After 27 years, Belleville District 118 had its final district-wide science fair last year.
The district announced earlier this month that each of its 11 schools will begin offering new events instead: family STEM nights with interactive activities related to science, technology, engineering and math.
Officials say events at individual schools usually see more participation than district-wide events like the science fair. But one parent, Ronald Montgomery, said he is sad to see the science fairs go. His 11-year-old daughter Aurelia is a student at Henry Raab School.
Montgomery said they would work on her science projects as a family for about six weeks at a time. Aurelia would pick a topic and research it extensively with the help of her teachers, he said. She even earned a first-place award during last year’s fair.
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“That level of participation and teaching, are you going to get that in a night?” Montgomery said.
With this event specifically, we want to get the kids immersed in the activity.
Craig Hayes, Roosevelt School principal, on the family STEM nights replacing the science fair
Parents were made aware of the district’s decision to end the traditional science fairs in a Jan. 20 letter. But administrators had been discussing the possibility of cutting the fairs for the last several years, according to Superintendent Matt Klosterman.
“The biggest thing is we’ve just seen a pretty steady decline in the amount of participation from our students,” he said.
Roosevelt School Principal Craig Hayes, who used to run the district’s science fairs, said the gym was packed with projects in previous years.
“Now, we’re looking at 50 to 60 projects tops. In the past, you were looking at 300-plus, and that’s just with our fair,” Hayes said. Those students could have then moved onto the Greater Belleville Science Fair at Southwestern Illinois College, which was even larger, according to Hayes. But that fair was discontinued last year.
If students want to continue competing in a science fair, Assistant Superintendent Tracy Gray said they can enter Southern Illinois University Edwardsville’s regional Science and Engineering Research Challenge. Montgomery said Aurelia will be among those entering SIUE’s competition this year.
Before deciding to end the science fairs, Klosterman said District 118 tried increasing communication about them in an effort to boost participation. Teachers also offered websites to their classes to help students come up with ideas for science projects, he said.
But past events have shown that students and parents are more likely to show up for activities at their individual schools, according to Klosterman. Today, schools are making plans for the first family STEM nights that will take place.
“We’re not ignoring the science piece,” Klosterman said. “... We’re not wanting to reduce any emphasis on that.”
That level of participation and teaching, are you going to get that in a night?
Ronald Montgomery, District 118 parent, on his daughter’s previous effort in the science fair
Gray, who oversees district curriculum, said the events will look different in every building because staff from each school will plan their own. At Roosevelt School, for example, Hayes said the theme for its Feb. 23 family STEM night is an engineering winter wonderland.
Some of the activities planned for Roosevelt students are the snowman cup tower challenge and the duct tape sled challenge. What all of the activities will have in common is that they are hands-on, according to Hayes.
“They’re either going to be doing something or testing something right there,” Hayes said. “... With this event specifically, we want to get the kids immersed in the activity.”
Hayes said the idea is to lead students through the process of using the scientific method just like they previously did on their own when they created a project for the science fair, which involves testing a theory through experimentation.
Not only will students be asked to build things, like a sled made out of duct tape, but then the sled will have to perform by sliding down a platform, Hayes said; So students will be conducting an experiment in physics.
“Definitely all of these things cause you to really think outside the box,” he said.
And Gray said the whole family will be invited to take part in the events.
“We want to certainly maximize that family engagement and participation,” she said.