Basic Process

1_fjr0291-2xThe following is the basic process for completing a basic research project at the high school level. Go to “Step by Step” for more information, rules and details on how to complete a project at the high school level.

How To Do A Basic Research Project

A “research project” is science or engineering research that produces a novel contribution. It can come in the form of new data that helps address an open question in a particular scientific field … or a new technique that improves upon methods currently being used in a scientific field.  Research projects can also be done in the engineering field. This road map will help you understand the steps needed to tackle such a project.

Decide On an Area of Interest

Decide On an Area of Interest

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 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.

Narrow Your Idea to a Testable Question

Once you have selected your general area of interest, it’s time to narrow your topic down to a testable question, and to formulate your actual research 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 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. Because of their ground-breaking content, seminal papers are cited frequently by subsequent publications. So, as you’re reading the scientific literature, and 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 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 … and discuss ideas with another expert in the field.

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.

Write a Project Plan

After you’ve settled on the question to research, it is time to write a project outline. 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.

Once you’ve written your project outline, show it to your mentor or any other person (such as teachers or parents) who can give you helpful 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, in which you’ll repeat steps to fine tune a goal or plan.

Make sure to obtain permissions and fill out any SRC forms that might need to be completed before starting.

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


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 of research, the number will 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.


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, a certain number of repeats, or specific data gathering process. 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 — being carful 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 (SRC) to which you must submit special paperwork, depending on the nature of your experiments. For more details, consult the SARSEF Scientific Review Committee guide — and guides found any other competitions’ websites.

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.


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.


Throughout the project outline, you should cite all relevant sources and record the references in your bibliography. Documentation citing informational sources is always important in scientific research. For more information on how to cite and format references, check out our guides on Modern Language Association (MLA) style and American Psychological Association (APA) style.

Be sure to check with other competition(s) you’ll be entering before you start writing your bibliography to see which format you should be using.

Run Your Experiment

A finalized project outline is 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 detailed 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 — because your original predictions could be  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.

Present Your Findings

Once you’ve completed all your experimentation and data analysis, you are 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. Consult the information packages of the competition(s) for exact details!

The article on Judging Tips for Top Science Competitions is a good source of additional advice on communicating your research in various formats. Our Display Boards Guide has specific tips for creating a high-quality visual display.

Regardless of the method of presentation, it is important to put your data in the formats used by other scientists within your field. That’s because competition judges will be science professionals who expect data to be communicated in a specific format.

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 compiled 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 good research!

+  What Goes On A Poster or the Display Board?

You can use a printed poster format, or create a larger display board. Some basics on purchases and elements to include on a poster or display board are listed below.

NOTE: Posters can also be created using Microsoft PowerPoint or publishing software. FedEx and university settings can do printing for you. Display boards may be purchased at any office, craft or teacher supply store. 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 “go bigger” than entries for lower levels. When expanded to full size, your poster board should be no more than 48 inches across, and can range from 36 inches 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, and should clearly communicate your topic.
  2. Abstract: This needs to be completed in 250 words. (Do NOT include it on the poster — just in case are selected for advancement to ISEF — as that competition does not allow such postings.) The abstract is summary of the whole project, in 250 words or less. It states the project goal (or why it is important), as well as methods, results, and onclusions. 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. Research Question (or Statement of the Problem: 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 test?
  4. Background Research: This is your preliminary research involving scientific literature. The information — which could include careful Internet research, as well as conventional research — should be cited in this section.
  5. Materials: List everything you needed to do this project. Be specific, and add 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 describe each step succinctly. Use short paragraphs here, and possibly create a flow chart for efficient reading.
  8. Results: This is where your data charts and graphs go. Explanations are NOT located here. Your raw data should be included in your notebook/binder, and set in front of the display. Make sure, however, to include a few graphs on your display board.
  9. Conclusions: This is where you interpret and draw conclusions about your data, charts and graphs. Sentences may 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 – and remember, every research project has limitations! This is also where you can explain why the project is important. Add additional details that made your project interesting, or questions that may have been sparked by your research. Ideas for future projects can go here, too!
  11. At high school level competition, names can be displayed on the board. However, it is generally better to put them on your materials and on a 3-by-5 card clipped to the back of the display.
  12. All Scientific Review Committee (SRC) forms and permissions must be on display. Place them in front of the project (usually in a notebook).

Go to Your Competition and Enjoy!
After all the hard work 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. Make sure you understand the rules and that you plan accordingly.


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