Across the United States, many students from kindergarten through high school face a single trial: The annual science fair project. It’s homework times ten: the students must come up with an idea and a hypothesis, design and run an experiment, and report on it like scientists with data and graphs and a fancy display.

It’s a project notorious for parental interference, too. Parent involvement is a must – at the very least, wallet involvement, but the child is supposed to be king of the lab.

With standards rising in science fairs around the country (new accurate tests for cancer and particle generators have both appeared in grade-school science fairs in the last decade) and teachers demanding higher levels of sophistication in both the science and the presentation, it’s hard to stay mostly hands off while still being supportive.

For many, the hardest step is narrowing down the options. Children often have trouble deciding on a viable idea (No, you can’t clone your own dinosaur for science fair), but when parents take over that crucial step, the project can easily become either too hard or too easy. The best thing to do is to encourage the child to start with their broader interests, and narrow down to a single, interesting question. And remember! Definitive answers are attractive, but science is still science if it boils down to ‘we just don’t know yet.’

To help a student along through the whole scope of the project, parents should keep track but not nag. Set milestones and help your kid meet them, step by step, so there’s no all-nighter and will-the-glue-dry-on-the-bus the day it’s all due.

While science fairs are slowly shrinking in number, victim of funding and standardized testing, many advocates continue to beat that fair drum, holding that science fairs fuel the interest of students in STEM subjects like nothing else. Making sure the student holds the reins and learns not just the outcome of their experiment but the process of the entire thing is utterly crucial to setting them up to not just do well on their bio final, but to love the scientific process for life.

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