Thursday, March 25, 2010

Science Project Blues

[Pictured: a dining room table of an 8th grade student. The student still didn't have a working maze after a week of building.]
My 8th grader was recently given a 3-week long science project with the expectation that it will be “difficult and will require outside help because it would be impossible to complete a project like this in class.” (Quotes from the teacher’s email.)

Last weekend our family was consumed with this project. Both my husband and I spent a lot of time helping him build his catapult and write his very detailed report complete with graphs (that I forgot how to make in Excel). Then he turned in his rough draft and got a failing grade on it. He was thoroughly disappointed and frustrated.

I asked him if he felt comfortable talking to his teacher about the rough draft. He said “no.” So I wrote her an email myself to explain how much time he put into it and to explain his frustration at the rough draft failing grade. (BTW, why would a rough draft even BE graded?)

When he came home from school, he said the teacher talked to him about his rough draft and explained what she wanted him to do to improve it and that it wouldn’t make up a very big % of the final grade. He felt much better after speaking to her about it. Good.

She wrote me a reply email complete with all the elements of a response that I’m accustomed to seeing from teachers who defend assignments.

1. Time management – he had 3 weeks to do it & should be spreading out the work

(How many ADULTS manage their time that wisely?)

2. Project history – it’s a project that has been part of the curriculum at this school for at least 15 years

(Maybe it’s time to try something new?)

3. Limited class time – it does require outside class time and would be impossible to complete in class

(Then why assign it?)

4. Explanation of teaching – they do many labs in class to help students understand concepts

(Great. Then why give this project, too?)

5. Preparing for the future – this project gives the students a strong foundation for their science classes in high school

(What part of this project will they really remember when they get to high school?)

The only part of the process that my son enjoyed was the actual testing of the catapult. And when I asked my other son if he remembered doing this project two years ago, he said the part he remembered was the testing of his glider and launching it off the second story of our house. I also remember that his teacher lost his glider (which he worked very hard on) after he turned it in.

As my son and I were building the first attempt at the catapult last weekend I couldn’t help but think that this would have been a great small group exercise done in class. If students were working together (and struggling together) to try to make a catapult they would have had a much more valuable learning experience. (BTW, I mentioned this in an email to the teacher.)

Businesses are complaining that college graduates are not skilled in problem solving and team work. We need as much cooperative, small group learning as possible in the classroom. Perhaps ask the adults to supply the materials for the in-class work and let the kids solve the problem together? Or, let the kids fail at solving the problem together and then discuss and write about their successes and failures. That would have been a much more meaningful essay than the prescriptive report assigned with this project.

I’m not angry or bitter that my son was assigned this project. In fact, I enjoyed watching him test the catapult and get excited about it. But, I think it could have been a better learning experience for him and all the students (and families) in 8th grade if it had been an in-class activity, done in small groups without any outside parent help.

What do you think?


  1. My son had to do the same assignment. He made a rubberband powered car with his uncle. He also enjoyed testing the car the most. I do not believe he has any idea what his grade is on the rough draft and it is not posted on schoolloop yet. So I hope he gets the rough draft back in time to be useful for the final report. Personally I think the everything that needs to be said or done, was done in the rough draft. It is the process that is so important i.e. deciding what to build, collecting the pieces, building it and testing it. Of course most importantly is relating how this project has anything to do with their life today and why they might want to know any of this stuff. And Why do they need all the minutiae, such as a Color illustration representing the event and a blueprint of the finished project to be a part of the Final Report?

    It is fun for the kids to see what everyone comes up with and if they actually work. I do agree it would be great if teams could have worked on this in school. Then the work would actually be owned by the kids not their parents or their kind uncles.

  2. My daughter did this project last year. We are totally inept at things like this so we had to ask my dad (her grandpa) to help. The good newsis that my daughter got to spend some time with my dad, which they both enjoyed! He made the assignment valuable by supporting her with the problem solving aspect--trial and adjustment to achieve the desired results.

    My daughter was lucky to have someone to help out--I am disturbed though that this is an expectation. It sends a message that anything our kids could do on their own would not be good enough. Really sad--I see this come back to haunt families in my work with high school students. They don't really trust themselves to make decision about their college choices. We should be teaching our kids to trust their instincts, that they may make a mistake but they can readjust, just like testing a catapult.

  3. Hard as it may be, I recommend that parents not help with these kinds of projects. If students did them on their own, teachers would see exactly what they're capable of. And then, like you said, it'd be time for the school to rethink a project it's been giving for 15 years.

    As far as the teacher's expectation that parents help, I would do exactly what you did--send an email to the teacher. I would tell the teacher, politely, of course, that I don't think the teacher should be assigning me homework, that I have plenty of my own work to do, and that I prefer to choose how to spend my time with my child and not have the teacher decide for me how to spend my weekend.

    My children are no longer in elementary or middle school, but I was a parent who did not help my kids with their projects. Their projects never really looked like the other kids' projects, because they were done 100 percent by themselves. When my kids were very young, I told them that many of the kids were getting help from their parents and that I would help if they wanted. But they knew that I thought their projects were perfect as they had done them, and they never took me up on my offer of help.

    They were always very proud of the work they did on their own and, when there was a public display of the project, they would marvel at the work of their friends' parents. But they knew it was the parents and so did everyone else.

    My kids both have their own projects they're involved in today. I often think it's because they did their own work when they were young that they continued to be creative. When kids feel as though their own work isn't good enough, they give up.

    If you want to see the kind of work my daughter does today, take a look at her blog called

  4. I agree with you Kerry that it would be better in the class as a group assignment. IF there are not enough teachers to assist with the project at school then maybe there could be some parent volunteers to team up with the kid groups...something like this should be a fun, learning experience NOT an exercise for Mom and Dad to test their Excel skills and/or such only at home. It's so great of you to call the teacher out on it and I think your recommendations are excellent! -- Terry / Nueva Hoja School, Costa Rica

  5. I so agree with you. How much fun a project can be, quite often it is fun and we enjoy doing things with our children so this allows us time, albeit structured and stressful at times. That said, this science project's intentions are not about family time, and you hit the nail on the head...he would have learned SO MUCH more had it been a small group project. A success or failure outcome rather than really success driven, and learning why it succeeded or failed would be the greatest lesson of that is what they will take to their future jobs. How to solve a problem is figuring out why it did not work or why there is a problem, or did they get enough information collected and how to best solve it for all involved.

    That is the problem, these projects' intentions are fair enough, but truly it is the right time to change the format in which they are done...and isn't that what we want a teacher to do? That after 15 years, she is willing to see the "science project " is not working and they have 15 years a data for that. Time to go back to the drawing board and find a new solution. And have these students succeed - to learn the process and how to collect the data, regardless if the project "works" or not?

  6. Ah yes, the 8th grade science project. My son did a glider for this 2 years ago. He is an engineer type, so he was really into this project. He spent hours and hours on this spread over a couple of weeks. Still, the night before it was due, we were up until 3 am (yes 3 am!) finishing the construction and testing. I remember very well doing testing at 1 am in our backyard. The darn thing crashed and we had to rebuild it.

    This would have been a good "at home" project if he had no other homework for his other classes. It doesn't work that way, though. It is difficult to squeeze in a comprehensive science project when you are having to do an hour of math homework every night, write essays for other classes, and study for quizzes.

    High school has been a breeze compared to his 7th and 8th grade experience.

  7. Just wanted to tell you how much I'm enjoying your blog. I'm a therapist with a private practice in San Ramon, and I am not a fan of homework! Too many kids waste their time doing pointless projects and too many moms are trying to keep up with too much homework. Any kid would be better off playing, developing their creativity, working on their social skills by actually being social, or just doing nothing, than they are doing all these assignments.

    You can check out my blog, Social Skills for Kids. It's at

    Thanks for your efforts!

  8. I just wanted to tell you how much I'm enjoying your blog. I'm a therapist with a private practice in San Ramon, and I am not a fan of homework! Too many kids waste their time doing pointless projects and too many moms are trying to keep up with too much homework. Any kid would be better off playing, developing their creativity, working on their social skills by actually being social, or just doing nothing, than they are doing all these assignments.

    You can check out my blog, Social Skills for Kids. It's at

    Thanks for your efforts!

  9. Some 4th grade parents and I were talking about the amount of homework and projects our kids have.. Maybe if they cut the extra classes,(like sould shoppe)teachers would have time to teach instead of expecting the parents to do it. One mom said her WCI student had more homework than she did in high school. Her child is often up until midnight. How do teachers expect to have happy, awake and engaged students if they do homework all night? Are there any alternatives to WCI?? Please let us know. I am all ears and will volunteer.

  10. My son's school, Seven Hills in Walnut Creek, just tried something new: Instead of actually building the 4th grade mission, they are making web reports about it. Using pretty sophisticated web tools - like scroll bars. Apparently the project is a huge success. And I guess the thinking is: Do our kids really need to learn how to build a mission using that goop they use. FYI: They have always done the Mission project in class, rather than making parents do it!

  11. I agree that this project should be done in class. Parents are not in school, and shouldn't be assigned homework. How can children learn problem-solving if difficult projects are supposed to be done by parents? What a great opportunity for brain-storming. Too bad it was an opportunity lost.