SARSEF

Every child. Thinking critically. Solving problems.

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Choose a topic

Science and engineering fairs are no longer just volcano models and light circuits. When choosing a research topic, students should ask questions they care about and that spark their curiosity. Encourage students to notice the world around them and wonder how they might understand it better or solve a problem they see.

Topics to avoid

Some types of projects are highly subjective, difficult to measure, or are overly done. Others don’t involve the kinds of numerical measurements wanted in a science or engineering project. Here is a list of common topics you should avoid:

  • Projects found online. While it’s ok to brainstorm by looking online, students should be making their own informed decisions on topic and procedure, not following an online project step-by-step as if they were following a recipe for a science project.
  • Preference, taste, or consumer product comparisons (Ex: Which tastes better, Coke or Pepsi?, Which type of popcorn, batteries, detergents is best?)
  • Projects that do not use science and engineering practices.
  • Projects that you already know the answer to.

Topics that are prohibited

Some topics violate the rules of most science fairs and will disqualify a student before it is even judged. These include:

  • Any topic that requires dangerous or illegal materials.
  • Any topic that requires drugging, stress or discomfort to a live vertebrate animal.
  • Any topic that creates unacceptable risk (physical or psychological) to a human subject.
  • Any topic that involves collection of tissue samples from living humans or vertebrate animals.

Science or engineering

Projects will be judged using one of two sets of criteria: either as a science project or an engineering project. Although very similar, scoring is slightly different.

Science is asking questions

Students may notice and wonder in a variety of ways. They may be observing the world, inspired by a scientific theory, or engaging in a computer model or simulation. The questions generated by this engagement are scientific questions if they require the gathering of empirical evidence through investigation in order to be answered.

Engineering is solving problems

While science is focused on finding the answer to a question, engineering focuses on solving a particular problem. Engineers still utilize questions to help define the problem and determine the best way to collect data, but the difference is that the focus is on the solving of the identified problem.

Scientists and engineers frequently revisit different phases and practices throughout the research process. Though the topics on this page are organized sequentially, they are science and engineering practices, not ordered steps like in a recipe, and elements of each may be revisited by students more than once as they investigate their topic. We call this unordered way of working with steps “iterative,” and it’s an essential part of the research process.

Project categories

Projects are judged according to the category they are assigned. Some projects may fit into multiple categories. When registering, students will determine which category they feel their project fits best. If students are having trouble selecting a category, it might help for them to consider what background they want the judges reviewing their project to have.

Project CategoriesPreK-56-89-12
Animal Sciences
Behavioral and Social Sciences
Biochemical Science and Bioengineering
Biomedical and Health Sciences
Cellular and Molecular Biology
Chemical and Material Sciences
Earth and Environmental Sciences
Electrical and Mechanical Engineering
Energy and Environmental Engineering
Engineering, Robotics, and Computer Science
Health and Wellness
Microbiology
Physics, Astronomy, and Mathematics
Plant Sciences
Robotics and Computer Science

Need help choosing a topic?

If students need help discovering a science fair project idea that can hold their interest, we suggest that they ask themselves the following questions.

By brainstorming answers in their lab notebooks, they may identify a great research topic.

  • What problems do you see in your world?
  • What have you noticed in nature lately?
  • What have you wondered about in your house or neighborhood lately?
  • What needs to be done better, faster, or correctly?

SARSEF provides many opportunities to receive mentorship or educational outreach. Whether students need a simple consultation or guided research from beginning to end, our programs create those possibilities.

To inquire about mentorships, please contact Margaret Wilch at margaret@sarsef.org.