Science Buddies: Sparking Science Interests

Providing More than Science Projects

By Angela Rolls

Science Buddies Science fairs date back to the 1920's as a way of encouraging young scientific talent. Today roughly ten million K-12 students complete a science fair project each year. When his own daughter was involved in science fairs, Science Buddies founder Kenneth Hess realized that there was a lack of quality science project ideas and materials. Students struggled with picking a project instead of focusing on the science itself. He started Science Buddies in 2001 so that students would focus on forming a hypothesis, designing an experiment and analyzing data instead of topic selection.

A science fair study published in the Journal of STEM Education found that students participating in science fairs, especially those participating annually over the course of multiple years, outperformed the national average in post-secondary admissions and STEM major selections. Also, students who attended STEM extracurricular clubs had a higher percentage of post-secondary enrollment in STEM majors than the national average.

Science Buddies projects are brainstormed, developed, tested, and peer-reviewed by staff scientists and their content team. Occasionally they work with outside academic partners or sponsor organizations on material development. Science Buddies strives to make sure there is a topic that appeals to every kid from how microbial fuel cells work to the physics of hula hooping.

One of their most used tools is the Topic Selection Wizard. Students complete a short survey and are given project recommendations that may be of interest based upon survey responses. Recommended projects could be in areas of science that a student would not have normally discovered on their own.

I personally tested the Topic Selection Wizard and was surprised to see offerings for adults as well as kids. The survey was brief but encompassed a range of topics and provided over a thousand project suggestions. The top ten suggestions offered quite a variety, ranging from environmental science, biology, communication science and genetics. I must admit the suggestions covered the majority of my top personal science interests and provided several interesting projects that I would love to try. Project suggestions also ranged in difficulty level from beginner to advanced and I was able to set the amount of time I would be able to dedicate to a project.

"We believe students are most likely to enjoy their science project experience when they do a project that matches a personal interest. Some students enjoy projects in classic areas of science like chemistry and physics; others enjoy cutting-edge areas of science like robotics, nanotechnology, and biomedical engineering. Science Buddies' goal is to make sure that each and every student finds a science project they can be passionate about; this is a key step in being a willing and active learner," said Amy Cowen, a Science Buddies Community Manager.

Another popular tool is Ask an Expert – an online bulletin board system where students are provided assistance with any aspect of their science fair project, whether it be help with figuring out variables, project troubleshooting or analysis assistance. The Ask an Expert forum's staff of adult volunteers and top science students interact with students to help further science literacy.

Science Buddies' mission is "to help students from all walks of life to build their literacy in science and technology so they can become productive and engaged citizens in the 21st century." The non-profit is the single largest provider of free, high quality, scientist-authored project ideas and resources for science education. Projects aren't only designed for science fairs; there are activities for the classroom and home as well. Fewer than twenty individuals and about 50-75 volunteers provide over 1,100 scientist-authored project ideas in more than 30 areas of science.

According to the National Math and Science Initiative, the number of science and engineering bachelor's degree completion has risen by 19% from 2009-2013, however there are still 19 industrialized nations whose high school students outperform U.S. high school students in science and 26 industrialized nations' students outpace U.S. high school students in math.

With student success and creating the foundation for science interest in mind, Science Buddies has continued to expand their offerings. Realizing that they needed to make it easy for kids to get their hands on the tools necessary to complete a project, the Science Buddies Store began to provide kits in 2012. They teamed up with Jameco to create custom electronic and robotic kits and their offerings have allowed Science Buddies to help students (and their parents) spend less time worrying about a list of materials and focus on learning science and the science project experience instead.

In doing so, Science Buddies has helped inspire aspiring student scientists to explore and expand their science interests. Laura, a 4th grade student with aspirations to become a website developer, hadn't considered robotics engineering until she was introduced to the "Robot Race! Use a Computer to Design, Simulate, & Race Robots with VoxCAD" project. She was able to 3D design three robots, bringing them to life on screen. She tested the effectiveness of their movements, each different. Her experience awarded her a first prize at the Alameda County Fair and paved the way for a new found love of robotics.

Keely, another 4th grade student, tested the effectiveness of different light sources (manmade vs. natural light) on a solar powered robot. He was able to explore robotics, energy and power questions with real-world significance at the age of ten.

Matthew, a 6th grader, explored using water as fuel. The project he selected, "Water to Fuel to Water: The Fuel Cycle of the Future," helped expand his awareness and knowledge of alternative fuels. His project also gave him a valuable introduction to electronics; he learned about circuits and wiring up a breadboard.

As the demand for skilled scientists continues to increase, Science Buddies continues to grow and evolve, providing new features to further assist teachers, parents and students, inspiring the next generation of much needed scientists.

Do you have a science project experience that you'd like to share? Write to us at [email protected] and we just may publish your story in an upcoming newsletter.

Angela Rolls holds a Bachelor of Science in Communication Studies from Grand Valley State University. Originally from Michigan, she currently resides in California's Silicon Valley. Her interests include animals, traveling, writing, science and photography.