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Herriman Journal

STEM fair winner shares secrets for a winning project

Nov 30, 2020 02:21PM ● By Jet Burnham

Afton Barron is featured in the new STEM Fair prep course, which she helped create. (Photo courtesy of Janae Barron.)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

Overwhelmed by the thought of helping your child prepare a STEM Fair project? Wish you knew the tips and secrets to a successful project and had a personal mentor to walk you through it? You’re in luck!

Jordan School District has released a 10-step online Canvas course that provides students in grades 4–12 access to instructions, resources and tools to develop a successful STEM Fair project.

Jordan School District science specialists Lynn Gutzwiller and Rachael Coleman said STEM Fair projects can often be overwhelming to students. The new course breaks down each component of the process into manageable modules, with resources, videos and templates for students to follow.

Students are led through every step of the course by a digital mentor, Afton Barron, a seventh grader who also helped create, design and organize content for the course. Afton provides the audio instructions and voice-overs and even filmed most of the video components herself. Afton also provides weekly virtual tutoring sessions for students taking the course.

Afton is a great mentor for students. She has competed in seven STEM fairs in the last three years, winning most of them. She was Grand Champion at last year’s Central Utah Science and Engineering Fair which earned her invitations to apply to other state and national fairs, including the prestigious national Broadcom Masters competition.

Afton also brought her experience as a student to increase the usability of the course for teachers and students.

“Being in online school, she's been exposed to a whole bunch of really cool programs that her teachers are using,” Janae Barron, her mother, said.

Afton used tools she’d used for school assignments to easily edit video clips for the course. She also suggested including links to tools, such as a graph maker that she uses in class, as a resource for students in the course.

Gutzwiller and Coleman said the Canvas course meets the unique needs of this unique year. Teachers are depending on more online content this year, and the students are required to submit projects in a digital format for the district fair this year.

The course sets out a step-by-step planning guide with instructions, reminders, helpful hints, hyperlinks to tools and information, a comprehensive Google Doc to keep everything together, and information about what judges are looking for and how to maximize points earned. Everything is color-coded and accessible with Afton’s videos, voice-overs and kid-friendly explanations.

“It's really important that the kids have an ability to have someone explaining it to them,” Barron said. “There's just too much information in these templates that it is a little intimidating.”

The content can be scaled from basic to complex to meet the needs of students in any grade.

“Somebody who's brand new, like a fourth grader, we expect the template will be a starting spot for them, but there'll be so much that's lost on them,” Barron said. “But for the 11th grader who will need to go beyond it, at least it gets them thinking about what's needed and they could use it and have a very competitive project.”

Afton is proud of the result of all her efforts.

“The course is rigorous, but I think it is pretty user-friendly,” she said. “It's relatively easy to navigate, and the content is great as well. So, it's just a good resource.”

Afton’s contribution to the JSD science department is not unique. Several years ago, her older sister Amber created and shared a STEM Fair project template that can still be found on the JSD website, along with the grant she applied for to help cover project costs. (Using this engineering mini grant is one of the many tips Afton incorporated into the Canvas course.)

This year, only students who participate in the STEM Fair course can participate in the district fair and access can only be granted by a student’s teacher. 

The detailed course and the personalized help for students will ease the workload of teachers who want their students to participate but don’t have class time to guide students through the steps.

“Teachers are spread so thin,” Barron said. “So we were just super excited to be able to maybe do something that not only helps kids but also teachers.”

She also hopes parents see the course as a way to make the process easier on the whole family. 

“There's a lot of pushback from not only students but parents who understand that it is a lot of work but don't necessarily understand all the learning that's taking place,” Barron said.

“I've been over this ground multiple times, and I've seen children empowered over and over and over again,” said Barron, whose two older daughters who participated in STEM fairs—even competing internationally—have gone on to work in their dream jobs in STEM fields. “As a parent, I've seen the good it did in my children. Then as a teacher, I've seen the amazing benefits that occur when students are involved with a STEM fair project. There's so much power that happens when kids have the opportunity to be able to think of real-world solutions and overcome obstacles.”

Barron said the course is helping to prepare future leaders. 

“If we're going to be able to do what the governor is wanting to do to be able to have our students prepared for 21st-century careers—that have not even been developed—we need to empower these children,” Barron said. “They are the children who are going to grow up and are going to make those jobs.”

Students who are interested in taking the STEM Fair Canvas course should contact their teacher. School fairs will be held in January and February to determine which projects will advance to the District STEM Fair, held virtually Feb. 18. Finalists in the district fair will go on to compete in the Central Utah STEM Fair, sponsored by BYU, held virtually March 22–25.

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