a prototype and then test and improve that prototype. The process is iterative, meaning that the steps can be repeated many times.
In both categories of the STEM open house, the goal of the projects was to invent a product or develop and perfect a process using this engineering design approach, Bean said.
The Invention Convention required less rigorous documentation and testing from participants than the STEM projects did, Bean said. The lighter category was designed to open up the activity to the younger grades at the school.
“Collecting data and evaluation — it can be really intimidating when you’re younger,” Bean said, “and I think that’s why we backed off ... doing those kind of projects in the last few years.”
Participation in the open house was optional, though some teachers created assignments in their classes, Bean said.
This more open, flexible format was appealing to students. Bean expected 45-50 entries, but she ended up with about 80 when 30-40 more came in late in the game, she said.
If there’s one theme that ran through the event as a whole, Bean said it was creative problem-solving.
“I tell my kids all the time, ‘I want you to solve one problem five different ways (rather) than five different problems one way,’” she said. “’I want you to be imaginative, I want you to be perceptive and look at it from multi-perspectives.’”
This shift in approach is happening nationally, Bean said. She estimates it started 10-15 years ago.
“The kids that are coming up now — they’re different,” she said, referring to children’s early exposure to and aptitude for technology. “They’ve got a different way of approaching things, and boy, it’s our job to be able to enhance that.”