The Right Rubric
With students doing research projects as part of science classes, there must be a way to assess their work. Fortunately, there is a well-established science fair system that could offer a ready means for assessment of this student work. To play this role, the focus of evaluation should be student learning rather than a competitive search for science talent. Research projects should contribute to learning with students actually doing the steps of the scientific method instead of reading about them or memorizing them. Everyone acquiring scientific habits of mind should be the primary goal, not identifying and separating out gifted potential scientists.
To serve this educational goal, science fair judging rubrics must be tailored to their educational role. Originality is not the key and should not be important in scoring. Rubrics should reward:
posing answerable questions;
constructing a justifiable hypothesis;
background research, planning, and conducting investigations that can be accomplished within the constraints of time, available equipment, budget, etc.;
care in taking and assembling measurements;
presentation and effective analysis of the data;
logical thinking in reasoning to conclusions;
clear presentation of results; and
the appropriateness and adequacy of the investigation in addressing the question and supporting or refuting the hypothesis.
Also, the principal rubric should not emphasize form, spelling, artistry, or rigid adherence to a format. These non-science elements are important, but their assessment should be separate and independently scored. A science fair poster with a few misspelled words or a non-standard arrangement of elements should be judged for the science learning it demonstrates. The content of an oral presentation is the key and not the quality of delivery. Effective communication is important; improving it is the work of humanities education. Science education does not displace humanities and social science education; it relies on and compliments them.
Judging science fairs is an activity that often involves scientists from the community, and this is excellent. It helps engage the community in student learning. Of course, scientists must tailor their evaluations to the grade level and practical constrains under which students have done their work. They should also be encouraging and their comments and suggestions and praise should be given to the students as to further their science education.