Preliminary Judging at the CT Science Fair
Mar 15th, 2012 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

Tuesday, March 13, marked my 12th year participating in the Connecticut Science Fair.  Although my first 10 years brought me the joy of my own students presenting their work, the past two have found me in a new role – judging projects.  Since my leave from the classroom, this is probably the one time of year when I most miss not having high school students.  Their and my collaboration to create meaningful projects, get them done, and present them on posters was a highlight of the year for me.

However this year brought me a new highlight. I was asked to head up a new category: the Urban School Challenge.  As part of my responsibilites, I had to recruit judges and I wound up inviting some that have real significance to me.

First, was Ann – Ann was my high school biology teacher.  She was the woman who inspired me to pursue a vocation in science.  I still look fondly back to my 11th grade year when she mentored me in a year-long independent science project.

Second, was Steve – Steve is a regular commenter here, so I am guessing he will probably read this post at some point.  Steve was a student in my graduate class in Methods in Science class.  A “second-careerer,” Steve was perhaps my most thoughtful and forward thinking student in his class.  I think he really understood the value of having students pursue research, and I was so pleased that he got the opportunity to see the process first-hand.

Third, was Tyler – Tyler, now an undergrad at the University of Connecticut majoring in Computer Science was one of my best research students. He participated in these fairs, now works as an intern for me, and most importantly got a chance to see the fair from the “other side.”

For me, it was a somewhat surreal 3-generation reunion.  Most importantly we were there helping to form the future scientists and engineers of the country.

CT Science Fair Idea Workshop
Oct 16th, 2011 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

On October 15, 2011, I facilitated a workshop for the Connecticut Science Fair entitled:

Where do good ideas come from?  Techniques for Developing creative potential and idea generation

Below, please find video segments for the workshop.  Here is the accompanying handout

Part 1:  Intro

Part 2A:

Part 2B:

Part 3: Brainstorming


Connecticut Science Fair 2011
Mar 21st, 2011 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

Wow!  What a great CT Science Fair 2011 at Quinnipiac University.  We’ve taken on some digital media projects.  See below:

CSF Trailer

Governor Dannel Malloy Speaks at the CSF Awards Ceremony

You’ll never know when a former student “drops” in
Jan 7th, 2011 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

My former science research student, Drew, is a cadet in the Air Force Academy.  He recently made a skydiving splash, landing in the Orange Bowl.  See him below.  Thanks to his Dad, Fred for sharing with me.  Drew was a talented young scientist, winning the Science Horizons Science Fair and the Science Horizons Science Symposium.  He earned a trip to the International Science and Engineering Fair in 2006 and the National Junior Science and Humanities Symposium in 2007.  As a teacher, it is always exciting to see where my students land next.

(Sorry about the speed – the upload to YouTube sped up the film)

The Unfortunate Economics of the Science Fair
Jan 3rd, 2011 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

Note: This article is cross-posted in the CSSA Newsletter. Be a part of the discussion, join my personal learning network, and leave a comment on its contents here.

A recent New York Times article by Emma Graves Fitzimmons discussed the financial woes of many science fairs across the country. Sponsors have dropped out, financing has been cut and organizers are scrambling to find money. The sad reality is that some of these events are being canceled. These authentic experiences for students are often important career-leading catalysts for young, budding scientists and engineers. Although not mentioned in the article, of local concern has been the greater Danbury area Science Horizons Science Fair.

from: New York Times

Science Horizons recently announced that it would be unable to financially support its regional Fair this year, and unfortunately, this important threshold opportunity, which brings a diverse group of students together, will be lost. Science Horizons is optimistic that it can obtain funding to restore the Fair in 2012. Science Horizons is encouraging each member school to support a local fair and will provide support by sending local winners to the Connecticut (State) Science Fair, held at Quinnipiac University this March. They will also fund some awards at the State fair. The reality of the US economic downturn’s impact on meaningful, authentic educational experiences for students hits home with this announcement.

Science Horizons is a nonprofit organization that has served the greater Danbury area’s budding scientists and engineers since xxx by offering a venue for middle and high school students to present the results of their original, long term experimental research. Each year typically over 600 students present projects at their annual Fair. Science Horizons is staffed totally by volunteers and raises all its money privately.

In the spring of 1989, as a high school junior, I had the distinct pleasure of participating in Science Horizon’s Science Symposium. This experience for me was transformational. I can point to that experience as one that helped me recognize that science was both a logical/analytical a creative endeavor, that an extended project was a rigorous, meaningful way to learn, and that science was a process – so much more than a collection of facts in a textbook. I pursued a degree in Biology, worked in a Bacterial Genetics lab doing methods development for the Human Genome Project, became a high school science teacher, and have worked directly with over 200 students who have conducted and presented high quality research. Many of these students have also pursued careers in science, the health sciences, and engineering.

With Connecticut’s budding knowledge-based economy, a scientifically-literate and educated workforce is critical. Opportunities like the Science Horizons Fair must be viewed as a necessity.

Students long to be creative
Nov 6th, 2010 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

I facilitated a workshop several Saturdays ago for the Connecticut Science Fair.  The topic was:

Strategies for improving middle school science fair project quality.

The workshop was opened to students and teachers to learn about both the problem finding process.  I challenge the fold, quite frequently asking participants to challenge their own engrained biases to move students to a point where they value and understand the problem fnding process.

This workshop had an “interesting” participant:  an English teacher who felt that a special education student should be able to choose a project that would be deemed low quality by a panel of authentic judges.  This bothers me for several reasons.  The first, is because the teacher finds little to no value in the problem finding process. Problem finding is about exploring, questioning, and thinking to determine an idea and avoiding the hasty, non-invested, often irrelevant and value-lacking idea.  All students can learn about value by recognizing an authentic audience that would appreciate the student’s work.

Second, the teacher thinks that a special needs student is not capable of original, creative thought.  I also reject this idea with years of experience and many students who have challenged the fold to make a meaningful, relevant project.  Several of my identified (SpeEd or 504) students have developed and carried out projects that have been recognized at the NATIONAL level.  They are competing with some of the top students from around the world.  They have demonstrated that perhaps their learning style is different than some of their compatriots.  They learn in a different fashion, and when given the opportunity, shine masterfully.

We do any and all students a disservice when we classify or compartmentalize them based on perceived deficiencies.  We really need to recognize that every student, given motivation, appropriate scaffolding, and high quality mentorship can be successful

Shameful comments about Science Fairs
Oct 29th, 2010 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

NPR’s Science Fridayhosted by Ira Flatow recently featured Dean Kamen, the founder of the FIRST Robotics Competition (no hyperlink provided, because it wasn’t earned).  He had some negative comments about the Science Fair experience.  Shame on him – he should be promoting and inspiring all students to pursue interests in science and engineering.  Organizations that support and provide opportunities for innovative students should all be rewarded, not classified as “boring.”  Have you ever been on the floor of a science fair?  It is abuzz with excitement – students that are inspired – adults that are mesmerized and impressed.  It is life-changing for some students.  Shame of Kamen for unilaterally stereotyping one of the most positive, far-reaching experiences for student innovators.

 I have offered to the Society for Science (the organization that publishes Science News, and sponsors the Intel International Science Fair and the Intel Science Talent Search) to write a position paper or publically speak as a teacher, educational researcher of the science fair process, and representative of a science fair organization (VP – CT Science Fair).

 Here’s the excerpt including the despicable comments:

Mr. KAMEN: Well, it’s funny that you mentioned that point, because as I said, we had we’ll have 50 regionals this coming year. We were all the way up to 46 regionals last year. And one of them, we put literally in the convention center in downtown Washington, specifically. Because we hoped now that we have teams competing from every state, we figured, certainly, all the senators and Congress people would want to show up and root on their teams, and see what’s going on, especially in something as important as this.

[A]lthough we invited 100 senators and, well over the 400 congressmen, nobody else [besides Jeanne Shaheen and Harry Reid] showed up. . . .

FLATOW: Well, do you not suspect that in this political environment, there’s an anti-intellectual bent, where the people don’t want to think that science is a good thing to know about?

Mr. KAMEN: You know, I hope I’m not that cynical. I think it’s not that. I think they many of them think it’s just too difficult and abstruse a subject to really understand. They don’t want to be embarrassed maybe by what they don’t know. I think it’s even simpler than that in some cases. They believe that that we invited them to see some kind of a boring, dull science fair where they’d have to read little charts and posters with, you know, words either from Latin roots in medicine or…

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KAMEN: …mathematical figures and terms that they didn’t really understand. And when we tell them, no, no. It’s nothing like that. It’s a sporting event. It’s so exciting. You bring the cheerleaders and the school bands and the fans, and you have a great time. Except instead of learning how to bounce the ball, these kids are learning how to think and solve difficult problems, and work on complex issues with big teams.

But until you go to the event, I think they dismiss it as, it must be a science fair. I won’t get much out of it. I won’t be able to comprehend it.

 Why does a science competition have to be made to be like a sporting event to be exciting?  I’m not so convinced of that.

An interview which describes my early professional influences
Jul 25th, 2010 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

Earlier this year, I was asked to participate (as a subject) in a research study examining teacher’s expertise as it relates to pedagogy, subject expertise, and inquiry (research) skills.  During an interview, I was asked to recall a meaningful experience that influenced my teaching.  I have orally told this story many times, but the researcher was recording and transcribing.  I was fortunate to receive a copy of the transcript and am sharing it below:

Question:  Can you recall what experiences informed your understanding of science teaching?

My response:

Yes! I can very much pinpoint the event that really helped focus and change my perception of myself as a science teacher. And it took place in March 1998. I was working with a teacher and he said, Frank you would really like this event, is called the Junior Science and Humanities symposium.  It takes place at UConn and I really encourage you to go. I think you are going to get a lot out of it.  Take a couple of students if you would like, and by the way, can you take my son too.  He’s at the right age and I think it would be good for him to go. So I went to this symposium at the University of Connecticut.  What I found were students presenting results from their research. It took place in 15-minute platforms: they did 15 minute talks followed by questions and answers from the audience.  I was sitting in the audience utterly mesmerized by these students – how well they were presenting.  I sat back and said what a fool I had been. As a neophyte teacher, I was teaching the way I was taught.  Here I had my mind opened to remind me what really made a very positive influence in my development as a scientist and that was working in a research laboratory.  Watching those students I realized what was meaningful to me – what made me a good student of science.  It was not the didactic book knowledge but rather the meaningful exploration of science as a way to develop knowledge. So I walked away from that event saying this (authentic, applied research) is what I should be doing.  From that point, I really started to shape my philosophy of education.  At that point I did not know what inquiry meant or perhaps I had not defined it as well as I do today, but I understood the value of doing authentic research.  The Junior Science and Humanities Symposium really shaped my whole philosophy of teaching – that we needed to move students towards the individualization and the authentic opportunities for them to do meaningful science. So I can confidently say that was the most important experience in my professional career to date.

There is so much more to the story too.  At that symposium there were also students presenting posters.  I went up to one of the students who has developed this device and it was basically a homemade spectrophotometer:  it’s a device used to measure interference of light.  He was using it for photosynthesis or some whatever reason. He was very proud of himself and I was chatting with him and his teacher happened to be there. The students was from Greenwich High School, which was the next town from where I was teaching.  I met this teacher, we really got on very well, and he became a mentor for me to inculcate me to doing science research process with students.  He really was a wonderful teacher and it was an amazing experience in the sense that I recognized what I valued in my education and also I met someone who shared the same values as I did.  We both had extremely positive experiences doing research with students.  He became a mentor for me.

The Phil Mikan Show
Apr 12th, 2010 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

Two students and I received a request to appear on Phil Mikan’s Corner Radio Show.  Phil’s show broadcasts from Middletown, CT and is heard on WLIS and WMRD

Phil asked us to join him to talk about our successes at the Connecticut Science Fair.  Both of my students were finalists and won some significant awards.

One of the most interesting comments about the experience came after we left when one student said, “Boy, I never knew all fo the things I would get to see because I did a science fair project.” 

How true.  Authentic experiences breed other authentic experiences.  I wrote about those unique experiences last year as well.  There is something magical about doing real work (in this case, science research that has an authentic audience), because “real” people want to hear about it.

Listen to the show here:

Situated learning requires a non-traditional timeframe
Feb 19th, 2010 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.


The tyranny of the bell:  the industrial model we use in secondary education to promote student learning and achievement.  The bell schedule consists of 45-minute periods where students engage in learning a discipline, then compartmentalize and move on to the next discipline.  It is an honored tradition in the educational institution, yet some are looking to move to alternative methods for promoting student learning.

The most noticable format is the block schedule.  Instead of a traditional 7 or 8-period day, the teaching and learning occurs in approximately 4 1.5-hour blocks.  The block model is often credited for promoting greater depth (although not necessarily bredth) of understanding.  In a well-planned block, students can often deeply engage in their learning and become more authentic producers of information.  I have often heard a description that I would consider a failed use of the purpose of the block:  “I gave a test for the first half and then lectured the second half.”  This is really no different than 2 45-minute blocks.  If X=45 minutes of learning and Y=45 minutes of learning, then using X+Y as a block, surely wasn’t what was intended.  Nonetheless, I am getting off track of what I wanted to write about .  .  .

I teach an applied science research class, where students develop and carry out their own projects over the course of a year.  What I am finding, is that both a 45-minute or a 1.5-hour timeframe are not enough.  I want, (I need) 3+hour blocks.  Yesterday, during February vacation, I had my lab open for students to work.  Some arrived at 9:30, some thereafter, some stayed for 4 hours, some for 8, some for 10.  One worked at Yale in the morning on an SEM, and then came to the school midafternoon and stayed until 7:30.  It was all about FLEXIBILITY.

Flexibility to learn as appropriate for the individual student.  Some were conducting experiments, some were using the computer lab to work on a poster, some were mounting posters, some were conferencing with me, some were organizing binders of research reports, some were conducting statistical analyses like ANOVAs, some were on their cell phones making arrangements for data collection at a different lab.  Each was doing what they needed to do to be successful.  Each was motivated – much of it was internal, but the external pressures of completing an assignment and presenting it for an audience of practicing scientists and engineers that weekend.

I was the principal investigator running my lab.  My students, the project managers, were engaged in behaviors of the scientific and engineering researchers.  We were THE community of practice.  We weren’t trying to be like scientists (“like real life”).  We were DOING it. 

Interestingly, we couldn’t do what we were doing – such deep learning, such authentic learning, if we were under the tyranny of the bell.  Vacation from school afforded us the opportunity to learn (in the case of this class) better than we could under normal “educational” circumstances.  I don’t know how we can operationalize this kind of learning strategy in a systemic way, and honestly don’t know if I want to all of the time . . .



What I do walk away knowing, is that education MUST take place in a variety of places and formats.  What I do know is that when the teacher assumes the role of the facilitator rather than the disseminator of knowledge, students certainly construct their knowledge better.  Better learning . . . isn’t that what we’re all seek?

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