When Google launched its science fair competition, the search giant hoped that some high school teachers would implement it in their classes. At least one teacher found the fair to be the perfect opportunity to capitalize on an existing program that provides laptops to students.
At the beginning of the current school year, Spirit Lake High School, which has about 400 students and is located along the Minnesota border in Iowa, became one of the first high schools in the state to give its students laptops. About 40 school districts in the state are participating in the One-to-One technology program, and that number is expected to jump to about 100 next school year. Kari Webb and colleague Jan Donaldson, who teach an interdisciplinary English, language arts, and science class at the school, decided to require their students to compete in the fair.
Webb said the fact that Google's Science Fair has an "authentic audience" of countless Internet users was a big draw. She encouraged her students to design projects that had real-world applications.
Sophomore Rachel Westergard and her group tried to determine whether the current in a sewer system could be used to create electricity. "We initially thought of doing something with hydro power, but then we started looking into it and found that every city has a sewer system," she says.
"The beautiful thing about the Google Science Fair is our audience is truly global," Webb says. "Traditional science fairs have lost their appeal to this grade level. I've not had students show this kind of enthusiasm for projects in my experience as a high school teacher."
Westergard's group's video starts with a stop-motion video of a volcano erupting and an animation of the Google logo. It's a two minute video of art, filmmaking, and creativity that goes far beyond science. "We tried to make it as creative as possible," Westergard says.
Another student, Brooklyn Wackerbarth, whose team looked into making illuminated safety buoys for night boating at a nearby lake, says the project required more teamwork than others she has been involved with. "I'm not used to working with a group, but Google docs made everything really easy for us," she said. "The whole thing was collaborative."
Since each student received his or her own laptop, teachers at the school have required students to complete more work on them. Algebra assignments are done online. Sick students have called into class using Skype so that they don't miss out, and an absent student can make up work online without falling behind.
The laptops are also used to teach students how to use computers responsibly. Many teachers sit at the back of the class to keep track of what the students are doing, but the school doesn't block sites like Facebook.
"I wish they had blocked some of the sites because it's kind of tempting," says Westergard. "But the excitement has kind of worn off." Her teacher says that's the point.
"We believe that school is how we can help them understand appropriate use of social media," Webb says. "We could just take it away, but our philosophy right now is 'Let's teach them how to use it responsibly.'"