Goodbye to the Science Fair

When I started my current position one of the projects being worked on was a redesign of the district science fair. It seemed everyone was frustrated with the status quo- a collection of cardboard tri-folds and volcano models. Not much had changed in decades, and no one felt it was a good example of what our kids are capable of. An emphasis seemed to be placed on quantity over quality. I joined the team and we all started coming up with ideas of what an engaging science fair could look like. We took a field trip to the Google Science Fair in Mountain View, CA. It was amazing. It was what we want our kids to do.

To get rid of the cardboard tri-folds we need to change the mindset, so we started with the name.  Everyone knew what to do for the “old” science fair: the same thing they did last year and the year before. So the Science Fair became the Science and Engineering Expo. No one knew what to do- they had never heard of one! Including us. We needed to figure this out. We would have a number of “events.” The science exploration event would consist of individuals or teams of students (depending on age) presenting their science exploration, similar to what we saw in Mountain View. Kids would submit a digital presentation rather than the traditional cardboard product. They would then bring artifacts of their project, and present to judges and whoever else happened to be there to watch.

We built the day around 4 sessions, each with up to 10 presentations. The young scientists would come in and set up their work in a relaxed, casual atmosphere, and deliver their presentations to judges and whoever else happened by and was interested. Each student repeated their presentation 3 or 4 times, each time to a different audience. Then, after an hour or so, those students would pack up and the next group would come in. It was fun to watch the students revise and improve their presentations with each retelling. Even in their final presentation they were refining their learning. It was amazing.

In addition to the science presentations, we had a Minecraft challenge, our first ever Vex Robotics demonstration, and even a paper airplane competition. One of the comprehensive high schools sent a student video crew to record the day. It was fun to see these kids interact with the competitors. Just like the world of work! And another school had their CTE kids use a laser cutter to make awesome awards!
It was a huge success. The kids were amazing. The projects were wonderful. There was only one cardboard trifold, and it disappeared quickly!  Kids talked about their learning, and it was genuine learning, not memorized stuff, or stuff copied from a book! Mission accomplished! In the words of one of the judges, “This was amazing. It was a science teacher’s dream. I am so glad I participated!” Or the words of one of the younger scientists “This is the best day in my whole life!” OK, she is only 8, but still.

*Featured image Goodbye 261/365 by  Dennis SkleySome rights reserved

Project Management

This last week our school held our first-ever open house, followed the next day by our expo. The open house was an opportunity for people in the neighborhood to come see what our students have been doing. Really it was a recruiting event; we are a school of choice, no one comes to our school because they have to, they come by choice. We need to recruit students so that we can pay the bills. By showing kids what our students actually do those that are interested in doing that will come.
The second event, the Merlo Expo, is an opportunity for our students to share their work with local business and industry leaders, and for those leaders to provide feedback to the students. The local Chamber of Commerce recruits volunteers to come hear the student presentations. This year we had about twenty-five volunteers come and work with our students and leave them with written feedback on their projects. It was amazing.
In looking through the feedback, a common theme emerged, this one from Facebook-

Wow. Just attended the Merlo Expo as students prepare for the SkillsUSA State Conference next weekend and wow! I saw some amazing projects and project management skills that would put these young leaders in jobs in a heart beat! -Jonathan Buyco

Project management was a common theme. The business people consistently said that the students demonstrated great project management skills, and how important that is. It was a little eye opening because I had never thought of that as a goal. We talk about time management, but that is a different thing. There were no comments about time management, which is a standard we specifically address. Folks were talking about project management.

Our new free little library all stocked up!

A photo posted by Merlo Institute (@merloiet) on Apr 3, 2015 at 8:35am PDT

These projects are all different. They are all student-designed projects that came from the question “What are you passionate about?” I couldn’t possibly manage all of these projects. One group published a book about Ballet Folklorico, and another built an underwater robot. One group published three children’s books, and another created a “Little Free Library” for the school.I could not manage these, there is not enough time in a day, nor do I know much about these topics. They needed to manage the projects. I need to remind them that is a job skill they have. In the future I need to be sure all of my students develop these skills and know it!


Final proofs for #SkillsUSA Career Pathways #SkillsUSACA2015

A photo posted by Merlo Institute (@merloiet) on Mar 19, 2015 at 11:58am PDT

Showing Student Work in Public

I have long been a believer in students making their work public. When I started teaching my school was working with some of Ted Sizer’s ideas, and “public exhibition of mastery” was an important one of those ideas. I came to believe that when students control their learning and  are expected to show the results of their learning in public they do amazing things. So I have tried over the years to create just such an environment. I have learned that it isn’t an easy environment to create. Sure we can have students write blogs or create web sites. These are not too difficult to create, assuming the web filters aren’t overly restrictive. But my experience is these digital public venues, for all their strengths, just don’t pack the same punch as a student standing in front of a perfect stranger, looking them in the eye, and explaining some piece of work the student has done. Something really magical happens when these are the expectations.

This year we decided to create a new public exhibition event at our school. We participate in SkillsUSA, and we decided that students who go to the state competition would participate in our own event before the state event. Our local Chamber of Commerce recruited a couple dozen volunteers who have some expertise in the projects the students are doing. We bought the volunteers breakfast, invited the school board and top administrators, and suddenly we had our first annual Merlo Expo! Our school secretary said it went from a backyard bbq to a full blown Quencieta! It got complicated quickly. But our school community stepped up and made it a really special event. Our leadership class and their teacher really did an outstanding job with the details. The whole office staff did a great job with the logistics. The support from the whole school really made it a fantastic event.

The results were simply amazing. We have a couple dozen new industry supporters who think highly of the school. We heard nothing but fantastic comments about our students and their work. Our students were really excited about the feedback they were getting on their projects. Many of the students have already begun adjusting their projects in preparation for next weeks SkillsUSA event. That is something that has never happened before; in the past the state event was the first, and often last, public viewing of the projects. The students are considering feedback from a variety of real people, and making adjustments based on that feedback. One student called me over in the afternoon and told me one of the industry people told him his project would be better if there was an app for it. So he started sketching out plans for an app. That is simply awesome.

I think of equal importance is that the district administrators were able to come and interact with the students and see what the students are actually doing and learning. I don’t think we let them do that enough. We like to complain that district admins only care about the numbers. But when do we give them something else to consider? They see the numbers; they see the test scores and graduation rates and attendance and all the rest of the data. We complain that there is more to learning than that, and there really is. But when do we invite them to come and see the learning? I, for one, intend to invite them more often.