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Starting a Homeschool Science Fair

by Lisa Swieson, GPHSF Director
This is the long version of an article originally published in the PA Homeschoolers newsletter.

Organizing the Greater Philadelphia Homeschool Science Fair (GPHSF) was a tremendous amount of work but was the most rewarding project I've ever undertaken. If this is a project that you are considering undertaking for your county or just for your co-op, here is an outline of what you will need to do, along with what we did each step of the way.

Get a vision.

You cannot - I repeat, cannot - put together a science fair of any significance if you do not have a vision for it. Why do you want to do this? Is it because you feel you should, or is it because you love science or can see the long-term benefits? If you need a little help catching a vision, consider how perfect the homeschooling lifestyle is for doing a science fair project: for a few weeks, your entire "curriculum" can revolve around your project. A homeschooler can devote as much time as s/he wants to research, experimentation, data analysis, graphing, report writing, artistic display, oral presentation…nearly all of the "school subjects." I have not even mentioned the scholarship possibilities! When you are excited about science fair, you will get students and parents excited, too.

My vision for a homeschool science fair crystallized in May 1999, when our family attended the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair (ISEF), which was in Philadelphia that year. I was so inspired by what I saw (and encouraged by the father of an entrant who had his choice of 4-year scholarships) that I wanted to provide an opportunity for my children, as well as other homeschoolers in my county, to learn to do an experimental science fair project at a young age. That way, by the time they were old enough for competition, they would be experienced.

Get information.

There are many ways to put together a science fair. GPHSF (as well as most county and regional fairs) is an experiment-based science fair, which means all projects must be experiments following the scientific method. (Many homeschool groups have science fairs where students can display models of the solar system, rock collections, etc. That is more of a "project fair" and is entirely different.)

For an experiment-based fair, I highly recommend the book Not Just Another Science Fair, by Laura Vazquez, et al. This book contains most of the guidelines and organizational strategies that you would need, including a detailed explanation of the scientific method. Although it is written for those setting up a fair in a school, it is easily adapted to a homeschool fair. (I recommend ordering the book-and-diskette package, as the diskette contains all reproducible pages and a scoring program.) If your fair includes students in grades 6 to 12, another necessary publication would be the ISEF Rules & Guidelines, available online at www.sciserv.org. (Be warned that this booklet is not easy reading!)

I also recommend contacting your county's science fair director, as s/he may be willing to send you the ISEF rulebook and explain the international and local rules, including how a homeschooled student can enter the county science fair. Be advised, however, that every county has different rules and is different in their treatment of homeschoolers.

In developing rules and guidelines for our fair, I combined those from the ISEF publication, the Vazquez book, and publications from our regional science fair into a "GPHSF Student Handbook," which also contained detailed information about how to perform and present a scientific experiment.

Get help.

In theory, this is entirely optional…at first, anyway. You can do this all yourself, but it won't be easy, especially if you are planning a county-wide or multi-county event. Try to divide the task into discrete projects to delegate, such as judge recruitment, volunteer recruitment, prize solicitation, publicity, building liaison, or county liaison.

At first, I tackled this project mainly on my own, with one friend creating a student/project database and one serving as building liaison, since the fair was to be held in her church's gym. As the fair took shape, others volunteered in various capacities, and my "building liaison" (Karen Hess) became my "assistant in all things." Decide ahead of time what you can (and would be willing to) delegate, and plan exactly where you will plug in parents who offer to help. Get a site and pick a date.

Finding a location to accommodate a science fair need not be difficult, especially if you or someone you know belongs to a large church. Churches tend to be very accommodating to homeschoolers, since most have homeschooling families among their membership, and will often negotiate a very reasonable fee. If your fair is small, you could also consider the local library, which may have a meeting room available for reserve.

February is a good month for a local science fair, as county science fairs usually occur in March, regional fairs occur in April, and the international fair occurs in May. However, do not choose an exact date until you have chosen your fair site. In our case, Bethany Collegiate was unavailable to us the date we originally wanted, but location was more important to us than date, so we chose the following Saturday instead.

Get the word out.

This may be the most challenging task. The broader the range of your fair, the harder it will be to let people know about it, especially since homeschoolers are such a diverse bunch. You must consider where homeschoolers in your area go and what they do. Create informative brochures and posters and distribute them widely. However, don't be overly concerned about informing EVERYONE the first year. Better to have a small fair done well than a large fair done poorly. Subsequent fairs will come more easily, as most of the work will have already been done, and more time can be devoted then to better publicity and more entrants. In our case, quite a few families wanted to check our fair out before deciding whether they wanted to enter next year.

Because our fair drew from numerous counties, I had to find creative ways to publicize the event outside of our county newsletter. I began by calling the contacts listed in the PA Homeschoolers Newsletter for each of the counties surrounding mine and then sent brochures to those who were interested. Some of them put an announcement in their newsletters. I set up a web site and submitted its address to Internet directories, and at least one entrant found us there. Word of mouth proved to be very effective as well: all Chester County entrants, for example, found out about the fair from a non-homeschooling friend of mine whom I'd recruited to judge! I also carried copies of our brochure everywhere, just in case - I gave two brochures away to strangers waiting in line at the post office! In the end, however, most entrants came from either Karen's co-op or mine. For next year's fair, putting up announcements in libraries seems logical, but labor intensive; perhaps I'll recruit friends and former entrants for this task.

Get sponsors.

Again, this is optional. If you want to award prizes, you must either get them donated, or set the entry fee high enough to allow for their purchase. (Keep overhead costs - paper, copying, postage, ribbons/certificates, building/table rental, etc. - in mind when determining your entry fee; there often is not enough left to purchase prizes.) Although we had no trouble getting prize donations from typical sources - museums, bookstores, and science-themed stores - in exchange for an "ad" in our program, be creative about other types of donations as well. My husband's company, for example, donated web space and allowed us to do all of our photocopying for free. Other businesses donated food for our judges, volunteers, and students. Don't be afraid to ask.

Get judges.

You may be surprised at how many people you know who would be willing to judge. Your friends and neighbors, your doctor or pediatrician, co-workers, parents in your co-op, evaluators, teachers in a local school or university…brainstorm and start recruiting early. Be sure to choose people who enjoy children and will be friendly and encouraging. Treat your judges well, as you may need to count on them for many years to come.

In our fair, each project was judged by two individuals: a scientist and a teacher. Each judged an average of 6 - but never more than 9 - projects. Our 12 judges were friends of mine from church and college, parents from my co-op, our favorite librarian, and friends of friends. Most of them said they would be willing to judge again.

I hope this simple overview has sparked some interest in organizing a science fair. It is truly a worthwhile project. For more information, visit our web site: www.epex.cc/fair or email ScienceFairLady@pobox.com

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Questions? Contact the GPHSF Director. Last modified: 17 July 2002