How Much Parent Help?


Although there are many examples in the comic strips about parents who stand proudly by “their” science fair projects with a blue ribbon, or who grill the judges about why “they” did not win, most parents instinctively know just how much help to give before the projects becomes “theirs” instead of their child’s.

Interestingly, parents who help too much are the exception rather than the rule. As a matter of fact, these days parents are often too afraid to help at all.

Yet we would never send a child out to play in a soccer tournament without teaching them the rules and giving them time to practice with the coach. Nor would we expect a child to play the violin without ever taking lessons.

Science projects need coaching and mentoring. Even researchers at the university level have mentors.

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Original Work and Help

Evidence of Original Work

There are some easy ways to prove the child did the work.

From the very beginning, have your children do some of the work in their own handwriting. Even little ones can make simple lists, draw pictures to represent their ideas and steps, and color in graphs. Although parents may later choose to help your child format some of these things in a more final form, these notes and rough drafts should be included in the “lab notebook.”

Judges love to see messy beginnings and rough drafts. PLEASE include even the mistakes and false starts. Parents can help their child with the typing. Just ask them to make sure that whatever they type, the child is sitting next to them and they are the one doing much of the dictating to the parents.

Parent Help

Plan out a section for parents to work on with the children or to complete each week.

Tell parents that they are “solar powered” — except that instead of the SUN, they are powered by their SON (or DAUGHTER.)

The limit of the child’s attention span is the limit of help to be given at any one time. If parents are helping their child to plan or conduct a part of the experiment, they should stop when the fidgeting begins to distract from the thinking process or completing the step. Simply say: “Whew, looks like we need a break. Let’s work on this later. Let me know when you are ready.” And then wait — but not too long.

One of the most surprising and yet most common comments from the parents of students in high school who make it to the international level of competition is that even they had to help their children “get going.” No matter how talented or dedicated a child may be, parents must remember that they are, after all, children. Children will need structure and timelines to get everything in their busy lives done.

Tell parents: Don’t be afraid to set times to work on the project, or turn the TV off for an hour so that the next step gets done. As with homework, the parents’ job is to see that everything is in place to get the job done — but not do it themselves.

Ask parents to talk to their child about the project in terms of “your project” and what “you did.” Never say “We should …” or “our project is about …” Parents are not the ones competing! When the child talks to others, make sure they always say “my project” — because parents cannot do it for them.

Keep in mind that every great scientist had a mentor — someone to help and encourage.

Every child is an individual. Parents should give as much (or as little) help as each child needs to get the project done. The rewards are worth every moment that you spend together. The memories created together will last a lifetime.

Tips from parents of past winners to tell parents

The parents of recent science fair winners were recently interviewed and asked for advice about competing in the science fair. Here’s what they said:

“Have you ever wondered what it was like to be Albert Einstein’s mother? Or to be the one that took a young Galileo out at night to see the stars? Your son or daughter is on the brink of a new discovery, and finding out just what they are capable of in the world of science.”

“Don’t be afraid to help them. Even the most famous of scientists need support somewhere along the way.”

“Watch what your child is interested in. Help them wonder about it and dream about what might be different if they changed one thing. Let children study what fascinates them. Spend lots of time at this stage and the rest will be easy later on. Doing a project on something that bores your child will be deadly for both of you!”

“Don’t use the ideas from science fair project books, or ideas that you did back when you were in school. Try to avoid encouraging the testing out of products. They have all been done a hundred times and the judges have seen it all already.”

“Use the Scientific Method step by step. It works, and is what wins.”

“Winning isn’t everything. Just doing a project together is its greatest reward. Keep in mind that it is all about the learning.”

A Nobel Prize winner recently admitted that although he often entered his local science fair, he never won. But because he entered every year, he learned to love science and to test out his own ideas. Maybe that is the best advice for parents.

Table to Determine Parent Help

Use this table from Science Buddies to help you decide some other places where parents can offer some help.

Does a Student Need a Mentor?

It is interesting that many people have the notion that all students need a mentor that is highly skilled and an expert in their field.

Ideally, that would be the case. But in some cases, students from Southern Arizona have gone all the way to the international level, and won grand awards without direct assistance because they themselves were determined to do well. These students conducted their own research on a topic of their own choosing, and followed all the rules and regulations carefully.

In most cases, however, a mentor is best. It is important to remember that a mentor can be someone who is not an “expert,” but rather, someone that helps facilitate access to needed resources and encourages a student.

Mentors can be parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, former teachers and older siblings. Mentors can also be university professors, scientists, engineers and business leaders.

The amount of help that a mentor will give depends on the level and needs of each child. Some mentors will act only as a sounding board; others will answer questions online through a parent’s email. Still others may be willing to work side by side with a student.

Finding a mentor in a lab setting usually is limited to high school research. However, some students have found interested individuals who are willing to spark a career in sciences, engineering and math earlier on.

In the future years to come, SARSEF will be developing a database of mentors. Let us know if you are willing to help or be involved!

Every Child. Thinking Critically. Solving Problems.