Are you intimidated by the idea of helping your child on their Science & Engineering Fair (SEF) project? If so, then you’re not alone! I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with parents who have been totally overwhelmed by the thought of helping their kids on their SEF project. Even with a career as a research scientist, I had plenty of anxieties around the thoughts of mentoring my kids on their first SEF project. So I get it.
Effectively mentoring your child on their Science & Engineering Fair project can be more challenging than actually doing the project itself. Have the patience to help your child develop the skills to work through challenging times, while empowering them to stay in the driver’s seat. You will probably find that you will:
- Teach your child the methods of scientific inquiry, experimentation or engineering design.
- Coach your child so they can work through difficult problems and reach their goals.
- Advise your child when their project is moving in a direction away from your goals, and ensure that they are being safe and following the fair rules.
Innovation is all about new ideas, methods or products. At this stage in your child’s life, you can empower them to be innovative by encouraging them to dream big, followed by them using evidence to understand why their big ideas would or wouldn’t work. Innovation in children is about dreaming big, even if they find out that their ideas aren’t feasible, and feeling proud of their creativity. There is no innovation in your child following step-by-step either what you tell them to do or what an online project outlines for them, and then subsequently claiming it as their own work. That fosters insecurity in your child’s ability to do things themselves and promotes the unethical and illegal practice of plagiarism.
Tips for empowering your child to lead an innovative Science & Engineering Fair (SEF) project:
#1 Add tools to your child’s toolbox
Some of the best tools you can add to your child’s toolbox are:
- Seeing and questioning the science and engineering all around them in their everyday lives.
- Developing the skills to work through frustrating and difficult times of failure, and switching to forward thinking and problem-solving.
- Learning how to enter online search criteria that will get them the content they need and that is safe for them to view.
- Using thinking maps to simplify the brainstorming process and the whole project planning and management process.
#2 Set aside your agenda
Ask questions – don’t give answers. Learning how to ask your child questions so that they can work through a challenge themselves is much harder than just telling them how you think they should do it. Just remember:
- This is their project, so let them drive it.
- Separate your goals from theirs.
- Your child’s project is not a reflection of you and your abilities.
#3 Support their struggle
Let them stumble – they’ll learn more. The first time I mentored my daughter on her SEF project, I was not prepared to hear, “Mommy! This is my project. Let me do it the way I want to.” She was 100% right – I was trying to explain why what she wanted to do wasn’t going to work. It’s not always easy to watch your child struggle and possibly “fail”. Science & Engineering Fair projects are challenging. That’s what makes doing them such a great learning experience. What you or your child thinks of as a “mistake” might actually be an important step to answering their question. Sometimes your child needs to experience what doesn’t work in order for them to find out what does work.