Step by Step

img_0114Congratulations on deciding to do a project!

You have just taken the first step.

Although the research process may seem overwhelming at first, if you just take it step by step you will find the process doable.

And remember, you can use your project for many other competitions as well, resulting in awards that you can list on your applications and resumes, cash prizes, trips and scholarships.

How To Do An Advanced Research Project

An advanced research project is where you produce a novel scientific or engineering contribution. It can come in the form of either new data that helps address an open question in a particular field, or a new technique that improves upon methods currently being used in a field. Advanced research projects can also be done in the engineering field. Most advanced research projects are undertaken with the goal of competing at a top science competition or, if you have a mentor who is in academia, publishing the findings in a scientific journal. There are many good reasons to do an advanced research fair project, but before you start, you should understand the scope of the time and energy commitment you’re making. This roadmap will help you understand the steps needed to tackle an advanced research project.

At the high school level, the number of weeks you spend on any step of the project will widely vary. However, the following will ensure you get your project completed in time for SARSEF registration mid-February. Adjust as needed!

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Getting Started

Decide On an Area of Interest

An advanced research project isn’t something you can do in a weekend, or even in a month! It takes many hours of thought and work, so the topic needs to be something in which you’re interested and it needs to be fairly specific. The first step in coming up with a topic is to pick an area of science in which you’re interested. You can start with something general like “biology,” but from there you need to refine your interest to a sub-area, such as “the biology of aging,” or a question in which you’re intrinsically interested, like “How do people’s cells change as they age?”

There are many ways to arrive at an area of interest. Perhaps you’ve already done a science fair project that you want to significantly expand and take to the next level. Or maybe you have an intrinsic interest on which you’d like to build. Do you have a hobby, like building model airplanes, astronomy, or setting up aquariums, from which you can draw inspiration? Maybe there’s a question that’s always stuck in your mind that you’d really like to get to the bottom of. Other people, especially mentors, as discussed in the next section, can also be a great source of ideas.

Research Project Topics to 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.
  • Most consumer product testing of the “Which is best?” type. This includes comparisons of popcorn, bubblegum, make-up, batteries, detergents, cleaning products, and paper towels.
  • Effect of colored light on plants. Several people do this project at almost every science fair. You can be more creative!
  • Effect of music or talking on plants. Difficult to measure, been done a million times already.
  • Effect of running, music, video games, or almost anything on blood pressure. The result is either obvious (the heart beats faster when you run) or difficult to measure with proper controls (the effect of music).
  • Effect of color on memory, emotion, mood, taste, strength, etc. Highly subjective and difficult to measure.
  • Any topic that requires measurements that will be extremely difficult to make or repeat, given your equipment. Without measurement, you can’t do science.
  • Any topic that violates the rules of virtually any science fair –you will be disqualified before you even are judged:
  • 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.

Seek Out a Mentor

This step may come first, depending on your personal circumstances.  If you already have a mentor from a previous experience (either from another science fair, a summer internship, or some other interaction), then that mentor would be a great resource as you decide on an area of interest.

If you don’t already have a mentor, you may want or need to seek one out, depending on the nature of your project. Some projects require an official supervisor or scientists (see forms required.) Who makes a good advanced science fair project mentor? Generally speaking, a mentor can be any science professional who is: in the field of science you’re interested in researching, and who is willing to (and has the time to) speak with you, give you regular feedback about your ideas, and/or provide you with resources. The bottom line is that a mentor can be instrumental in helping you navigate the intellectual side of your science project and even offer physical resources, like lab space and equipment.

And in some cases, you may not need an official mentor – it depends on your topic. There are certain types of projects where students have successfully competed by carefully following all of the rules and having someone at their home or school double-check that they are on-track. However, the high school SRC forms will help guide you in deciding whether a mentor who will also be a supervisor of qualified scientist is required for your project. https://apps.societyforscience.org/isef/students/wizard/index.asp  We always recommend one!

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 a 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.

Science Process

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 may test or create new things, such as products, websites, environments and experiences, and may use the Engineering Design Process. Scientists study how nature works, and may use the Science Process. Either is fine!  If your project involves making observations and doing experiments, your project might better fit the Science Process. (See farther above.)

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Using Your Laboratory Notebook

Once you have selected a lab notebook, the following tips and techniques will help you get started keeping an organized, well-maintained lab notebook for your science or engineering project:

  1. 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, like the inside cover. If you accidentally leave the lab notebook behind or lose it, someone will be able to reach you if the notebook 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Create a table of contents. To quickly go back and find information in your lab notebook, it helps to create a table of contents. The traditional way (used by professional scientists and engineers) is to create a Table of Contents as you go. Label the first page “Table of Contents,” and then as you work on the project, enter important pages in the Table 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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 cross out unused sections of a page so that nothing can be added later that might alter or confuse the data originally recorded.
  7. 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 record keeping. 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. Looking 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!
  8. 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.
  9. Keep it with you. You want to record every single 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.
  10. Do it 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 Research Question

Narrow Your Idea Down to a Testable Research Question

Once you have selected your general area of interest, it’s time to narrow your topic down to a testable question. Ultimately, the goal for the national high-school-level top competitions is to make a novel scientific contribution. In order for your contribution to be novel you need to know what has already been tried in the field and what the outstanding questions still are. You can do this by speaking to experts in the field (like your mentor) and by reading the scientific literature. To have the best possible science project, you will need to do both!

You should first get an overview of the scientific papers already published in your area of interest. Reading review articles, which are papers that sum up and examine the results of many previous publications in the field, is a good place to start. The How to Read a Scientific Article guide explains what a review article is in more detail, and how to effectively read both review and primary research articles.

Once you’ve gotten a better overview of the field, you’ll want to delve into the primary literature, papers that originally reported the experimental methods and data. It is especially important to read the papers that are seminal in the field. A seminal paper is the first article to present an influential or important experiment or theory in the field. Experts in the field are the best people to inform you about which are the seminal papers in a specific area of science. Ask for recommendations. In addition, because of their ground-breaking content, seminal papers are cited frequently by subsequent publications. So, as you’re reading the scientific literature, if you see an article that is cited frequently, it is likely to be seminal and you should read it, too.

The majority of students, find that the question on which they want to concentrate becomes obvious as they read the literature. Once you settle on the question you want to research, you should refine the question by delving into the fine points of previously published experiments, as well as talk your ideas over with an expert in the field (like your mentor). The expert serves as a double-check to make sure you aren’t working on a problem that’s already been resolved, and that the experiments you’re suggesting are logical and feasible. As you refine your question and think about the experiments you’ll need to do, keep limitations in mind—such as equipment, cost, and time—and actively brainstorm ways to circumvent those limitations. For example, if you need a piece of equipment that is only available at a particular university, contact researchers there, explain your situation, and see if there is a way you can use their equipment or collaborate with them in some way.

  • The question that you select for your science fair project is the cornerstone of your work. The research and experiment 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 have to wait. Can you study fish in an aquarium, instead?
  • There should be at least 3 sources of written information on the subject. You want to be able to build on the experience of others!

Now, 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, time, etc. Or, just as good might be an experiment that measures 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) or animal tissue, pathogenic agents, DNA, or controlled or hazardous substances, need SRC (Scientific Review Committee) approval from your science fair BEFORE you start experimentation.

Now is the time to start thinking about getting approval if necessary for your science project. You can go to the Rule Check section or jump right into finding out which permissions and forms you will need at: https://apps.societyforscience.org/isef/students/wizard/index.asp

Background Research

Background research is necessary so that you know how to design and understand your experiment.

  • Have you identified all the keywords in your research 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 and SRC Approvals:

After you’ve settled on the question to research, it is time to write a project Research Plan. The project outline is a way to focus your ideas, questions, experimental priorities, and “to-do list” all in one place so that you can evaluate and improve it. This is a step that all scientists and engineers take. For academics, it often happens in the form of grant writing, and for engineers, particularly at companies, it is part of creating a design specification. This is also what you will submit for any SRC and IRB approval that are needed before experimentation. At the High School level you can and will be disqualified if you do not strictly follow protocol and start testing too soon. See SRC forms:  https://apps.societyforscience.org/isef/students/wizard/index.asp

Once you’ve written your project outline, show it to your mentor or any other person (parents, teachers, etc.) who can give you feedback. The most specific feedback will come from someone who is doing active work in the field. He or she may be able to offer insights into the likely outcomes, help strengthen your experimental procedures, or offer other crucial advice. Parents, teachers, and other proofreaders can help you with overall structure, logic, and clarity. Remember that your first draft isn’t likely to be your final plan! Take feedback into account and adjust as necessary. This will be an iterative process.

Your project outline should include these five sections, further explained below: Introduction, Methods, Predicted Results, Relevance, and Bibliography.

Introduction

The introduction describes what is already known about your research topic and the questions that are currently unanswered in the field. Your summation of these things should be based on the science papers you’ve been reading. The exact number of science papers you need to read in order to write a good introduction varies depending on the area of research, but by the time you’re done investigating all the ins and outs of your science project, including the methods, the number will definitely be in the double digits.

The introduction should also describe the species or system you’ll use to address your research question. Include why that species or system is the most appropriate basis for your inquiries. At the end of the introduction, briefly state what your specific question is, how you’re going to address it, and what your hypothesis is. In this case, your hypothesis is the experimental result(s) you expect to find based on your background research. Remember to cite your references as you write, and list them in your bibliography.

Methods

The methods section of the project outline will eventually become your experimental to-do list. This section should describe, in detail, the experiments you’re proposing or the observations you’re planning to make. You should be fairly detailed in your descriptions, including information like:

  • When and where the research will take place?
  • What the controls are for each experiment?
  • How long each experiment will take?
  • What materials and equipment you’ll need?

It is also critical to think about and write down how you’re going to evaluate and analyze your data. It is important to think about this ahead of time, in case you need to gain some skills, like a more advanced knowledge of statistics, have a certain number of repeats, or gather your data in a particular manner. As Terik Daly, an award winner at several top competitions and a Science Buddies volunteer put it:

“Rigorous data analysis is an important component of a project that is being taken to a top competition. Data analysis at a top competition involves more than bar graphs and scatter plots, it should involve statistically minded exploratory data analysis and inference. In order to be able to perform meaningful statistical analyses, you need to design your experiment with statistical principles in mind. This includes accurately and clearly defining your variables and sample space, accurately defining your factors and levels of your factors, identifying the type of experiment you are running, making sure that appropriate controls are used, that you perform enough replications to create a representative body of data, that you understand the likely distribution of your data, and ensuring that you are aware of and familiar with the types of exploratory and inferential analyses used in your field of science. You must design your experiments with data analysis in mind, because if you don’t think about analyzing your data until after your experiments, you are going to run into problems.”

Once you’ve written the methods section, make sure to go back and determine whether all the methods are feasible and whether the experiments will adequately answer your research question. Revise, as necessary, taking care to ensure that your science project fits within your limitations of cost, equipment, available materials, and the rules of the competition(s) you want to enter. Many top science competitions have a Scientific Review Committee to which you may need to submit special paperwork, depending on the nature of your experiments; consult our Scientific Review Committee guide and each competition’s website for more details.

Predicted Results

Writing the predicted results section is an opportunity to think more thoroughly about what the data you intend to collect can and cannot tell you. Think through and record all of the possible results to your experiments. Also, make sample figures or tables showing the possible outcomes, and how you would interpret the data. Are there any conditions under which the experiment(s) fail to give you conclusive data? If so, you may need to think of additional experiments.

Relevance

Scientists and engineers, both corporate and academic, are often asked to explain the relevance of their work. Use this section to elaborate on how your science project will advance the knowledge base in the scientific field you chose. Explain what greater impact (if any) your project might provide for other areas of science, humanity, and the environment. Explore any practical applications that might arise from your research.

Bibliography

Throughout the project outline, you should cite all relevant sources and record the references in your bibliography. Documentation citing from where different ideas came and on what they were built is always important in scientific research. For more information on how to format references, take a look at our guides on MLA style and APA style citations. Check with the competition(s) you’ll be entering prior to writing to starting your bibliography to see which format you should be using.

Think About Variables

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.

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 easy 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 have a belief that someone is in love, but you cannot really be sure, and you would probably have friends that don’t agree with you. So, love is not measurable in a scientific sense; therefore, 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.

Materials List

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 as 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 & 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 (I used Panasonic)
  • Kitchen timer or watch with a second hand
  • Pen or pencil to record data

Doing the Actual Tests

Preparations

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?

Data Table

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.

During the Experiment

Run Your Experiment.

Once your project Research Plan is finalized, and SRC/IRB forms are approved, it is now essentially a “recipe” of what to do. Gather equipment and materials and proceed as you’ve planned in the methods section of your outline. Keep very good records of exactly what you do so that you, or someone else, could repeat your experiments again.

As you collect the data, analyze it and see if is reasonable and provides an answer for your original question. Remember, this isn’t necessarily the same as confirming your hypothesis—it could be that your original predictions are false! It is important to analyze your data as you go, to ensure that your experiments appear to be functioning properly. Based on your data, you may find that you need to modify your experimental plan. You may need to tweak the procedure for an existing experiment, or even design a new one. If you do make changes, make sure to modify your project outline, too, and think through the entire outline sections again, given your new findings. Steps 4 and 5 may iterate as your science project evolves.

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!

Advanced

The first step of 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. And, 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. So, 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 insure 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 where 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 our example, 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 that 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 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.

It is very 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 strongly recommend (almost require) 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 along the way, 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 the changes you made.

Stay organized and be safe!

You Have Results - Now What?

Data Analysis and Graphs

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, and then later the spreadsheet can be used to display the results. Be sure to label the rows and columns–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. Get help with deciding which (if any) statistical test are needed and make sure that YOU understand each and every one before you include them in your project. It is more important to have simple statistics that are needed than many that are not needed or not well understood.

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

Graphs

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.)

Conclusions

Your conclusions summarize how your results support or contradict your original hypothesis:

  • 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 answered your question – did they adequately answer your question or do you need to do more tests because it led to other questions? (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 research project results supported an answer to your original question based on logic
  • 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 Hypothesis is False

If the results of your science experiment did not support your hypothesis, don’t change or manipulate your results to fit your original hypothesis, simply explain why things did not go as expected

Professional scientists commonly find that results do not support their hypothesis, and they use those unexpected results as the first step in constructing a new hypothesis.

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 led to other questions and more tests, 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 perfectly answered your question (there are always things that can be added or considered); they care how much you learned.

Make sure your Conclusions only state the facts –save your own thoughts for the Discussion.

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.

Limitations

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.

Further Research

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.

Implications

And 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

Present Your Findings.

Once you’ve completed all your experimenting and data analysis, you’ll be ready to present your findings. The rules of the competition(s) you’re entering will dictate whether your findings are presented orally, written up as a paper, displayed in poster format, or some combination of the three.

Regardless of the method of presentation, it is important to put your data in the formats used by other scientists within your field. The competition judges will be science professionals with an expectation about how data in a particular field is communicated. In general, you should emulate the types of graphs, figures, and data tables you see in top journals within the area of science in which you’re working. Your mentor will also be a good source of constructive criticism on this subject.

Once you’ve put together your data, make sure you’ve practiced your presentation skills and proofread all your written communications. Parents, teachers, and mentors are all great resources for helping you improve your writing and speaking skills. You don’t want poor data communication to obscure your good research!

+  What Goes On A Poster or the Display Board?

You can use a printed poster format of do a larger display board.  Here are the basics on what to buy and include on a Poster or Display Board.

Posters can be made using Power Point or Publishing software.  FedEx and University settings can do the printing for you. Display boards may be purchased at any office supply store, Teacher Supply store, Michael’s, or Wal-Mart.  They come in many colors but white is fine as well.  Any display board sold at a store will fit our requirements for size, but at the High School level you can even go bigger than at the lower levels. When expanded  it should be no more than 48 inches across, and can range from 36 to 108 inches tall.

  1. Title: Make this bigger than the rest of the section titles. Use scientific names. Titles can be in  the form of a short question but should clearly communicate your topic.
  2. Abstract: This needs to be completed in 250 words. However, do NOT include right on the poster in case you get selected for ISEF (it is not allowed to be on the board there). This is a summary of the whole project (in 250 words or less). It includes the goal or why it is important, the methods, the results, and most importantly the conclusions. You will want to include a sentence at the end about what you would like to do to continue this project in the future.
  3. “Statement of the Problem” or “Question”: How did you think of this project? Convince us that you really wanted to know about it. What were you trying to investigate and then tested?
  4. Background Research: This is your research regarding what was learned about the subject of your project from your literature search. The literature search (library and internet) should be cited in this section.
  5. Materials: List everything you needed to do this project (be specific) and put a few words about why you needed them.
  6. Operational Definitions: How did YOU define the terms you used? What means one thing to you might mean something different to someone else.
  7. Procedure or Methods: Number each step you did. You want to be descriptive and detailed here, but make each step be short so they are quickly and easily read…no long paragraphs here, split them up into two instead. You may want to create a flow chart for easier reading.
  8. Results: This is where your data charts and graphs go. No explanations are given here. Your raw data should be included in your notebook/binder and set in front of the display. DO make sure to include a few graphs on our display board.
  9. Conclusions: This is where you interpret and draw conclusions about your data, charts and graphs. May sentences will start with: “Based on my results, I can conclude that …” or “Based on my data …”
  10. Discussion:  Limitations: and Implications. You can use this section to state why results might be limited to this study only and not generalized. Limitations are variables that you might not have been able to control or could not change – every research project has limitations! This is also where you can put in why the project is important to the world. Add the additional things that made your project interesting, or things that made you think further, or wonder more. Ideas for future projects can go here, too!
  11. At the High School level name can be on the board, however it is generally better to just put them on your materials and on a 3-by-5 card or slip of paper and clip to the back.
  12. All SRC Forms and permissions need to be on display in front of the projects (usually in a notebook).

Your Display Board

For almost every science fair project, you need to prepare a display board to communicate your work to others.

In some cases you may prepare a poster presentation and in other cases you will use a standard, three-panel display board that unfolds to be 36 inches tall by 48 inches wide. High school students may go as high as 108 inches, but still must be no wider than 48 inches when unfolded. You are certainly not required to use that much space.

  • 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, hypothesis, variables, background research, and so on.

Go to the following for some great examples:

http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_display_board.shtml#samples

  • 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:

  • Please do not put your name on the front of the display board (place your name and school on the back using a 3-by-5 card). Although it will be obvious that you did the project during the interviews, and your name will be on your lab book, you do not want the judges to think you are trying to sway them in any way.
  • Do not include photos of faces. Photos (even of yourself) should be taken from the back or side as you are doing the project only. Have permissions for any human in the photo.
  • Please do 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 be listed 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. See Display and Safety under Rules.
  • 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.
  • Conclusions
  • 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.
  • Bibliography

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 in a word processor if you haven’t already.

Save your document often! You do not want to work hard getting something written the perfect way, only to have your computer crash and the information lost. Frequent file saving could save you a lot of trouble.

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

Go to Your Competitions and Enjoy

After all your hard work spent planning, executing, and presenting your research, it is time to start competing! Keep in mind that you can only gain entry to some of the top competitions by being a finalist in other qualifying science fairs, so make sure you understand the rules and that you plan accordingly.

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.

  • High school students are required to attend the entire judging session from 1-4:30 p.m. on Thursday.
  • Judging is where you get to finally talk about what you did – and you are the expert!
  • It may help to practice or to write up a very short summary to tell people when they say “Tell me about your project.” This should be short — about 30 seconds to 1 minute long – because the judges have already had a chance to go around and read your project before you came.
  • 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 and pretend 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. NO JEANS!
  • Make good use of your display board. Point to diagrams and graphs when you are discussing them.
  • Always be positive and enthusiastic!
  • Be confident with your answers; do not mumble.
  • If you have no idea what the judge is asking, or do not know the answer to their question, it is okay to say “I do not know.”
  • 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.

For 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.

Preparing for the Science Fair Judging-Practice Makes Perfect!

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. (In other words: How will it help people today?) You don’t have to cure cancer. Perhaps your work will help a small group of people, but it’s still important.

Demonstrate that you understand the theory behind why your project turns out the way it does.

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 does your data tell you?

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 doing, or would do, to this science fair project? (Your 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 from your background research.

Videotaping yourself during practice 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 up nicely for the science fair judging period. NO 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 “Ummmm … 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 a 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 okay 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 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.

Empowering Southern Arizona's K-12 students to participate in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math

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