Science Fair Growing Through Blended Learning

Photo: Fair organizer Devon Grilly present First Prize to Freya Proudman.

Previously an exhibition of projects created as a regular part of the science class curriculum, the high school science fair has changed over time. A few years ago, chemistry teacher Devon Grilly took the reigns of coordinating and managing the science fair, which is now an additional elective opportunity for interested students. It is another extension of the high school’s efforts at online and blended education.

As Grilly explains, “There is an elective that students can take that includes an online module for credit. There are no class meetings. All the work is extra-curricular in addition to their normal schedule.”

Photo: Callie Gu presents her project to a local judge.

Callie Gu presents her project to a local judge.

After a drop in participation, the program is growing again. This year 17 projects were showcased at the Hopkinton High School Science and Engineering Fair on March 1, in the library.

One of the benefits of the current program is the greater mentorship and networking afforded participating students.

“We do a lot of mentoring students and helping them with time management. It is about helping them take this independent idea that matches their passions and finding a way for a high school student make it happen,” Grilly said.

A number of teachers from the science department act as mentor teachers for students engaged in their projects. “Their role is to keep the student on board and help them with time management, but they can’t force any student into anything. We meet with them after school, based on willingness and follow-through. The kids that stick with it really have to be motivated to follow-through.”

Photo: Sophomore Himanshu Minocha won second prize.

Sophomore Himanshu Minocha won second prize.

That follow-through, however, potentially has additional opportunities. One opportunity is the low-stakes extension of blended and online learning, given that a class section never meets, all course material is available online, and the students are connected with mentors from the school and in the field. Since students are conducting real-world research and experiments, Grilly spends considerable time creating information to help them find resources, including people with expertise, in all kinds of areas.

“We also have networks, especially for the upper-classmen, where we can help students connect with scientists elsewhere, like BU or UMass Medical,” Grilly explained.

Of course, technology plays an increasingly major role in the projects.

“We had a lot of computer related projects this year. Apps seem to be popular, Grilly said. “They are a way for students to study human behaviors without using human subjects, which are problematic in a lot of ways.”

A number of student projects built or used apps to track behavior as part of their research and experiments. Apps can be a mechanism for looking at a problem in a different way. Using computer modeling, students are able to investigate problems related to human beings without having to experiment on actual people.

Photo: Junior Brian Best won third prize.

Junior Brian Best won third prize.

Another aspect of Grilly’s role in managing the program is helping students secure the physical resources required for their experiments.

“Sometimes students need stuff. This year we needed 10 fish tanks, for example. So we receive money from HPTA and Bose, occasionally other sources through grants. I try to take the finances out of the equation for the students whenever possible,” Grilly explained.

The support from the Hopkinton Parent Teacher Association and Bose goes beyond financial support during the project process.

“Bose is great about volunteering judges. Plus, the top three student projects get cash prizes from the HPTA,” Grilly said.

Photo: Ashley Nee presents to alumnus judge Courtney Onofrio.

Ashley Nee presents to alumnus judge Courtney Onofrio.

Assembling the judges is another role Grilly performs. Continuing with the work science subject matter leader Val Lechtanski began, Grilly attempts to enlist a number of local volunteers.

This year’s judges included a number of former Hopkinton High School graduates. Former Hillers Tom Colburn with Jebbit, Archana Vamanrao with LEK Consulting, Courtney Onofrio from Yale-New Haven Hospital served this year. Additionally, Danielle Hall, now a graduate student at Columbia University, returned to judge only two days after returning from Antarctica where she was conducting research.

Grilly also works the judges table at the regional fair to network and keep adding to the pool of judges for the local fair. Recruiting judges can have powerful implications for the experience for students. Judges often make connect genuine connections with students about their projects, even offering extra mentoring and internship opportunities, all based on what they see on fair day.

“The greatest thing about the fair is the day,” Grilly explained, “It is the best day because students are networking with real researchers in the field. It is phenomenal.”

Photo: Alumnus Archana Vamanrao judging the fair.

Alumnus Archana Vamanrao judging the fair.

This year’ awards were included:

  1. Freya Proudman for The Effects of Appreciation and Happiness
  2. Himanshu Minocha for Smart Safety Warning and Notification Systems for Treadmills
  3. Brian Best for Music Math: Does Music Follow a Zipfian Distribution?

Together with nine other students, they will represent Hopkinton High School at the Worcester Regional Fair at Worcester Polytechnic Institute on March 11.

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