Three-sided display boards, neatly written reports, and plants in various stages of growth set up on the three feet of space allowed each person. Children nervously pace or bounce from one foot to the other, parents meander among the tables, and stern-looking judges ask questions of the nervous children. And, don't forget the vinegar-baking soda volcano. Yes, it's a science fair.

Soon after the holidays, science fairs start up, beginning with local contests leading to state competitions, often held in May. Whether your child is participating in a local home school fair or competing in the various levels leading to the state contest, science fair projects can be a wealth of learning.

Many home school groups allow the younger students to take part in local science fairs. County, regional, and state events are often limited to fourth through twelfth grades. Children should be encouraged to participate at least once as a way to ignite interest in science. Maybe one outing with the local event will be enough for your child to know that science is not his forte. On the other hand, it may be that one event that will lead to discovering a fulfilling hobby or career.

Beyond sparking an interest in science, there are other benefits to taking part in the annual science fair. In addition to skill building such as research, experimentation, and exploration of new topics, valuable life skills are learned as well. Students gain practice in skills such as time management, thinking skills, communication skills, and perseverance.

Time-Management.
A quality science fair project is not zapped out the night before entries are due. A project that begins in January cannot be as extensive as one that is begun in September. Don't confuse a large project with a good one. The project started later can be an excellent project if it is planned well. Wise use of time and resources is not just for science projects, but also in other areas of study.

Thinking Skills.
The essence of the scientific method is to logically solve a problem. Problem solving also takes creative thinking. Analyzing and interpreting data to draw conclusions is essential to a successful project The ability to look at the problem, think of possible solutions, and make decision about the solution is an important work skill.

Communication Skills.
Reports must be written and presentations given with science fair projects. In addition, the judges ask the young scientist questions about the project. Participants learn to think on their feet. The judges don't try to trick the students, just find out how well they understand their project. This is the same process that is used in job interviews.

Recordkeeping.
An element that judges look for is a log book, a written record of the project. A log book can't be written after the fact because it should contain detailed and accurate notes. The notes recorded in a log book will also help with the final written report. More importantly, students will learn to keep neat and accurate records whether it is for school projects or balancing a checkbook.

Perseverance.
Over the course of the weeks leading up to the science fair, there will be failures, deadlines, and parts of the project eaten by the cat. Boredom may even set in as watching mold grow on top of the refrigerator is not as exciting as it sounded. Students who push through the slumps learn the rewards of persevering through the hard parts of the project. They learn just what Churchill meant when he said, "Never give up. Never give up. Never give up." They will experience the rewards of carrying through to the end.

Whether your student is a science fair first-timer or an experienced "pro," she will come away a winner. If not with a ribbon, but with skills that will last a lifetime.

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Susan K. Stewart is the author of Science in the Kitchen, Fearless Science for All Ages. She presents workshops on teaching science at home including high school lab sciences. Susan and her husband Bob began teaching their three children in 1981 graduating all of them from home school. "Out-of-the-Box Science Fair Projects" tip sheet can be found at www.skstewart.com, click on Free Stuff. Susan can be reached at susan@skstewart.com