Local Students Competing in Science Fair Focus of New U of A Documentary

February 23, 2017

Students develop a personally relevant research question to study for their science fair projects.
Students develop a personally relevant research question to study for their science fair projects.

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – A new film produced by University of Arkansas faculty members tells the story of students from three local state high schools who compete in a regional science fair hosted at the U of A.

The students from Alma High School in Crawford County, Alpena High School in Boone County and Haas Hall Academy in Fayetteville have a record of success at the annual science fair. U of A science educator William McComas said one of the main things these three schools and students have in common is their dedicated teachers and support from the schools themselves.

The 52-minute documentary will be shown at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 14 in the Gearhart Hall auditorium on the U of A campus. The showing is free and open to the public. McComas will next present the film for its world premiere on March 29 at the annual conference of the National Science Teachers Association in Los Angeles.

McComas, who holds the Parks Family Professorship in Science Education in the College of Education and Health Professions, envisioned and produced the film – Uncontrolled Variables: A Science Fair Story. He worked with award-winning filmmaker Dale Carpenter, professor of journalism in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, who wrote and directed the film. McComas saw the film as a natural outgrowth of his professorship, an opportunity to advance an understanding of science teaching and learning.

“There is no more authentic aspect of science teaching than to demonstrate how science works, and that happens most effectively through the science fair,” said McComas. “The science fair gives students the unique opportunity to engage in the same problem-solving processes as scientists do. Students start with a personally relevant research question, then they design a research project, collect data, analyze their data and present the results. This process lies at the foundation of both the science fair and science itself and is one that we must foster in all science learning settings.”

The film describes the challenges, frustrations and successes the students experience as they conceive, then carry out their projects – even beating out students from larger schools. McComas and Carpenter agree that the students are able to enter and successfully compete because of the incredible guidance and support they get from their teachers, although with the expectation that they can do it.

“I love to make films about people who are passionate about their work and are striving to achieve difficult goals,” Carpenter said. “The science teachers in Uncontrolled Variables are wonderful examples of educators who believe that the best way to teach science is to give students the opportunity to do it.”

Carpenter will be honored with a Best of Competition in long-form documentary award for this film in April at the Broadcast Education Association’s Festival of Media Arts. A trailer can be viewed online.

The first national science fair for high school students took place at the Museum of Natural History in New York City in 1928. Today, more than 1,500 students from 52 countries compete in the International Science and Engineering Fair, each of them beginning as a competitor in their local school’s science fair.

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