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Bayonne school board makes science fair optional and extra credit

Pleas from the district's Science Supervisor to keep it in the curriculum fell on deaf ears

Director of Science Tara Degnan (left) discusses the science fair with Vice President Christopher Munoz (right) at the October meeting's open public workshop.

Bayonne has made its science fair optional, offering extra credit for students who want to do it. The board approved a resolution amending the current community school science project, which previously required a science project be completed for the science fair and counted as two test grades.

The move at its monthly meeting in October followed frequent parent complaints that the projects were being made by parents, purchased from other students, or made using expensive science fair kits.

However, the board recommended the science project but declared the science fair would be voluntary. Extra credit will be given to students who choose to participate.

The board was not unanimous in their decision, with President Maria Valado, Vice President Christopher Munoz, Trustee Jodi Casais, Trustee Melissa Godesky-Rodriguez, and Trustee Hector Gonzalez voting in favor of making the science fair optional. Meanwhile, Trustee Lisa Burke, Trustee Jan Patrick Egan, and Trustee Pamela Sclafane voted against the resolution, and Trustee Denis Wilbeck was absent.

District officials ask board to keep science fair in curriculum

No discussion took place at the regular meeting on October 20. However, at the board’s open public workshop before the regular meeting, some district officials appealed to the board to keep the science fair mandatory in the curriculum.

Dr. Dennis Degnan, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum asked the board for a recommendation to make the science fair extra credit. To counter that, he had the district’s director of the science fair present a talk about the importance of the project.

Science Supervisor Tara Degnan said that science fair is colloquial term for what is now considered an authentic research project. It aims to demonstrate that students understand the benefits of sensitive scientific research, she said.

“I think we need to continue with our current curriculum activity,” Degnan said. She showed a video of colleagues who help with the Hudson County STEM showcase speaking in favor of things like the science fair, such as Dr. Mina Armani, a chemistry teacher at Jose Marti STEM Academy, as well as New Jersey City University President Sue Henderson.

Degnan pointed to how 297 students from the county participated in 2022’s Hudson County STEM Showcase. She said it has a positive impact on the thousands of students that do the research and feels it needs to remain in the curriculum, noting that gold medal winners of the recent showcase got scholarships to NJCU.

According to Degnan, the science fair also helps the district easily meet the required eight science and engineering practices of New Jersey’s Next Generation Science Standards that must be covered by the district’s curriculum.

Those eight practices include: asking questions; developing and using models; planning and carrying investigations; analyzing and interpreting data; using math; constructing explanations; engaging in arguments and evidence; and communicating the information. The science fair project covers all of these, according to Degnan.

“This is the best activity you could ever do to meet this standards in the curriculum,” Degnan said. “There’s no reason to not do this during the school day.”

Parents doing the projects?

Valado asked for clarification on if the project is done in school, skeptical that was the case. Degnan clarified it begins in school with some work to be done at home.

“The authentic research project takes place from Marking Period One, all the way through the end of Marking Period Two,” Degnan said. “It’s a long term project.”

After introducing the project to students, they develop their question for their project. Once approved, the students can conduct their investigation at home. Degnan said there’s no way the teacher can do every student’s idea in the classroom.

“It’s teacher-led and the data collection is done at home,” Degnan said. “They come back, they write a scientific paper, and they present their own resources. It’s 40 days in a marking period. It’s a least a month to do this. It can’t be done all in school. There’s no way.”

Valado argued that the projects wind up getting done by parents. Degnan said that was hard to believe, but Valado said the board had four parents on it that could testify otherwise. Degnan said that this type of science fair project exists in the Jersey City school district too, and that the projects “outweigh anything you can ever possibly do in a classroom.”

Egan asked about the grading process, noting it was different from school to school. Degnan said it was typically worth two test grades for the project.

Munoz said it was one marking period grade for some schools, to which Degnan said it depends on when a school has their fair. Munoz added that some schools hold it in beginning of November, others in mid December, calling the inconsistency in preparation time between schools another reason that science fair should be optional.

“The idea is wonderful, but its not expressed completely the same across the board,” Egan said. In response, Degnan said she could micro-manage each science fair if need be.

‘It’s hard to fail because of this’

Valado asked if the rubric is individual to each teacher, Degnan said yes but added it is all the same. Of the two grades for the project, one is for presentation and the other for the paper about the project.

“Those are where the two grades come from,” Degnan said. “No one’s failing the science fair.”

To back up her point, Degnan said she searched grade books and there was 100s down the line. She said “it’s hard to fail because of this project,” and that it helps the students.

Burke asked what the district loses by making it extra credit. Degnan said students will be missing out on a potentially formative experience, and again noted the district would not be meeting Next Generation Science Standards.

Munoz disputed that the standards required a science fair. Degnan said there doesn’t have to be, but it is the best way to meet the standards.

According to Munoz, teachers can find another way. “I happen to think our science teachers in this district are very capable,” he said.

Degnan did not disagree about the capability of science teachers. She again noted, however, that the district would not meet the state standards without the science fair.

Valado asked if there were science experiments in the classrooms already. Degnan confirmed there are hands-on investigations, which Valado used as proof that the district is still meeting the standards.

“They’re still planning out how they’re going to do the experiments, they’re carrying out the investigation and the experiment and doing it in the classroom,” Valado said. Degnan said everything students do in the classroom is standards-based, but she still felt the standards would not be met without the science fair.

The board voted 5-3 to make the science fair optional.

Project should relate to topics in class, Valado said

Valado then asked if science fair topics should relate to what students are currently learning in class. She referenced an example by Degnan earlier about a potential project researching what is “the greasiest potato chip.”

“I am spending my time teaching about matter in fifth grade,” Valado said. “And then they come in and do a project about the greasiness of a potato chip… If the project is based on topics covered in the curriculum for that grade level, wouldn’t that have more of an impact because of what they’re actually immersed going investigation and research on that topic?”

Degnan said that if every student could come up with a question pertaining to topics like matter, there would be several “high-level” projects produced. But she said that there is a difference between practices and content when it comes to the science curriculum, to which Valado suggested they combine them.

According to Degnan, students have to come up with a question by themselves, not be directed by the teacher. Valado said students go home and ask their parents what to do the project on, then the parents do it.

Valado reiterated that projects should relate to classroom topics. Degnan said that the students have to engage in the eight practices, which is easily done by the science fair project.

Godesky-Rodriguez asked if there have been studies done on the social, emotional and mental impact for students who can’t compete at the level of other students due to financial or other issues. Degnan hoped no one was being hurt in those ways and said that she has not encountered anyone unable to the project altogether.

Degnan said none of these concerns have never been sent to her to answer via phone or email. Munoz said trustees have received phone calls from parents as well as from educators in the district “who don’t actually want to do the science fair, that think its actually counterproductive to what’s happening in the classroom, but fear mentioning it out of fear of retaliation.”

“They just don’t want to say it out loud because they’re afraid to be in trouble for ending it,” Munoz said. “But you said something about high level projects…. It seems to me the district is producing high level projects and not high level learning experiences. It should be what’s happening in the classroom that counts, not showcasing ourselves in Hudson County.”

Science fair will remain, but be optional

Degnan again asked why board members did not forward their comments to her. Munoz said the complaints were being sent to the administration, including Assitant Superintendent Degnan and Superintendent John Niesz.

“Superintendent Niesz said if we wanted to put this on the agenda, he is supporting us in that endeavor to do so and by our wish,” Munoz said. “This has been addressed several years… The amount of calls I’ve gotten, enough is enough… that needs to be addressed.”

Munoz also argued an equity issue was at play here. He said that, in his opinion, those who win the science fair are the kids whose parents can afford science kits worth hundreds of dollars.

“It seems to me that the parents that can afford the extra $200 on a science fair kits are the ones that are winning,” Munoz said. “So for me, it’s an equity issue… If the district is prepared to give every kid in the district a science fair kit, and will all be judged on the same standard, then I will support the science project.”

Valado asked if the district would be willing to buy science kits for every student. Degnan noted there were many winners in the past from Bayonne elementary schools that used no supplies.

“There’s no board required,” Degnan said. “There many projects online that are ‘A plus’ type of projects that require no supplies. It’s research, it’s looking at data, it’s writing a paper. It’s not a kit that you have to put together. Yes all those kits are online and families go out and buy them… but it’s not necessary.”

On equity, Assistant Superintendent Degnan said that the district ensures entrants from all middle schools are submitted to the Hudson County STEM Showcase. He said: “We’ve addressed this by making sure that they’re not just sending the projects from Oresko School.”

Supervisor Degnan said that Nicholas Oresko Community School has a very high-level program, and while the district can send only projects from that school and win, the district chooses projects form students across the district to go to Liberty Science Center for the Hudson County STEM Showcase. She said she asks for additional spots and money to send more students if they want to go.

“I do everything I can to make sure that we are equitable across the district,” Degnan said.

Doing it all in the classroom not possible, Science Supervisor said

Valado asked if students could do it all in the classroom, to which Degnan said they start it there then finish at home. Valado asked what they are required to do at home and Degnan pointed to the research part of the project.

“Once their teacher approves their question, they go home and conduct their research,” Degnan said. “They go home, they chart their data, and then they write their paper, which is standard across the district. It’s the same form that goes out every year. They type up their paper on their Chromebook and they submit it to their teacher.”

Valado asked if there was still a board required for the project. Degnan said no, now the students make a PowerPoint presentation on their Chromebook.

Valado said the students still need the materials to do project once approved. She asked what happens if the family can’t afford the chosen project, such as water filtration project with an expensive kit, and if the student could get supplies from the school. Degnan said that is possible, but has not had that scenario occur.

“We can,” Degnan said. “I’ve had no concerns, but I did have people call me and ask, ‘Can I have a beaker from the school?’ Sure. I sent the beaker home with the student.”

Munoz said the science fair kits are expensive, questioning if one could be bought for every student in fairness. He added that the students wouldn’t lose anything under this resolution because the science fair is only being made optional, not being cancelled.

“I honestly don’t believe that the kids would lose anything because we’re not ending this, we’re just making it optional,” Munoz said. “The kids that want to produce these projects will produce great projects. We will still be represented at the county showcase.”

Same fate for Fire Prevention Poster Contest and National History Day Contest?

Assistant Superintendent Degnan mentioned similar projects that weren’t being made optional by the board, such as the Fire Prevention Poster Contest and National History Day Contest. Munoz said that would be addressed at a future meeting.

Burke then vocalized that while she felt the fair should be optional, she wasn’t in favor of enforcing that now. She noted there was no plan in place and that the change can’t occur “because there are parents that have already started.”

Burke said that by making it optional fewer kids will do it and will lose out on the learning experience. She said the science fair is important to learning the same way the National History Day project is.

“They are losing out because they’re also learning a little bit more every time they do a science project, just like they are learning every time they’re doing a history project,” Burke said. “I have two kids in the district. Both of my children have Individualized Education Program (IEP). So its very stressful for us to do this, but I dont think we should be pulling it. I don’t think we should change what we have right now until we have a gameplan as to how this is actually going to run.”

Munoz said the gameplan is to make the science fair optional. He said any kid who wants to do it will do it, and the teachers will grade the projects they receive as extra credit.

When asked by Burke what if it was part of the teacher’s grades already, Munoz said teachers are resourceful, “they can come up with another assignment.” That was also his solution to meet the state science standards.

“Here’s an idea, take away that assignment altogether,” Munoz said. “It wouldn’t matter. I have faith in our teachers that they can address the Next Generations Science Standards through their instructions in the classroom.”

For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at disrael@hudsonreporter.com.

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