The Affect of COVID-19 on Students’ Participation in Science Fair Projects

Do COVID-19 and the Safe at Home order affect students’ participation in science fair projects? According to Huy Pham, a science teacher at Westminster High School, they do.

“I had a lot of students wanting to participate in OCSEF, as it is one of the opportunities still available to them,” Mr. Pham says. “But with distance learning it is a challenge to keep them motivated, and some students have decided not to continue. It was already hard in normal circumstances to motivate students, but now it is so much more challenging for me with my students to get things going in a timely manner. And the logistics for equipment and supplies is going to be a huge challenge.”

Despite the challenge, biology students have expressed the desire to take part in the world’s effort to end  the global pandemic. But due to safety factors at schools, teachers have to direct them away from these topics. “Many students wanted to work on experiments which require bacteria cultures or access to the school’s lab room,” explains Pham. “I have had to steer them away from those types of projects. Currently, with Safe at Home, they are looking at environmental-based studies for their projects and other Safe at Home topics.”

Westminster High School (WHS) is a part Huntington Beach Union High School District in Orange County. Mr. Pham, a BioTech and Chemistry teacher at WHS,  has managed to bring a record number of students to the OCSEF Academy this year. This is part of the enrichment he advises for students on various afterschool STEM projects. 

“My philosophy is that knowledge without application has little value,” Mr. Pham says. “In class I try to convey that understanding to my students. A perfect example is reading up on the election as an adult, but not voting. I try to impress upon the students that OCSEF is the  perfect opportunity for them to apply their science knowledge, especially since there is no pressure for a grade. Many students  understand and also see the edge that OCSEF can give them in their college career. For some students with potential but not as much confidence, I personally talk to them and invite them. In some cases it works and we work together to get them the experience which will boost their confidence in the future.”

Now, with the OCSEF Academy in its first year, Mr. Pham is hoping his students will get a greater perspective on STEM outside the classroom, which to him is a combination of a well-defined topic and a good experimentation design.

“The academy can provide students with a setting outside the traditional classroom for them  to think about their project and include ideas within it,” he says. “Rather than hearing a teacher lecture on the science investigative process and having to connect things to the course material, the students can hear from instructors who have  real world experience and application of the science investigative techniques. This will add to the students’ depth in their thinking and creativity when designing and implementing their projects, which they would otherwise not have.

“In a classroom, all topics are generally defined during their labs for them. The students do come up with an area of interest but now need to come up with something more well defined and specific than they are used to. As for experimentation, they have been taught the run of the mill one shot experimental technique following a procedure. But with OCSEF, the possibilities are endless, and while they don’t quite have the experience to design more creatively or more specifically, they are pushed out of their comfort zone in a good way.”