Changing Lives Through Science Fairs: The Benefits of Science Fairs

Taking part in science fairs can transform a life. 

The Resource Centre’s Science and Technology facilitator, Alberto Mansilla, has seen the impact that submitting an experiment for a science fair and then presenting their work to others has had on students across the province. 

“It builds their self-confidence, which can make such an impact in their future. One hundred per cent of the time, even if they are not recognized at the end, there is that building up of confidence in that student. When they come back, they are different.” 

Mansilla explains the process of taking part in the science fair includes so many elements of a student’s learning experience that it cannot help but have an effect and benefits for both students and teachers. He says at schools served by the Resource Centre and the Manitoba First Nations School System (MFNSS), the process starts with students looking around at their local environment and gaining a better understanding that everyone is a part of the world around them. 

“It starts with the work plan, which is focused on project-based and place-based learning. We want them to study their own environment and study the ecosystems around them—the trees around them, the animals, the plants, and the climate. Due to the place-based learning, they become conscious of being part of the environment around them, which is the idea behind the First Nations Education Framework. We want them to develop a respect for their environment and for their Elders. For them to be able to give gratitude for what makes them alive, what gives them life.” 

Creating a science fair project touches on numerous skills and subjects, including written and verbal communication; math skills like graph-making or statistical analysis; and, of course, science and the scientific method. Mansilla says it starts with the student looking around their First Nation and identifying a challenge or process they want to resolve or better understand.  

“Students will look for a problem, very near to their heart, that they want to solve, which then becomes the introduction and the background of their project. They’ll use their English studies or their own First Nations language to develop that. Then, a question arises: What do they want to do to better understand the issue? So, the phrasing of the hypothesis and the statistical analysis comes in. And then, the methodology and the critical thinking: How would they solve this problem? They must come up with a plan and an experiment. And, once they have the results of the experiment, they’ll be introduced to mathematical concepts like graphs, tables, and comparable analysis.” 

Mansilla says there is a thread that goes through the making of the science fair project that flows through the entire Manitoba science curriculum, including Cluster 0, which includes scientific inquiry and the design process. The students are also expected to create a bibliography and acknowledgments so they better understand that today’s science, like so many things in life, is built on the work of others who have gone on before. 

“The science fair project is a series of activities that will really awaken their scientific ability, and the focus is not on the competition, it’s about participation, but the science fair can also develop the competitive self. It introduces the idea of the student building up their confidence, so they can provide a proper and effective presentation. Every time a child presents at the science fair, we are so conscious that all this is taking place. All of this is embedded into that simple activity of the science project. All the curriculum is in there, everything.” 

While Mansilla insists the science fair is not about competition, he does admit a student winning the science fair can get everyone involved with the local school excited. He tells the story of one school within MFNSS that was not putting forward any projects. The Resource Centre’s staff went to the school asking how they could support them in developing student interest in participating. Eventually, the teacher asked all their students to submit an idea for an experiment based on local concerns. This led to a few students submitting projects for consideration, including one Grade 12 student who hand-wrote the explanations on their presentation board. Due to the hand-written notes, their potential experiment was overlooked, but the Resource Centre supervisor encouraged the science facilitator to go back and take another look. In the end, the student’s project was chosen to go to the next stage. While their presentation board wasn’t much to look at, the student was able to clearly explain what they wanted from their experiment. What followed was two months of analysis and development. Given the subject of the experiment, the student worked with one of the Resource Centre’s school psychologists and the science facilitator to flesh out the idea and hone the project. Eventually, the student won third prize at the Canada-Wide Science Fair (CWSF). Mansilla says that after that one student did so well, the whole school was awakened to the benefits of submitting science fair projects. 

“Suddenly, everyone wanted to do it. For years after, that school was so active. It really awakened everyone from the teachers and the students to the parents and the Chief and Council. That student went on to train with the military, part of what they won was a one-year, science-related scholarship to one of the sponsoring universities that helped with their future studies. It changed their life.”  

A focus on the Medicine Wheel and First Nations philosophies is one of the special things about science fair projects that come out of the Resource Centre and MFNSS. Coming from the Philippines, Mansilla says he is happy that students are learning about their connections to the land, the people around them, and their spiritual side. He says the teachings about these connections are often missing from the curriculums of other cultures. 

“We are developing a system of using First Nations languages and cultures as the context of everything we deliver to the communities. We have been developing comprehensive lesson plans that allow us to use the Medicine Wheel and, at the same time, acknowledging the cognitive knowledge, the physical, the spiritual, and then the social aspects of life. In my experience, almost all the countries in Asia are very focused on cognitive knowledge. We force our kids to do drills, like in math. But we have forgotten the social, we have forgotten the spiritual, we forgot the physical. It creates a sort of disconnect with the families, and it creates a disconnect with the people around you. The only focus is to learn, learn, learn without the social interactions and without the spiritual support.” 

Taking part in the science fair program is very rewarding for Mansilla. He says it can offer a lot to teachers too as it gives them insight into how well their students are comprehending lessons by having the students to put their learning into action. Since the projects involve all aspects of the curriculum, teachers can see the impact that they are having with real-world results. He encourages teachers to take part in the regional science fairs to, eventually, have some of their students reach the national level. 

“Every year it identifies the most brilliant kids in Canada. At CWSF, there are only 10 gold, 30 silver, and 40 bronze medals, and that is it. The CWSF averages around 400 students each year. So, when you get that bronze, it is not just bronze—you have proven you are a part of the one per cent of the most brilliant young people in Canada. And there is also the recognition from post-secondary institutions, like the First Nations University of Canada. There are so many universities and colleges there. It drives us to excel, to really help the teachers. When a student does well, it shows everyone what has been accomplished. It makes us so proud that we can guide a student and expand their understanding of what is possible in their life.” 


One Student’s Experience at the Canada-Wide Science Fair 

Sarabelle Garson is from Fisher River Cree Nation and her project on the Three Sisters—corn, bean, and squash—and why they should be grown together won her a gold at the Resource Centre’s Regional Science Fair in Winnipeg. After her win at the regional level, she went on to CWSF in Edmonton. Sarabelle was interviewed in Edmonton just before the final judging and spoke about her experience up to that point. 

“It’s been good so far. It’s been really busy, and I’ve been trying to do as much reading as I possibly can. I’ve been trying to read up on my board, just to make sure I can recite everything, and I have everything stuck in my head.” 

After the first round of judging, Sarabelle gained a better idea of what was expected at the national level and how to work on improving her presentation. 

“My first judge, I couldn’t answer a few of her questions because I didn’t really know what to expect at first, and I was a little bit nervous and I didn’t say a lot of the things I wanted to say at first. But with the last few judges, I did really well because I knew what to expect this time, and I learned from my first one. So, I did the opposite of what I did wrong.” 

Two other projects came out of the Resource Centre’s and MFNSS’ science fair process and their creators also had a chance to go. When in Edmonton, the students took part in several activities including a visit to the University of Alberta and Canada’s largest mall. 

The trip to the university inspired Sarabelle to think about her future. 

“It was really cool to see. I have never been to a university, like, on a tour like that before. And I got to see those rocks and computer programming. I got to learn a lot of new cool stuff. I want to go to university for sure. Maybe science, but I’m not 100 per cent sure of what I want to do yet.” 

Of course, the trip to the mall was a highlight. 

“I like the sightseeing. There is a lot of stuff I haven’t seen before out here, especially the mall. The ship inside the mall was really cool to see. I kind of have a shopping addiction. I got a lot of clothes. I want to buy a souvenir that has something about Edmonton on it. I want to buy something that will help me remember here.” 

Although she didn’t place at CWSF, Sarabelle says the trip was worth all the hard work that went into her project and she has come out a different person. 

“I’m already proud of myself for coming this far. I’d say I was a shy person, but if somebody talked to me, I would talk to them. I talk a lot louder now, and I can speak a lot more about things. Before, I couldn’t speak as much because it was my first time winning in Winnipeg. But now, I know a lot more, and I know what to say a lot more. And I got to make a lot of new memories with my new friends. I made like five new friends.” 

Sarabelle has some advice for any students who want to take part in the science fair process.  

“Just try your hardest, and even if you’re not confident, just act confident. You’ll make it. Fake it until you make it. Just … good luck, it’s worth it.” 

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