What do high school science fairs have to do with teen leadership?

Science fairs are an example of taking a school activity and turning it into an after-school project that will promote learning across skill sets at the same time.

Young people today are flooded with countless opportunities to participate in extra-curricular activities. Between athletics, school clubs, jobs and after-school and out-of-school activities like 4-H, youth are forced to make hard choices about which activities to participate in. Pressures to have well-rounded experiences for college and job applications compounded with individual interests and desires to explore often push teens between a proverbial rock and a hard place. A 2014 study by the American Psychological Association reported that teens today experience levels of stress similar to adults. How do we encourage the youth in our lives to pursue the gauntlet of opportunities available today without reinforcing the already existing pressures they feel to be involved in many things, thus spreading their time and energy thin and causing heightened stress experiences?

As adults, we often look for the most efficient and effective way to complete a task; whether that means identifying relationships we have that can aide us or by combining similar tasks to get both completed more quickly. “Killing two birds with one stone” is a metaphorical phrase that dates back to the 1600s and means accomplishing two different tasks or purposes with the same act. While we often consider this a smart, creative approach to problem-solving for ourselves, we often chastise youth for utilizing the same tactics, deeming them as cutting corners, being lazy or even cheating.

A science fair is an example of a school activity that can serve a dual purpose in a young person’s development while not pressuring them to start over from scratch. In the State of Michigan High School Content Expectations for Science, “inquiry, reflection and social implications” is the only learning object listed in all four of the science learning areas (earth sciences, biology, physics and chemistry). Many schools or school districts in the state offer the opportunity to submit research in the form of a science fair project. If schools don’t have this opportunity available to their students, there are regional and statewide science fairs that youth can participate in. While completing a research experiment for a science fair, students learn research methodology, analytical writing, information dissemination tactics and hopefully an in-depth understanding of their research topic. Participation in science fairs can give students a leg up on skills they’ll need in their continued education and may open doors to college scholarships and internships.

All that said, a science fair project takes a significant investment of time and energy, so why stop sharing the experience at the science fair? Submitting the same science fair project to the local county 4-H fair can provide youth with an entirely different learning experience. Though the project itself is done, the judging process in 4-H is likely different from that of a formal science fair and can help young scientists think about their work from a different perspective. 4-H judges are more likely to focus on the broader life skills learned from the process of completing the project rather than the project itself. This reframes a science fair project from solely science to youth leadership development. Teens who submit a research project as a 4-Her will identify and develop additional skills such as public speaking and active communications, critical thinking and an expertise in teaching others about their topic.

Let’s help youth have the most dynamic learning experiences possible without encouraging them to put too much on their plates. Think about opportunities for trans-activity projects and urge the youth in your life to take advantage of any school to out-of-school, “two birds, one stone” occasions.

For more information on getting youth involved in science, visit the Michigan State University Extension 4-H Youth Development Science & Technology webpage.

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