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In their own best interest

By Lori Lindner
North Liberty Leader
NORTH LIBERTY– All’s fair at this school event.
Heritage Christian School (HCS) in North Liberty held its school-wide Interest Fair on April 21, a revival of a previous bi-annual school event that had taken a five-year hiatus. This year 61 students of HCS’s 171 students participated.
The school’s Interest Fair allows students in grades two through eight to research topics of their choosing, create a teaching display and present their research information to judges, who rate them on the quality of their displays and the knowledge they demonstrate, both through their documentation and in their verbal presentations.
Heritage Christian School Administrator Michael Annis said the Interest Fair used to alternate with a Science Fair, but it’s been five years since the Interest Fair has been held. The difference between the two is not in the expectations for the quality of their projects, but in the content and the students’ control over how they conduct their research.
“The Interest Fair really capitalizes on the individuality of students,” said Annis. While students still have to apply sound research practices, use their reading, writing, math and science skills, and meaningfully organize information, they are not restricted to using the scientific process or exploring strictly science-related experiments. “Not all children are intellectually geared to science, but they all have hobbies and passions. By allowing them to pursue the academic meat of those hobbies and passions, it helps students– at an early age– see the purpose in why they go to school. We expect them to use the knowledge they get in the classroom.”
Second grade teacher Nicole Early said she witnessed great learning in several areas. 
“The writing process was itself an excellent opportunity for students to develop strong writing skills.  It also provided some great at-home learning opportunities, as parents assisted their children in thinking through how they should best present their information on the visual display,” said Early.
Students were required to produce a quality display, using photographs, illustrations, charts, graphs, diagrams or written explanations; most used the three-panel, stand up display boards familiar in science fair settings, but that’s where the similarities began to diverge. Topics ranged from how guitars work to what makes baseballs fly; from the art of Realism to the history of the steam engine; and from George Washington’s role in the Revolutionary War to Kurt Warner’s role in the NFL. Props included musical instruments, horse-grooming equipment, sewing machines, a motorized Rubik’s Cube robot and even, in one case, a live puppy.
Early said students were excited to be able to explore their chosen interests, and enjoyed digging deeper to learn more about how their interests applied to other aspects of life, but the approach was not without its challenges.
“I think integrating other subject areas can be difficult for students.  It is sometimes hard to identify how those other subjects (math, history, science) give a deeper understanding of that interest. However, it is a great educational benefit to do so,” said Early.
In addition to applying classroom skills to each project, students also presented their information to a set of judges, who rated the quality of the students’ visual and verbal presentations. Fourteen judges watched for eye contact, confident body language and clear delivery of ideas.
“It’s important to teach children that communication skills are acquired through practice,” said Annis. “This challenges them to step out of their comfort zones; to articulate clearly to an adult they don’t know is sometimes a test for children.” Children were given feedback on all aspects of their projects, in order to help them discover new goals and areas for improvement.
The Interest Fair is not a substitute for the traditional science fair, Annis noted.
“We have a great deal of evidence that there are scientific passions in our kids, and this does not diminish the value we place on science; it enhances the value we place on individuality in our students.”
The Interest Fair is a way for kids to see how several different academic disciplines contribute to many different interests, including leisure hobbies and future careers, he added.
“We hope they will recognize that all of their pursuits have academic connections, and there is great value in pursuing academics if they also have an interest in pursuing their interests and passions,” said Annis. “To be able to articulate the components that make up their interests, to dismantle a hobby into its academic parts, and to understand it well enough to teach it to someone else; that’s really the epitome of learning.”