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 categories for the 2023 SARSEF Regional Fair have changed from previous years. Please click on a category a description and more information!

Elementary and Middle School Project Categories

This category explores human and animal behavior, social sciences, anatomy, physiology, and science and engineering projects directly related to human and animal wellness and life improvement. Other examples include projects related to blood pressure, heart rate, thought processes and behavior of humans and other animals in their interactions with the environment, learning, and mental health.

This category includes science and engineering projects related to electricity, circuitry, electrical and mechanical engineering, computer hardware and software development, phone applications, robotics, and intelligent machines. Other examples include programming languages and operating systems, sensors and signal processing, computer science, machine learning, AI, and cybersecurity.

This category contains science and engineering projects related to changes in matter such as ice melting, as well as the production and storage of energy. This category includes chemistry projects involving composition, structure, and reactions of indelible matter. Other examples of topics include wind turbines, solar ovens, batteries, material sciences, and thermodynamics.

This category involves science and engineering projects related to food science, chemistry of cooking and food production, food preparation, food preservation, and nutrition. Other examples of topics include healthy eating and drinking, effective food preparation, food safety, food mold studies, cooking and baking, and the effects of food or drink.

This category includes science and engineering projects related to physics, laws of motion, magnetism, gravity, mathematics, and astronomy. Other topics might include the studies of atoms, particles, and molecules.

This category includes science and engineering projects related to climate, the plant kingdom, agriculture, ecosystems, atmosphere, pollution control, sustainability, natural resources, and recycling. Other topics might include ecology, geology, water resources and management, and environmental engineering.

This category comprises science and engineering projects related to fungi, bacteria, non-food mold, viruses, diseases, cell and molecules, and other microorganisms. This category also includes projects related to antimicrobial and antibiotic substances as well as disease prevention.

High School Project Categories

This category includes all aspects of animals and animal life, animal life cycles, and animal interactions with one another or with their environment. 

Examples of investigations included in this category would involve the study of the structure, physiology, development, genetics, and classification of animals, animal behavior, animal systematics and evolution, animal behavior, animal ecology, animal husbandry including nutrition and growth, entomology, ichthyology, ornithology, and herpetology, as well as the study of animals at the cellular and molecular level which would include cytology, histology, and cellular physiology.

This category includes science and engineering projects related to electricity, circuitry, electrical and mechanical engineering, computer hardware and software development, phone applications, robotics, and intelligent machines. 

Examples of investigations included in this category involve electrical and mechanical engineering, signals and waveforms, civil engineering, aerospace and aeronautical engineering, robotics and machine intelligence, languages and operating systems, mobile apps, algorithms, biomechanics, sensors and signal processing, computer science, cybersecurity, control theory, networking and data communications, and computational mechanics.

The science or study of the thought processes and behavior of humans in their interactions with the environment, studied through observational and experimental methods. 

**Please note- projects involving mental health and psychological disease and disorders should select the Mental Health category**

Examples of investigations included in this category would involve the study of developmental psychology, comparative psychology, cognitive psychology, neuroscience, physiological psychology, sociology and social psychology.

Studies involving the understanding of life and cellular processes specifically at the molecular level including the structure, function, intracellular pathways, and growth and development of cells. This also includes studies of the chemical basis of processes occurring in living organisms, including the processes by which these substances enter into, or are formed in, the organisms and react with each other and the environment.

Examples of investigations included in this category would involve the study of analytical, general, medicinal, and structural biochemistry, cell physiology, cellular immunology, genetics, molecular biology, and neurobiology.

Studies exploring the science of the composition, structure, properties, and reactions of matter not involving biochemical systems.

Examples of investigations included in this category would involve the study of analytical chemistry, computational chemistry, environmental chemistry, inorganic chemistry, materials chemistry, organic chemistry, physical chemistry, materials science, biomaterials, ceramic and glasses, composite material, nanomaterials, and polymers.

This is an interdisciplinary field addressing questions that could only be answered using computers and large databases. Regardless of topic studied, projects that primarily utilized big data sources, large data sets, or that utilize previously collected large data sources. Projects involving the study of measurement, properties, and relationships of quantities and sets, using numbers and symbols and the deductive study of numbers, geometry, and various abstract constructs, or structures.

Examples of investigations included in this category would involve computational biomodeling, computational epidemiology, computational biology, computational neuroscience, computational pharmacology, genomics, informatics, probability and statistics, data analysis and visualization, modeling, data mining, information science, databases, algebra, analysis, combinatorics, graph theory, game theory, geometry and topology, and number theory.

This category includes the study of the Earth’s atmosphere, climate, land and water systems, including movement, distribution and quality, its processes, and the effects systems have with one another, and change over time. Projects involving the study of the impact of environmental changes (natural or as a result of human interaction) on ecosystems.

Examples of investigations in this category include bioremediation, land reclamation, atmospheric science, climate science, ecology, environmental effects on ecosystems, geosciences, water science/hydrology.

Studies that focus on addressing issues of human health and disease, including studies on the diagnosis, treatment, prevention or epidemiology of disease and other damage to the human body, not including mental systems.* This includes studies of normal functioning and may investigate internal as well as external factors such as feedback mechanisms or environmental impact on human health and disease. It also includes projects that aim to improve human health and longevity by translating novel discoveries in the biomedical sciences into effective activities and tools for clinical and public health use. 

Examples of investigations included in this category would involve the study of organ and systems physiology, genetics and molecular biology of disease, immunology, nutrition and natural products, pathophysiology, bioengineering, biomaterials and regenerative medicine, biomechanics, biomedical devices, biomedical sensors and imaging, cell and tissue engineering, synthetic biology, disease detection and diagnosis, disease prevention, disease treatment and therapies, drug identification and testing, pre-clinical studies.

*Studies on the diagnosis, treatment, prevention or epidemiology of disease and other damage to mental systems should select the Mental Health category.

Studies investigating the origins, nature, diagnosis, amelioration and treatment, epidemiology, and prevention of mental and behavioral health problems in individuals, couples, families, cultures, and diverse communities.

Examples of investigations are those within clinical psychology, including studies of mental disease and disorders, depression, anxiety, stress, and general well-being.

The study of microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, fungi, prokaryotes, and simple eukaryotes as well as antimicrobial and antibiotic substances.

Examples of investigations included in this category would involve the study of antimicrobial and antibiotics, applied microbiology, bacteriology, environmental microbiology, microbial genetics, virology, and fungi.

This category includes science and engineering projects related to physics, laws of motion, classical mechanics, macroscopic study of forces, vibrations, and flows on solids, liquids and gaseous materials, magnetism, and astronomy. Projects studying aerodynamics or hydrodynamics, the study of atoms, simple molecules, electrons, light, and their interactions. The study of space, the universe as a whole, including its origins and evolution, the physical properties of objects in space and computational astronomy also belong in this category.
Example topics include atomic, molecular, and optical physics, astronomy and cosmology, lasers and masers, biological physics, condensed matter and materials, mechanics, nuclear and particle physics, theoretical, computational, and quantum physics.

This category includes science and engineering projects related to the Plant Kingdom. 

Examples of investigations in this category include plant growth and development, plant genetics and breeding, agriculture and agronomy, as well cellular and molecular aspects of plant development and environmental effects. Plant physiology, the study of plants and plant cells, photosynthesis and transpiration, as well as plant pathology, including plant disease states and effects of parasites or disease-causing microbes are also found in this category. In addition, projects that explore the interactions and relationships among plants, and plants and animals, with their environment, plant ecology, systematics and evolution.

Studies and/or processes involving the sustainable production and/or storage of energy, and the engineering or development of processes and infrastructure to solve environmental problems such as the supply of water, the disposal of waste, or the control of pollution. This includes studies involving using biological processes to produce sources of energy, photovoltaics, battery and storage cell composition and design. This also includes the application of engineering principles and design concepts involving hydrogen production, generating power through wind and water movement, geothermal and other thermal sources, or static charge, electrolysis reaction, and charged particles. 

Example topics include pollution control, recycling and waste management, water resources management, solar process, materials, and design, energy storage, wind and water movement power generation, hydrogen generation and storage, thermal generation and design, triboelectricity and electrolysis.

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.