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Step by Step
Congratulations on deciding to create a science project. You have just taken the first step!
Although the process may seem a bit difficult at first, if you take it step by step you will be done in no time. You will have a high-quality project you can be proud of!
The following is for upper elementary students in Grades 3-5 … but the process is much the same for all grades.Expand All Collapse All
Before You Begin
Ideas for Your Science Fair Project
The MOST important step in a science project is picking a topic that you already care about and consider interesting. You’ll be spending a lot of time on it, so you don’t want your science fair project to be about something that you find boring.
We know that finding a topic is the hardest part of a science fair project, and sometimes you just need a little help focusing on what sorts of topics would be of interest to you.
To help you find a science fair project idea that can hold your interest, we suggest that you use a survey by Science Buddies called “Topic Selection Wizard.” By answering a series of questions about everyday interests and activities, you will help us identify an area of science that is best for you.
So click on the steps below, and let’s get started!
Science Project Topics to Avoid
There are also some topics to AVOID because the judges are tired of them, or they just don’t prove much.
- Avoid any topic that boils down to a simple preference or taste comparison. For example, “Which tastes better: Coke or Pepsi?” Such experiments don’t involve the kinds of numerical measurements we want in a science fair project. They are more of a survey than an experiment. This includes “which is better” comparisons of popcorn, bubblegum, make-up, batteries, detergents, cleaning products and paper towels.
- Avoid effects of colored light on plants. Several people do this project at almost every science fair. You can be more creative!
- Avoid project that look at effects of music or talking on plants. It is difficult to measure — and has been done a million times already.
- Avoid projects that examine the effects of running, music, video games or almost anything to do with blood pressure. The result is either obvious (the heart beats faster when you run) or difficult to measure with proper controls (such as the effect of music).
- Avoid projects that test the effects of color on memory, emotion, mood, taste, strength, etc. This is highly subjective and difficult to measure.
- Avoid any topic that requires measurements that will be extremely difficult to make or repeat, given your equipment. Without measurement, you can’t do science!
There are some topics that violate the rules of virtually any science fair –you will be disqualified before you even are judged. So make sure not to even start to do:
- Any topic that requires dangerous, hard to find, expensive or illegal materials.
- Any topic that requires drugging, pain or injury 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.
Permission may be needed for some projects.
Schools require students to fill out this basic research plan ahead of time so that they make sure that no student begins a project that would not be allowed and so that they get SRC approval before starting.
SRC stands for a Scientific Review Committee at your school that will review projects that involve humans, vertebrate animals and any activity, device or chemical that might be dangerous.
The following form will help the SRC determine whether a project needs extra supervision or permission.
Gr K-8 SRC Approval Form 11-2
If humans are involved, their written permission may be required. This form may be a helpful start:
Science or Engineering Design Process?
While scientists may study how nature works, and engineers may test and create new things — such as products, websites, environments and experiences – critical thinking is required by both. Because engineers and scientists have different objectives, they sometimes follow different processes in their work. Scientists may perform experiments using the Science Process and Engineers may follow the slightly different Engineering Design Process, but they are all trying to find an answer to a question – and often coming up with others along the way.
The Science Process is a way to ask and answer scientific questions by making observations and doing experiments.
The steps of the Science Process are:
- Decide what you already care about
- Ask a question that needs to be solved or explored
- Do background research
- Try to answer your question or design by testing it
- You may have to go back and forth, testing and retesting
- Analyze your data, and draw a logical conclusion based on the data
- Communicate your results
It is important for your experiment to be a fair test. A “fair test” occurs when you change only one factor (variable) and keep all other conditions the same.
Note: If your project involves creating or inventing something new, your project might better fit the steps of the Engineering Design Process. (See below.)
Engineering Design Process
The Engineering Design Process is the set of steps that a designer takes to go from first, identifying a problem or need — to creating and developing a solution that solves the problem, or meets the need.
The steps of the Engineering Design Process are to:
- Define the problem
- Do background research
- Specify requirements
- Create alternative solutions
- Choose the best solution
- Do development work
- Build a prototype
- Test and redesign
During the Engineering Design Process, designers frequently jump back and forth between steps. Going back to earlier steps is common. This way of working is called “iteration,” and it is likely that your process will do the same!
Once again: Engineers create new things, such as products, websites, environments and experiences, and use the Engineering Design Process. Scientists study how nature works, and use the Scientific Method.
Note: If your project involves making observations and doing experiments, your project might better fit the Science Process. (See farther above.)
Start a Lab Notebook
All scientists keep a journal or lab book. You should use a lab notebook to document your science investigations, experiments and/or product designs, too.
A lab notebook is an important part of any research or engineering project. Used properly, your lab notebook contains a detailed and permanent account of every step of your project — from the initial brainstorming to the final data analysis and research report.
A lab book is like a journal recording your journey from start to finish. Write down your thoughts starting on the very first day, when you are just beginning to choose an idea.
Many science projects require a number of steps and multiple trials. By recording the steps of your procedure, your observations, and any questions that arise as you go, you create a record of the project that documents exactly what you did and when you did it. You may need to go back and retest, several times. And you may come up with other questions.
With a complete record of the project in your lab notebook, you can look back at your notes later if a question arises, or if you decide to pursue a related project based on something you observed.
Writing down your product design ideas, engineering challenges and product testing data will help you keep track of all of your ideas, what you have already tried and how well a particular design performed!
Keeping a lab notebook is easy. The most important thing to do is to “use” your lab notebook. Enter at least one observation every day — even if it is only a sentence.
Choosing a Laboratory Notebook
There are many kinds of lab notebooks available, ranging from official lab notebooks to makeshift notebooks. Choose one that works best for you.
Advanced: Using Your Laboratory Notebook
Once you have selected a lab notebook, the following tips and techniques will help you get started and keep an organized, well-maintained lab notebook for your science or engineering project:
- Label your lab notebook. Put your name, your teacher’s name (if it applies), and some form of contact information, like an email address or phone number, in a prominent location. If you accidentally leave the lab notebook behind or lose it, someone will be able to reach you if it is found. If your notebook will be used for a single science or engineering project, be sure to also label the notebook with the project title and the year.
- Use ink. Make your lab notebook entries in pen, not in pencil. Using a smudge-proof pen may reduce the risk of smears. If you make a mistake in your lab notebook, simply cross out the error and write in the necessary correction.
- Number the pages. Numbering the pages of your lab notebook helps keep your notebook organized. You can use these numbers to set up an index or table of contents (see below) or to cross-reference earlier observations within your lab notebook. If the pages of your lab notebook are not already numbered, you may want to number them before you begin using the lab notebook.
- Create a Table of Contents. This helps you quickly go back and find information in your lab notebook. The traditional way (used by professional scientists and engineers) to create a Table of Contents is to write it as your project progresses. Label the first page “Table of Contents,” and as you work on the project, enter important pages in the list of contents. For example, when you begin your experimental procedure, you might note “Trial 1, Page 10” in the Table of Contents so you can quickly find your notes at a later date. If you find this method too confusing (and your teacher allows), you can create tabs for the different sections of your science project. This optional approach may help you keep your notes and records organized. Your sections will vary based on your science or engineering project, and you may find that your class assignment or the steps of the Scientific Method can help you determine the sections you will use.
- Date your entries. Always date your lab notebook entries. Even if your entry is very short, adding a date helps you track when you took certain steps or made certain observations. Your lab notebook will be a sequential record of your project, so the dates are important.
- No blank pages. Your lab notebook entries should be entered consecutively, starting at the front of the notebook. When making entries, do not skip pages. (If you are using sections, as outlined above, do not skip pages within a section when making a new entry.) Scientists and researchers often draw lines, or cross out unused sections of a page — so that nothing can be added later that might alter or confuse the data originally recorded.
- Be brief. While some entries in your lab notebook may require in-depth notes, many of your entries will be short and concise. Full sentences are not required! Every scientist develops her own style of recordkeeping. What is important is that you record enough information so that you fully understand the notes you’ve made, and so that the notes contains all important or necessary details. If you look back at an entry, even months later, it should be clear to you exactly what you did or documented on that day. It should also be clear to your teacher, or another scientist or engineer!
- Do not remove pages. If something is wrong on a page, or if you discover an accidental blank page, simply put a large “x” through the area or page, signaling that it should be ignored. Do not tear pages out.
- Keep it with you. You want to record every detail of your science or engineering project in your lab notebook, so you need to make sure you have it with you at all times — especially when you are in the lab, working on your procedure, doing research, or collecting data. Do not take the chance that you will remember all of the details to record at a later date. You also do not want to make a habit or recording data on scraps of paper and entering them in the lab notebook after the fact. Loose papers are easily lost. Keep the lab notebook with you and make your entries on the spot.
- Write every day. Get in the habit of starting a new entry as soon as you go to the lab or begin working on your science project for the day — even if you are only taking a quick measurement or doing a visual check. Write down the date and then record what you do. As you get in a routine of documenting your research and experiment every day, using your lab notebook will become an important part of how you navigate a science or engineering project!
Writing Your Question
The question that you select for your science fair project is the cornerstone of your work. The research and experiments you will be conducting all revolve around finding an answer to the question. It is important to select a question that is going to be interesting to work on for at least a month or two — and a question that is specific enough to allow you to find the answer with a simple experiment. Here are some characteristics of a good science fair project question:
- The question should be interesting enough to read about, then work on for the next couple months.
- The question should be possible and affordable. You may want to study dolphins, but if you live in the desert that may not be possible. Can you study fish in an aquarium, instead?
- There should be at least three sources of written information on the subject. You want to be able to build on the experience of others!
- For something like a science fair project, it is important to think ahead. This will save you lots of unhappiness later. Imagine the experiment you might perform to answer your question. How does that possible experiment stack up against these issues?
- The experiment should measure CHANGES to the important factors (variables) using a number that represents a quantity — such as a count, percentage, length, width, weight, voltage, velocity, energy, unit of time, etc. Or your experiment may measure a factor (variable) that is simply present or not present. For example, lights ON in one trial, then lights OFF in another trial — or USE fertilizer in one trial, then DON’T USE fertilizer in another trial. If you can’t measure the results of your experiment, you’re not doing science!
- You must be able to control other factors that might influence your experiment, so that you can do a fair test. A “fair test” occurs when you change only one factor (variable) and keep all other conditions the same.
- Is your experiment safe to perform?
- Do you have all the materials and equipment you need for your science fair project, or will you be able to obtain them quickly and at a very low cost?
- Do you have enough time to do your experiment before the science fair? For example, most plants take weeks to grow. If you want to do a project on plants, you need to start very early! For most experiments, you will want to allow enough time to do a practice run in order to work out any problems in your procedures.
- Does your science fair project meet all the rules and requirements for your science fair?
If you don’t have good answers for the above issues, then you probably should look for a better science fair project question to answer.
Some science fair projects that involve human subjects, vertebrate animals (animals with a backbone and internal skeleton) or animal tissue, pathogenic agents, DNA, or controlled or hazardous substances, need Scientific Review Committee (SRC) must be approved by your science fair BEFORE you start experimentation.
Now is the time to start thinking about getting SRC approval, if necessary, for your science project!
Background research is necessary so that you know how to design and understand your experiment.
- Have you identified all the key words in your science fair project question?
- Have you generated a focused research questions?
- Have you thrown out irrelevant questions?
- Will the answers to your research questions give you the information you need to design an experiment and predict the outcome?
Do you describe equipment or techniques you will need to perform an experiment?
Write a Research Plan
1. Identify the “key” words in the question for your science fair project. Brainstorm additional key concepts and words.
2. Use a table with the “question words” (who, what, when, where, why and how) to generate research questions from your key words. For example:
– What is the difference between a series and parallel circuit?
– When does a plant grow the most — during the day or night?
– Where is the focal point of a lens?
– How does a Java applet work?
– Does a truss make a bridge stronger?
– Why are moths attracted to light?
– Which cleaning products kill the most bacteria?
Throw out irrelevant questions.
3. Add to your background research plan a list of mathematical formulas or equations (if any) that you will need to describe the results of your experiment.
4. You should also plan to do background research on the history of similar experiments or inventions.
5. Network with other people who have more experience than you do: your mentors, parents and teachers. Ask them: “What science concepts should I study to better understand my science fair project?” and “What area of science covers my project?” Better yet, ask even more specific questions.
Your Research Question
A Research Question is what you are actually going to try to find out in one research project (versus general background research). After having thoroughly researched your question, you should have a narrowed your idea down so you can state what you want to know after completing it.
In past years, science projects focused on using Hypotheses, however we are moving away from this and using “Question” instead because real scientist rarely use this term anymore.
- Your question should be something that you can actually test. That’s called a “testable question.” In other words, you need to be able to measure both “what you do” and “what will happen.”
- The question must be worded so that it can be tested in your experiment. Do this by expressing the question using your independent variable (the variable you change during your experiment) and your dependent variable (the variable you observe and test in a scientific experiment.)
Is it OK to Not to Completely Answer Your Question?
Should you worry if you end up not coming up with a definite answer to your question?
The answer is “No, don’t worry if you cannot fully answer your question. That is what science is all about.”
Example of Research Questions (thanks to Science Buddies) (By the way these are NOT good project ideas so do not use them for your project they are – just good examples of how to write a question)
- “If I open the faucet [the faucet opening size is the independent variable], then will it increase the flow of water [the dependent variable]?”
- “Will raising the temperature of a cup of water [temperature is the independent variable] increase the amount of sugar that dissolves [the amount of sugar is the dependent variable].”
- “If a plant receives fertilizer [having fertilizer is the independent variable], then will it grow to be bigger than a plant that does not receive fertilizer [plant size is the dependent variable].”
- “If I put fenders on a bicycle [having fenders is the independent variable], then will they keep the rider dry when riding through puddles [the dependent variable is how much water splashes on the rider]?”
Note: When you write your own question, you can leave out the parts in the above examples that are in brackets [ ].
Notice that in each of the examples, it will be easy to measure the independent variables. This is another important characteristic of a good question. If we can readily measure the variables in the question, then we say that the question is testable.
Cause and Effect or Correlation?
In some experiments, it is not possible to demonstrate that a change in the independent variable CAUSES a change in the dependent variable. Instead, one may only be able to show that the independent variable IS RELATED to the dependent variable. This relationship is called a “correlation.” This is also an interesting thing to wonder about and measure.
During Your Experiment
Planning the Procedures or Method
Write the experimental procedure like a step-by-step recipe for your science experiment. A good procedure is so detailed and complete that it lets someone else duplicate your experiment exactly!
- Write a step-by-step list of everything you must do to perform your experiment. Think about all the steps that you will need to go through to complete your experiment, and record exactly what will need to be done in each step.
- The experimental procedure must tell how you will change your one and only independent variable and how you will measure that change.
- The experimental procedure must explain how you will measure the resulting change in the dependent variable or variables.
- If applicable, the experimental procedure should explain how the controlled variables will be maintained at a constant value.
- The experimental procedure should specify how many times you intend to repeat your experiment, so that you can verify that your results are reproducible.
A good experimental procedure enables someone else to duplicate your experiment exactly!
Where will you conduct your experiment?
You may need a lot of room for you experiment, or you may not be able to move your experiment around from place to place. If you are working with human or animal subjects, you may need a location that is quiet. You will need to think about these limitations before you start your experiment, so that you can find a location in advance that will meet your needs.
Sample Beginner Method:
- Number each battery so you can tell them apart.
- Measure each battery’s voltage by using the voltmeter.
- Put the same battery into one of the devices and turn it on.
- Let the device run for 30 minutes before measuring its voltage again. (Record the voltage in a table every time it is measured.)
- Repeat #4 until the battery is at 0.9 volts, or until the device stops.
- Do steps #1–5 again — three trials for each brand of battery in each experimental group.
- For the camera flash, push the flash button every 30 seconds and measure the voltage every 5 minutes.
- For the flashlights, rotate each battery brand so each one has a turn in each flashlight.
- For the CD player, repeat the same song at the same volume throughout the tests.
The first step toward designing your experimental procedure involves planning how you will change your independent variable and how you will measure the impact that this change has on the dependent variable. To guarantee a fair test when you are conducting your experiment, you need to make sure that the only thing you change is the independent variable. Additionally, all the controlled variables must remain constant. Only then can you be sure that the change you make to the independent variable actually caused the changes you observe in the dependent variables.
Scientists run experiments more than once to verify that results are consistent. In other words, you must verify that you obtain essentially the same results every time you repeat the experiment with the same value for your independent variable. This insures that the answer to your question is not just an accident!
Each time that you perform your experiment is called a “run” or a “trial.” Your experimental procedure should also specify how many trials you intend to run. Most teachers want you to repeat your experiment a minimum of three times. Repeating your experiment more than three times is even better, and doing so may even be required to measure very small changes in some experiments.
In some experiments, you can run the trials all at once. For example, if you are growing plants, you can put three identical plants (or seeds) in three separate pots, and that would count as three trials.
In experiments that involve testing or surveying different groups of people, you will not need to repeat the experiment multiple times. However, in order to ensure that your results are reliable, you need to test or survey enough people to make sure that your results are reliable. How many participants are enough? What is the ideal sample size? It depends on the type of test, but the more the better and the more different types of people (such as different age groups), the better.
Every good experiment also compares different groups of trials with each other. Such a comparison helps insure that the changes you see when you change the independent variable are in fact caused by the independent variable. There are two types of trial groups: experimental groups and control groups.
The experimental group consists of the trials in which you change the independent variable. For example, if your question asks whether fertilizer makes a plant grow bigger, then the experimental group consists of all trials in which the plants receive fertilizer.
In many experiments, it is important to perform a trial with the independent variable at a special setting for comparison with the other trials. This trial is referred to as a “control group.” The control group consists of all those trials where you leave the independent variable in its natural state. In the example above, it would be important to run some trials in which the plants get no fertilizer at all. These trials with no fertilizer provide a basis for comparison, and would insure that any changes you see when you add fertilizer are in fact caused by the fertilizer and not something else.
However, not every experiment is like our fertilizer example. In another kind of experiment, many groups of trials are performed at different values of the independent variable. For example, if your question asks whether an electric motor turns faster if you increase the voltage, you might do an experimental group of three trials at 1.5 volts, another group of three trials at 2.0 volts, three trials at 2.5 volts, and so on. In such an experiment, you are comparing the experimental groups to each other, rather than comparing them to a single control group. You must evaluate whether your experiment is more like the fertilizer example, which requires a special control group, or more like the motor example, which does not.
Whether or not your experiment has a control group, remember that every experiment has a number of controlled variables. Controlled variables are those variables that we don’t want to change while we conduct our experiment, and they must be the same in every trial and every group of trials. In our fertilizer example, we would want to make sure that every trial received the same amount of water, light and warmth. Even though an experiment measuring the effect of voltage on the motor’s speed of rotation may not have a control group, it still has controlled variables: the same motor is used for every trial and the load on the motor (the work it does) is kept the same.
A little advance preparation can ensure that your experiment will run smoothly and that you will not encounter any unexpected surprises at the last minute. You will need to prepare a detailed experimental procedure for your experiment so that you can ensure consistency from beginning to end.
Think about it as “writing a recipe” for your experiment. This also makes it much easier for someone else to test your experiment if they are interested in seeing how you got your results.
Thanks to Science Buddies for the great examples!
Think About Variables
Scientists call the changing factors in an experiment “variables.” It is important for an experiment to be a “fair test.” You conduct a fair test by making sure that you change one factor at a time while keeping all other conditions the same.
For example, let’s imagine that we want to measure which is the fastest toy car to coast down a sloping ramp. If we gently release the first car, but give the second car a big push start, did we do a fair test of which car was fastest?
No! We gave the second car an unfair advantage by pushing it to start. That’s not a fair test! The only thing that should change between the two tests is the car; we should start them down the ramp in exactly the same way.
Variables for Beginners
(Thanks to Science Buddies for some of these examples!)
Let’s pretend we’re doing an experiment to see if fertilizer makes a plant grow to be larger than a plant that doesn’t receive fertilizer. We put seeds of the same kind in three pots with fertilizer and rich soil. But we run out of soil, so we put the seeds without fertilizer in three pots filled with sand. We put all six pots in the same location and water each one with the same amount of water every other day. The plants with soil and fertilizer grow to be much larger than the ones grown in sand without fertilizer. Is that a fair test of whether fertilizer makes a plant grow to be larger?
No! We changed two things (type of soil and fertilizer) so we have no idea whether the plants with fertilizer grew to be larger because of the fertilizer or whether the other plants were stunted by being grown in sand. It wasn’t a fair test! All of the plants should have been in the same kind of soil.
Conducting a fair test is one of the most important ingredients of doing good, scientifically valuable experiments. To insure that your experiment is a fair test, you must change only one factor at a time while keeping all other conditions the same.
Variables for Experienced Students
Scientists use an experiment to search for cause and effect or relationships in nature. In other words, they design an experiment so that changes to one item cause something else to vary in a predictable way.
These changing quantities are called “variables.” A variable is any factor, trait or condition that can exist in differing amounts or types. An experiment usually has three kinds of variables: independent, dependent and controlled.
Here is an easy way to remember the descriptions:
INDEPENDENT VARIABLES answer the question “What do I change?”
DEPENDENT VARIABLES answer the question “What do I observe?”
CONTROLLED, or CONSTANT VARIABLES answer the question “What do I keep the same?”
The independent variable is the one that is changed by the scientist. To insure what is called a fair test a good experiment has only one independent variable. As the scientist changes the independent variable, he or she observes what happens.
The scientist focuses his or her observations on the dependent variable to see how it responds to the change made to the independent variable. The new value of the dependent variable is caused by and depends on the value of the independent variable.
For example, if you open a faucet (the independent variable), the quantity of water flowing (dependent variable) changes in response — you observe that the water flow increases. The number of dependent variables in an experiment varies, but there is often more than one.
Experiments also have controlled variables. Controlled variables are quantities that a scientist wants to remain constant, and he must observe them as carefully as the dependent variables. For example, if we want to measure how much water flow increases when we open a faucet, it is important to make sure that the water pressure (the controlled variable) is held constant.
That’s because both the water pressure and the opening of a faucet have an impact on how much water flows. If we change both of them at the same time, we can’t be sure how much of the change in water flow is because of the faucet opening and how much because of the water pressure. In other words, it would not be a fair test. Most experiments have more than one controlled variable. Some people refer to controlled variables as “constant variables.”
In a good experiment, the scientist must be able to measure the values for each variable. Weight or mass is an example of a variable that is very east to measure. However, imagine trying to do an experiment where one of the variables is “love.” There is no such thing as a “love-meter.” You might BELIEVE someone is in love, but you cannot MEASURE love — and you would probably have friends who disagree with you. Because love is not measurable in a scientific sense, it would be a poor variable to use in an experiment.
Uncontrolled variables are also very important to note. Although you cannot do anything about some things that happen during your testing, such as the weather, it may be a factor that affects the results of your experiment and should be recorded. These variables can be listed as “Limitations” in your Discussion section after Conclusions at the end of your project. There are many things that can be observed and noted as uncontrolled variables. It is considered a positive thing when a scientist can identify them.
Before you even begin, start to think about what materials you will need to complete your project. What type of supplies and equipment will you need?
By making a complete list ahead of time, you can make sure that you have everything on hand when you need it. Some items may take time to obtain, so making a materials list in advance represents good planning!
Make the materials list as specific as possible, and be sure you can get everything you need before you start your science fair project. Then, if you are working and realize that you added other materials, include them in your list.
Sample Materials List:
- Clipboard to hold papers in place in case of wind
- CD player and a CD (low-drain device)
- Three identical flashlights (medium-drain device)
- AA size Duracell and Energizer batteries
- AA size of a “heavy-duty” (non-alkaline) battery
- Kitchen timer, stopwatch, or watch with a second hand
- Pen or pencil to record data
Doing the Actual Tests
With your detailed experimental procedure in hand, you are almost ready to start your science experiment. But before you begin, there are still a few more things to do:
– Know what to do. Read and understand your experimental procedure. Are all of the necessary steps written down? Do you have any questions about how to do any of the steps?
– Get a laboratory notebook for taking notes and collecting data (see Data Table).
– Be prepared. Collect and organize all materials, supplies and equipment you will need to do the experiment. Do you have all of the materials you need? Are they handy and within reach of your workspace?
– Think ahead about safety! Are there any safety precautions you should take? Will you need adult supervision? Will you need to wear gloves or protective eye gear? Do you have long hair that needs to be pulled back out of your face? Will you need to be near a fire extinguisher, and do you know how to use it?
Prepare a data table in your laboratory notebook to help you collect your data. A data table will ensure that you are consistent in recording your data, and will make it easier to analyze your results once you have finished your experiment.
Doing the Actual Tests
During the Experiment!
It is important to take very detailed notes as you conduct your experiments. In addition to your data, record your observations as you perform the experiment. Write down any problems that occur, anything you do that is different than planned, ideas that come to mind, or interesting occurrences. Be on the lookout for the unexpected. Your observations will be useful when you analyze your data and draw conclusions.
We suggest that you keep a lab book or journal so that all your information is kept in one place. (Don’t use loose-leaf notebooks. You want to make sure all your information stays together.) The data that you record now will be the basis for your science fair project final report and your conclusions — so capture everything in your laboratory notebook, including successes, failures and accidents.
If possible, take pictures of your experiment as it progresses. These will later help you explain what you did and enhance your display for the science fair.
Remember to use numerical measurements as much as possible. If your experiment also has qualitative data –which are things like your observations of what is happening (not numerical), then take a photo or draw a picture of what happens.
Be as exact as possible about the way you conduct your experiment — especially in following your experimental procedure, taking your measurements, and note taking. Failures and mistakes are part of the learning process, so don’t get discouraged if things do not go as planned the first time! You should have built enough time in your schedule to allow you to repeat your test a couple of times.
In fact, it’s a good idea to do a quick preliminary run of your experiment. Show your preliminary data to your mentor or teacher, and make revisions to your experimental procedure if necessary. Often there are glitches in the procedure that are not obvious until you actually perform your experiment. This is normal. If you need to make changes in the procedure (which often happens), write down exactly which changes you made.
Stay organized and be safe!
You Have Results. Now What?
Data Analysis and Graphs
Review your data. Try to look at the results of your experiment with a critical eye. Ask yourself these questions:
- Are my results complete, or did I forget something?
- Do I need to collect more data?
- Did I make any mistakes?
- Have I calculated an average for the different trials of my experiment (if appropriate)?
- Have I clearly labeled all tables and graphs? Do they include the units of measurement (volts, inches, grams, etc.)?
- Have I placed the independent variable on the X-axis of my graph, and the dependent variable on the Y-axis?
Take some time to carefully review all of the data you have collected from your experiment. Use charts and graphs to help you analyze the data and patterns. Did you get the results you had expected? What did you find out from your experiment?
Really think about what you have discovered, and use your data to help you explain why you think certain things happened.
Advanced: Calculations and Summarizing Data
Often, you will need to perform calculations on your raw data in order to get the results from which you will generate a conclusion. A spreadsheet program such as Microsoft Excel may be a good way to perform such calculations. Later, the spreadsheet can be used to display the results. Be sure to label the rows and columns — and don’t forget to include the units of measurement (grams, centimeters, liters, etc.)
You should have performed multiple trials of your experiment. Think about the best way to report and summarize your data.
Do you want to calculate the average for each group of trials, or summarize the results in some other way — such as ratios, percentages, or error and significance (for really advanced students)? Or is it better to display your data as individual data points?
Do any calculations that are necessary for you to analyze and understand the data from your experiment.
Pay careful attention, because you may need to convert some of your units to do your calculation correctly. All of the units for a measurement should be of the same scale. (For example, you should measure and express all temperatures using either the same scale — Celsius, Fahrenheit or kelvin.)
Graphs are often an excellent way to display your results. In fact, most good science fair projects have at least one graph.
For any type of graph:
Generally, you should place your independent variable on the X-axis of your graph and the dependent variable on the Y-axis. Be sure to label the axes of your graph. Don’t forget to include the units of measurement (grams, centimeters, liters, etc.)
If you have more than one set of data, show each series in a different color or symbol — and include a legend with clear labels.
Different types of graphs are appropriate for different experiments. These are just a few of the possible types of graphs:
- A bar graph might be appropriate for comparing different trials or different experimental groups. It also may be a good choice if your independent variable is not numerical. (In Microsoft Excel, generate bar graphs by choosing chart types “Column” or “Bar.”)
- A time-series plot can be used if your dependent variable is numerical and your independent variable is time. (In Microsoft Excel, the “line graph” chart type generates a time series. By default, Excel simply puts a count on the X-axis. To generate a time series plot with your choice of X-axis units, make a separate data column that contains those units next to your dependent variable. Then choose the “XY (scatter)” chart type, with a sub-type that draws a line.)
- An XY line graph shows the relationship between your dependent and independent variables when both are numerical and the dependent variable is a function of the independent variable. (In Microsoft Excel, choose the “XY (scatter)” chart type, and then choose a sub-type that does draw a line.)
- A scatter plot might be the proper graph if you’re trying to show how two variables may be related to one another. (In Microsoft Excel, choose the “XY (scatter)” chart type, and then choose a sub-type that does not draw a line.)
Your conclusions summarize how your results support your original question:
Summarize your science fair project results in a few sentences, and use this summary to support your conclusion. Include key facts from your background research to help explain your results as needed.
State whether your results support or contradict your question. (Engineering and programming projects should state whether they met their design criteria.)
If appropriate, state the relationship between the independent and dependent variable.
Your conclusions will summarize whether or not your science fair project results support or contradict your original question.
If you are doing an engineering or computer science programming project, then you should state whether or not you met your design criteria.
You may want to include key facts from your background research to help explain your results.
Do your results suggest a relationship between the independent and dependent variable?
If Your Results Show that Your Question Was Not Answered!
If the results of your science experiment did not support your question, don’t change or manipulate your results to fit your original idea. Simply explain why things did not go as expected.
Professional scientists commonly find that results do not support their question, and they use those unexpected results as the first step in constructing a new question!
If you think you need additional experimentation, describe what you think should happen next.
Scientific research is an ongoing process, and by discovering that your question was not testable in this way, you have already made huge advances in your learning that will lead you to ask MORE questions that lead to NEW experiments.
Science fair judges do not care about whether you prove or disprove a question. They care about how much you learned.
Make sure your conclusions only state the facts. Save your own thoughts for the discussion.
This is your chance to explain your results in more detail. You get to discuss what happened and what you found out. Summarize and evaluate your experimental procedure, making comments about its success and effectiveness.
You can talk about some of the uncontrolled variables that may have affected your results. And you can discuss the limitations to the using of the conclusions from your project when thinking about other similar situations.
Discuss what you would have liked to have done, or want to do in the future. Suggest changes in the experimental procedure (or design) and/or possibilities for further study.
Here is where you can explore why your project is important to the real world. Tell the judges and readers why this issue is interesting or critical.
It is your final message to your readers and judges.
Not Quite Done Yet
Making a Display Board
Your Display Board
For almost every science fair project, you need to prepare a display board to communicate your work to others.
- In most cases, you will use a standard, three-panel display board that unfolds to be 36″ tall by 48″ wide. High school students may go as high as 108” but still must be no wider than 48” when unfolded.
- Display boards can be found at many office supply stores, craft stores or teacher supply stores.
- You may not use any other space (such as under the table.)
- Organize your information like a newspaper, so that your audience can quickly follow the thread of your experiment — by reading from top to bottom, then left to right. Include each step of your science fair project: abstract, question, variables, background research and so on.
Are You Looking for a Science Fair Project Board?
Many office supply stores carry them!
We particularly like Jonathan’s Educational Resources. They carry a variety of colors in the right sizes, as well as borders that can help jazz up a project board. They even carry lettering for titles, specially designed for science fair projects that follow the scientific method.
Go to the following for some great examples:
- Use a font size of at least 16 points for the text on your display board, so that it is easy to read from a few feet away. It’s OK to use slightly smaller fonts for captions on picture and tables.
- The title should be big and easily read from across the room. Choose one that accurately describes your work, but also grabs peoples’ attention.
- A picture speaks a thousand words! Use photos or draw diagrams to present non-numerical data, to propose models that explain your results, or just to show your experimental setup. But, don’t put text on top of photographs or images. It can be very difficult to read.
Some Notes of Caution:
- Do not put your name on the front of the display board. Instead, place your name and school on the back using a 3-by-5 card.
- Do not include photos of faces. Photos of even yourself should be from the back or side. You want the focus to be on the science, not you!
- Please include captions that include the source for every picture or image.
- Do NOT include acknowledgements of people who helped you on the board. (These should go in your lab book.)
- Please DO include your laboratory notebook.
- Please do not bring equipment such as your laboratory apparatus or your invention. It will not be allowed to stay. Do not bring plants, soil, Petri dishes growing anything, liquids of ANY kind, anything with moving parts, chemicals, or anything that can rot or decompose. They will be removed and possibly not returned.
- Make sure your display does not include anything edible.
Writing Your Final Research Report
Final Research Report
At this point, you are in the home stretch. Preparing your science fair project final report will just entail pulling together the information you have already collected into one large document.
Your final report will include these sections:
- Title page
- Abstract (An abstract is an abbreviated version of your final report.)
- Table of contents
- Question, variables
- Background research (This is the research paper you wrote before you started your experiment.)
- Materials list
- Experimental procedure or methods
- Data analysis and discussion (This section is a summary of what you found out in your experiment, focusing on your observations, data table and graph(s) — which should be included at this location in the report.)
- Ideas for future research. Some science fairs want you to discuss what additional research you might want to do based on what you learned.
- Acknowledgements (This is your opportunity to thank anyone who helped you with your science fair project, from a single individual to a company or government agency.)But please do not paste these on your board. Put them in here and/or your lab or log book.
Your final report will be several pages long, but don’t be overwhelmed! Most of the sections are made up of information that you have already written. Gather up the information for each section and type it up using a word processor if you haven’t already.
Save your document often! You do not want to work hard getting something written just right — only to have your computer crash and lose all the information. Frequent file saving could save you a lot of trouble. You may also want to back up your data using a portable hard drive, such as a data stick or jump drive.
Remember to do a spelling and grammar check in your word processor. Also, have a few people proofread your final report. They may have some helpful comments.
Preparing for Judging Day
Judging is the fun part! Although you may think you will be nervous, you will soon learn that you do not have time to be.
Judging is where you get to finally get to show what you did and you may even get to talk about what you did as you are setting up or at your school fair. You are the expert!
It may help to write up a very short summary to give people when they stop by and say, “Tell me about your project.” Your answer should be brief (no longer than one minute) because the judges have already had a chance to tour the exhibition room and read about your project before you arrived. This summary is sometimes called an “elevator pitch,” because it should be brief enough to explain to someone else during a short elevator ride. You may only have a person’s undivided attention for 30 seconds — make the most of it!
Organize a list of questions you think the judges will ask you, and prepare/practice answers for them. Practice explaining your science fair project to others while pretending they are judges.
Practice explaining your science fair project in simple terms so anyone can understand it.
Presenting Yourself During the Science Fair Judging. Be Professional!
- Always dress nicely for the science fair judging period. Do not wear jeans or T-shirts with unprofessional images or words on them.
- Make good use of your display board. Point to diagrams and graphs when you are discussing them.
- Be positive and enthusiastic!
- Be confident with your answers. Do not mumble.
- If you do not understand what the judge is asking, or do not know the answer, it is OK to say “I do not know.” Don’t make stuff up.
- Treat each person who visits you like a judge (even non-scientists.)
- After the science fair, always ask for feedback from the judges to improve your project.
Preparing for the Science Fair Judging - Practice Makes Perfect!
At some science fairs, you will actually have a chance to meet and speak with the judges. If you prepare for these interviews, they’re a great opportunity to create a positive impression of your work. The following is by a student on Science Buddies website:
By Amber Hess (Science Buddies)
If you can communicate your science fair project well, you maximize your chances of winning.
Write up a short “speech” summarizing your science fair project. Do not restate your abstract word by word. You will give this speech (from memory) when you first meet the judges. Include in the speech:
How you got the idea.
How you did the experiment (explain any relevant terms along the way).
Your results and conclusions.
Why your science fair project is important in today’s society. (How will it help people today?) You don’t have to cure cancer. Perhaps your work will only help a small group of people, but it’s still important.
Demonstrate that you understand the theory behind why your project turned out the way it did.
If you can’t fit all of this into your presentation, be prepared to discuss each of the above topics separately. Expect to be interrupted when you talk to the judges. You will rarely finish your speech.
Organize a list of questions you think the judges will ask you and prepare/practice answers for them. A few common questions are listed below.
– How much help did you receive from others?
– What does your data tell you?
– Why is this research important? (Who cares if a rocket flies well?)
– What do your graphs represent?
– What problems did you run into while doing your experiment — and how did you fix them?
– What are the three most interesting things you learned when doing this science fair project?
– What further research do you plan on — or would like to do — for future study?
Study your background research as you would for a test. In some ways, presenting your science fair project is like taking an exam. The better you know your background research, the higher the chance you have of winning.
This is the part I usually had trouble with: I would do the research and understand everything, but then I needed to study it. I would eventually learn and remember all the facts I should know, but I had to sit myself down and study. Force yourself to pretend there is a test the next day on all of the information, and you will be prepared.
Practice explaining your science fair project to others, and pretend they are judges.
Practice explaining all graphs, tables, your short speech, answers to possible questions judges might ask, etc.
Practice explaining the theory behind your science fair project. Theory includes everything discovered in your background research.
Videotaping yourself during practice “interviews” can also be very helpful. Although it can be painful to watch the video, you will see the mistakes you made and be able to fix them the next time you speak.
Practice explaining your science fair project in simple terms so anyone can understand it.
Many students do not know how to explain their science fair project to the general public. If you can explain your project in laymen’s terms, you are one step ahead of everyone else!
Presenting Yourself — Be professional!
– Always dress nicely for the science fair judging period. Do not wear jeans! Everyone will take you more seriously if you look professional.
– Make good use of your display board. Point to diagrams and graphs when you are discussing them.
– Always be positive and enthusiastic!
– Show the judges you are interested in your research, and they will be more likely to remember you.
– Do not be negative unless you are emphasizing a frustrating problem you ran into.
– Be confident with your answers. Do not mumble and say “Umm, I think maybe this is happening … ” Even if you answer a question incorrectly, at least they will not think you are a wimp!
– Emphasize how you were creative/unique/innovative with your science fair project. One of the major criteria on the judges’ list is creativity and originality.
– If you have no idea what the judge is asking, or do not know the answer to their question, it is OK to say “I do not know.” This is better than making something up that probably is not correct. It’s better to get on to the next question for which you probably do know the answer.
– Treat each person who visits you like a judge, even non-scientists. They may be a valuable contact who could give you an internship or assistance later on.
Always ask for feedback from the judges after the science fair. Gather your judges’ email addresses, and ask them how you can improve. (If you know their name and employer, often you can do an Internet search to obtain their email addresses.) In my experience, I hear back from about half of the science fair judges I email. If you move onto the next level, you should update your science fair project and/or display board after receiving feedback. The improvements you make could determine whether you place in the next science fair! If you don’t go on to the next level, their comments can help you on your next science fair project.