I began the symposium year with great optimism, and even as the hard work set in I managed to preserve this.
Just before we left for winter break, each seventh and eighth grader made a commitment to begin to answer a question, using the methods and thought processes of science. For seventh graders, the questions all connected in one way or another to water. Within this theme, the questions ranged from how to improve a saline distillation apparatus, to the pH of tears to how the water clarity and pH changed in some area rivers, over time. Eighth graders did not frame their projects around a central theme, and their experiments ranged from best practices in studying to egg production in chickens.
At first I thought that this was gonna be just one of those regular projects and I put in as much effort as I usually would, but then as it became more serious and I put in 100% of my effort.
Our symposium fits our educational philosophy in several important ways. First is that the students spend a great deal of time exploring, thinking, collecting data and analyzing it. In many schools, the symposium is a rushed assignment, thrown in amongst the mix of other topics in the school year. We take our time (although we always wish we had even more) and let the question in the project become part of each student’s life for many months. In this way, we hope to come closer to providing an experience like that of a professional scientist, who lives with a research question for months and years.
It was a long term project, so you are constantly thinking about this one project, so it’s a totally different mind set.
We also don’t ask students to compete with each other. In the real scientific world, and especially if not considering industry, researchers are almost always far more collaborative than competitive. The academic world provides a “family tree” of researchers who take on apprentices (aka graduate students) who then connect with other apprentices and other researchers. When work is done carefully, it should be impossible to judge a first, second or third place– and from the start of our PDS science symposium program, having students compete with each other was absolutely avoided.
Because students are not in competition, they can take on the additional role of peer reviewer. In the real scientific community, completely research papers are submitted to journals for review. The editors of each journal select scientists with similar areas of research to review each submission. This community contribution, always unpaid, is expected. It keeps the field honest, and it keeps researchers informed about the work of others.
I felt a lot more mature towards the end because…the things that I had written were well written (thanks to the edits).
Our students act as peer editors throughout the process. The first round of editing is often just copy editing– checking for little mistakes in the English. But, with practice and some coaching, students develop into critical readers that make useful comments on the papers of their classmates. When I follow up with my own read through student work, I often find I just need to comment that I agree with the peer editor.
Public presentation is the final step, and the one where students really shine. In our pep talk to students right before the event, we always stress to them that they know more about their project than anyone else in the world. The fact that they are not being judged by those they present to helps relax the interaction into a mature conversation. Our parent community has been terrific about moving from student to student and making certain that no presenter goes too long without someone to talk to. Every student is an equal a contributor to the event.
In the beginning, I was very scared about how everything would turn out. By the middle, I was so frustrated by having to do everything multiple times. I was also pretty stressed since I didn’t know if I had enough data, if I did enough research, etc. My the end, I was SO HAPPY … By the end, I was so excited that I’d finally finished and that I could relax about Science Symposium.
Congratulations to all the participants in the 2015 PDS Science Symposium!