Having a Child with Down Syndrome, Part LXXI: Science Fair

Copyright © 2015 Stephen Hawley, all rights reserved.

Science Fair – this is hilarious. At this level, most of the projects that we see are fairly canned engineering/cooking masked as science.  For example, I’ve seen several variations of “Can I Make Candy?” for which the answer is a pretty obvious ‘yes’, but for there is little actual science, although the child might learn something about sugar crystals and gotten a certain amount of satisfaction from the making something. Last year, we did a heavily guided project where Alice tried to find the answer to the question, “Do big seeds grow faster than little seeds?” for which the process was handled as scientifically as possible with few resources.

So how do parents of a child with severe cognitive delays handle science fair? First, it helps to be a science geek. Second, you as a parent need to start by answering a question. In our case, it was “what do we want our child to try to learn?” For Alice, there is a decent list of answers: trying something new, following directions, making a graphs, collecting data, and most importantly for Alice to be able to do this as independently as possible.

This year, I presented Alice with 3 choices – the first was a plant option, the second was investigating microscopic life from leaves and dirt, the third was measuring reaction time of her peers. I took time to explain what the choices were and let Alice pick. Alice told me that she was working on charts in school and that she wanted to make charts. OK – the third choice falls into that. So I thought how to simplify an experiment to meet the core goals and then I created a process and I trained Alice on that today:


It consists of a script (see above) which is simple, but well within her reading skills and a ruler. I marked one end with magic marker so Alice would have a strong visual cue as to what end to hold up (remember, by and large, people with Down syndrome are more visually oriented than anything else). I also made a chart (protip: use big numbers, alternate colored background/white – this makes it easier for her to record numbers). Finally, we practiced. I did it once (note: you could also do something like this with video modeling too), reading from the script, then I had her practice with me and with her mom. We did it about seven times and on the last time, I shot some video and posted it for the school to see so that they would have a reference.

So in this case, our goals for Alice are to follow directions, learn how to collect data, be social, and later to make a chart. We may make the actual question be “Are girls reactions faster than boys?” More things to note: I made the task of collecting data two step (one, if her aide puts names on her paper): make an X on the number. When it’s all done, we’ll either make a set of histograms with stickers or using a spreadsheet – all very straight forward and interesting enough to hold her interest.

The overall process of creating an attainable science fair project for someone with cognitive delays is not hard, but it takes some time. It also takes some concessions: for example, I’m not really caring about accuracy at all. Off by a few inches? So what. Inconsistent sampling? Meh. That’s not important. Alice will one day work a job where she has to be able to follow directions and be understood and that’s what we’re shooting for here.

0 replies on “Having a Child with Down Syndrome, Part LXXI: Science Fair”

I actually did almost the same experiment in grade school for a science project. Except I asked to people who play video games have a faster reaction time than people who don’t. I may have cooked the results some, because really I just wanted to justify to my parents to buy me more video games.

Good job Alice!

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