Challenging Our Brightest Thinkers

Although I encourage all of my students to consider a career in the sciences, I know it is probable that only the most persistent, passionate, and brightest will chose such a career path. I’ve been fortunate to teach many such students. This past May, a former student of mine earned the Best in Mathematics Award at the prestigious INTEL International Science and Engineering Fair. Such students are present in all of our classes and thus it is incumbent upon us to foster, nurture, and sustain student interest in engineering and the sciences. Many of these students are gifted; they are the kids who ‘get it’ after one explanation, who don’t need to review in to order pass tests with stellar grades, and who probably don’t need to do the majority of the drill and practice activities designed to develop comprehension of course content. These are the kids who finish everything early. While some may quietly read a book until the class catches up, others may drive you crazy with their antics and off-task behavior. Although you may be tempted to utilize these students as tutors, I caution you against this practice. All students have a right to learn, but tutoring does little extend or enrich learning; it merely reinforces what the student already knows.

Something that I’ve had success with in the past is requiring these students to participate in our school’s science fair. Although this can be a daunting prospect (for both the teacher and the student), tremendous growth can occur when students are scaffolded through the process. Probably the most difficult aspect of the science fair project is selecting the topic—but this is critical if we are to challenge our brightest thinkers. Choice allows our students to pursue a topic that they may otherwise not be able to study as part of the standard curriculum—especially critical when dealing with those students who have a focused and specific interest. Once the topic is selected, students need to engage in researching their topic so that they fully understand the real-world implication of their results. Designing a fair test, collecting and analyzing data, and drawing valid conclusions based on data are rigorous processes that will challenge most students while deepening their understanding of the nature of science—and of the disciplinary core content they investigated. There are numerous websites and materials available to help you guide your students through the steps involved in planning and carrying out a project.

Another vehicle for encouraging your students’ passion for science and engineering is to involve them in a competition (you’ll find the mention of monetary and other awards to be highly motivating for many students). NSTA competitions for middle school students include Toshiba Exploravision and eCybermission. Toshiba Exploravision challenges students to research a technology of interest and explain how that technology may change over the next 20 years. eCybermssion involves teams of students who work to identify a problem in their community and use scientific practices or the engineering design process to develop a solution to the identified problem. If you want the inside scoop on how these competitions run, consider volunteering to be a judge (for more information on how to volunteer, send an email to

I know some readers out there may be wondering if regular education and special education students can also participate in science fairs and science competitions. The answer is a resounding “YES!” I hope I’ve inspired you to reflect on how you plan to nurture and support the future scientists and engineers who are sitting in your classroom today. Who knows where such encouragement will lead? Perhaps one day you will be able to proudly say that you taught a student whose project was declared best in the world.

Get more involved with NSTA! 

Join today and receive Science Scope, the peer-reviewed journal just for middle school teachers; connect on the middle level science teaching list (members can sign up on the list server). Patty McGinnis teaches at Arcola Intermediate School in Eagleville, PA and is the editor of Science Scope.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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2 Responses to Challenging Our Brightest Thinkers

  1. Bill Schmitt says:

    “I know it is probable that only the most persistent, passionate, and brightest will chose such a career path. I’ve been fortunate to teach many such students” This statement really bothers me. How do we know who these students are other than they play the education game really well. We know from our own experience that many of the brightest and innovative students are low performers because they do not want to play this game. I agree that that a great way to encourage all students to reach their potential is through STEM projects where students actually try to understand something and apply their knowledge. We do very little of this because we focus on covering standards rather than on empowering students’ reasoning.

  2. Sheryl A. McCoy says:

    Bill Schmitt stated my concerns very well. Often, I write for an online audience. Sometimes I have editors, other times I don’t. An editing suggestion that works for me is a great one to share with students also.
    After I write, I lay my article aside for at least 24 hours…more if possible. Then I edit my work. Some statements look much different in the light of day, or after we sleep on it. Failing that, another set of eyes is always helpful.

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