Sunday, 29 January 2012

Science Fairs are UDL, Personalized Learning

As we continue to search for ways to frame personalized learning in British Columbia, we can point to some practices that have been around for a long time - notably the Science Fair.  Rather than pitting the philosophies of revolution vs evolution in our education system, I believe it is crucial to recognize what currently exists as excellent practice in personalized learning.  This approach is very much in line with the appreciative inquiry model which encourages a focus on what is going well.

 The "Science Fair Project", which normally hits the students around grade 4, is heavily anticipated and dreaded at the same time.  Anticipated by the students and dreaded by the parents!  There is something very cool and exciting about the concept of "experimentation" - something which we don't  encourage enough in our students nor in ourselves as educators.  The Science Fair project is one of those rare activities that encourages risk, the use of materials other than paper and pen, the mixing of all kinds of household products and an absolute freedom in pursuing an idea.  Sounds enticing doesn't it!?  It sure does if you're in grade 4!

Certainly, it creates anxiety:  It's messy, takes longer than a scheduled block, involves the participation of parents and community, entails public speaking, demands collaboration and creates a lot of "stuff" that doesn't fit in a locker.  In other words, many of the elements that are critical for the 21C learner.

As a parent of four children, I have now been through at least a dozen various science experiments that have met with varied levels of success.  I know what it's like rushing around to find an appropriate backboard that fulfills the very stringent  science fair requirements.  We all say we want to be more involved in our children's education but the science fair project demands it.  This is a good thing.  It doesn't mean we do the work for the child but we support them, listen to them practice their presentation and cart their stuff around when necessary.  Once you have seen the excitement on their faces and the motivation they display, it is all worthwhile.

The Science Fair project is an excellent example of "independent study" - a term we use in describing a personalized learning framework.  The picture below demonstrates how much time we currently allocate to this kind of study in the BC Education system:

Here is a model of what we would like to see in the future:

These slides come from the BC Ministry of Education and reinforce the value and necessity of independent study - much of which could be manifested in a science fair or heritage fair project approach.  We are very fortunate in our district to have a group of committed educators that ensure our Regional Science Fair is well-organized and exciting.  The event and follow-up visits to the National Science Fair have spawned life-long interest and opportunities for many of our students.

Finally, it is clear to see how well a science fair project fits in the Universal Design for Learning framework through Multiple means of Representation, Multiple means of Action and Expression and Multiple means of Engagement:

Universal Design for Learning

Have a great week,


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