Sandy Doty

Sandy Doty

Photo courtesy of: Ohio University Lancaster

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Lancaster Campus educator Sandy Doty is building the future – one science fair at a time

LANCASTER – For Ohio University Lancaster | Pickerington Associate Professor of Physics Sandy Doty, science is more than just a subject. It’s a way of learning that students of all ages should be able to access and embrace. In 2010, Doty approached an area museum about creating a local science fair for children in kindergarten through eighth grade.

“There’s been a lot of discussion on how to improve science education for our children – specifically, education used to focus on memorizing. Being a smart person meant you knew a lot of facts,” said Doty. “With the onset of Google and other easily accessible information sources, the knowledge of particular facts is not nearly as important as using information, being adaptive, being what we now term as a ‘deep learner.’ A deep learner takes an entirely different approach to learning. They look for connections and build models of how things work. That type of learning is exactly what science fair promotes.”

Doty and The Works museum in Newark created the Licking County Local Science Fair. This science fair, open to all children residing in Licking, Perry, Pickaway and Fairfield Counties, provides a chance for elementary-level students to experience hands-on science and create experiments. For middle school-age students, they also have the opportunity to qualify for District Science Day. The Works was selected as the venue since it is an interactive learning center designed for children (and adults) to learn about the science, technology and historic accomplishments of the region. Science fair helps the museum meet one of its key missions – making science accessible.

“When Sandy approached The Works with the idea to start and support a local science fair at the museum, she provided all the background information and knowledge to plan a fair at our site. We agreed that if she would be a science fair chair, we would move forward and would love to add science fair as something we supported at The Works,” said Rori Leath from The Works.

“The idea of creating a community-wide, open access, local science day sprang out of my deep concern for kids and for our future. I feel strongly that every kid needs to understand the fundamental truths about science, specifically, and education, in general,” said Doty. “Too many kids, and adults, think that education is about memorizing what the teacher wants you to write on a test. The truth is that education is not about ‘Googling’ the right answer. Education, and particularly science, is about learning how to ask and answer your own questions. It is about developing the confidence that comes from that exercise of asking and answering, and from the realization that ‘even a kid’ can be an expert. The idea to create this local science day experience came about because I wanted every child to have the chance to learn that way, and because I know that learning in the way that naturally occurs with science fair is important to being able to take proper advantage of any opportunity.”

Projects that receive a “superior” at the Licking County Local Science Fair are eligible to participate at the District 8 Science Fair. That competition is held at Ohio University Lancaster in March each year. Doty said another goal of the local science fair is to provide a way for students to qualify for District Science Day when their school district either cancels or no longer supports a science day.

“This year is a good example of meeting that second goal. A friend from a local school district asked if one of her former students could attend the Licking County fair. Their high school had dropped science fair due to a variety of reasons. This meant that a high school senior who had participated in state science day five times, had won national honors for his work and had presented at the national meeting of the Junior Academy of Science lost his opportunity to qualify one last time” said Doty. “Fortunately, because our local science day was already in place, this deserving young man, who has done some amazing work investigating the DNA of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, had an opportunity to present his work at a local science fair and so he was able to qualify for district and state. Knowing that the little net we have created was able to serve such a wonderful purpose is gratifying beyond words.”

“Students are gaining life skills that are truly important. Over the years of offering this program we have watched children grow in their knowledge, understanding and abilities. This year we had four students move on to District Science Day from our fair and three of these students have been with us since the beginning of Science Fair,” said Leath. “You can see the changes in their work and commitment to science as they grow through the program. As I see students throughout the year, many ask about Science Fair and when they can compete again. Science Fair participants are becoming driving forces for their own education and that is one of the biggest accomplishments we could ever hope to see.”

During the spring meeting of the Southern Ohio Section of the American Association of Physics Teachers, Doty was invited to give a presentation titled “Science Fair: Creating Adaptive Experts and Deep Learners.” The focus of the meeting was on student participation in scientific research at all levels of education, extoling the benefits of research for students and outlining best practices for engaging students in research.

“In my presentation, I defined what I mean by a ‘well run’ science fair, reported on the benefits of science fair participation, described how my model for expanding science fair outside of school is implemented, why such expansion is important, and the successes and challenges of my model,” said Doty. “I described science fair as both a training ground for professional scientists but more importantly as critical to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) literacy and 21st century learning objectives. Students who have participated in science fair are more likely to pursue STEM careers, begin research early in their undergraduate years, and more easily transition to professional scientific careers either as research scientists or industrial scientists. Moreover, anecdotal evidence exists to suggest that students who participate in science fair – even if they discover that they are not interested in science as a career – develop confidence in their academic and social skills which translates as improved performance in social and academic measures.

“What we’re really trying to do with the local science fair is help young children understand that learning means being able to ask your own question and answer your own question, figuring out how to do that on your own,” said Doty. “That’s what science fair is all about.”

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