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Step by Step
Congratulations on deciding to help your students complete a project!
You have just taken the first step.
Step-by-Step will take you through the process of helping your students complete a project. Although the process may seem overwhelming at first, if you just take it step by step, you will find the process easy and enjoyable. Before you know it, your students will have a high-quality project that you and they can be proud of!
The following is what we tell our upper-elementary through high school students. Feel free to modify the process to fit your students’ levels and needs.Expand All Collapse All
Before They Begin
Ideas for Your Science Fair Project
The most important step in a science project is helping the students pick a topic that they already care about and consider interesting. They’ll be spending a lot of time on it, so you don’t want their science fair project to be about something that they think is boring.
We know that finding a topic is the hardest part of a science fair project, and sometimes you need a little assistance in helping them focus on what sorts of topics would be of interest to them — and still be of quality.
To help them find a science fair project idea that can hold their 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 the students identify an area of science that is best for them.
So click on the link below, and let’s get started by pretending you are the student. See what YOU would choose!
Science Project Topics to Avoid
There are also several project topics that we know do not work. Why not warn your students ahead of time?
Projects to AVOID:
- Most consumer product testing of the “Which is best?” type. This includes comparisons of popcorn, bubblegum, cosmetics, batteries, detergents, cleaning products and paper towels.
- Any topic that boils down to a simple preference or a 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.
- Effects 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, and it has been done a million times already.
- Effect of running, music, video games, or almost anything regarding 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.
Projects to ABSOLUTELY NOT do:
Any topic that violates the rules of virtually any science fair. You will be disqualified before you even are judged. Please do not select:
- 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.
If humans are involved, their written permission may be required. This form may be a helpful start: Informed Consent K-8
High School students particularly need to pay attention to the forms that they will need. It may appear a bit intimidating but it will be good practice for their futures as researchers. ANd now it is even easier!
They can go the following website and answer questions about their project which will then direct them to the correct and required forms:
Scientific Method or Engineering Design?
Scientists study how nature works. Engineers create new things — such as products, websites, environments and experiences. Because engineers and scientists have different objectives, they follow different processes in their work. Scientists perform experiments using the Scientific Method. Engineers follow the creativity-based Engineering Design Process.
The Scientific Method is a way to ask and answer scientific questions by making observations and doing experiments.
The steps of the Scientific Method are to:
- Decide what you already care about
- Ask a question
- Do background research
- Construct a hypothesis
- Test your hypothesis by doing an experiment
- Analyze your data and draw a conclusion
- Communicate your results
It is important for the experiment to be a fair test. A “fair test” occurs when only one factor (variable) is changed, and the other conditions are kept the same.
While scientists study how nature works, engineers create new things, such as products, websites, environments and experiences. If a project involves creating or inventing something new, then the project might better fit the steps of the Engineering Design Process.
The Engineering Design Process is the set of steps that a designer takes by first identifying a problem — and finally, 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!
While engineers create new things, such as products, websites, environments, and experiences, scientists study how nature works. If your student’s project involves making observations and doing experiments, their project might better fit the Scientific Method.
Start a Lab Notebook
All scientists keep a journal or lab book. Students should use a lab notebook to document their science investigations, experiments and product designs, too.
- A lab notebook is an important part of any research or engineering project. Used properly, the lab notebook contains a detailed and permanent account of every step of a student’s project, from the initial brainstorming to the final data analysis and research report.
- A lab book is like a journal recording the student’s journey from start to finish. The student needs to write down their thoughts starting on the very first day, when they are just beginning to choose an idea.
- Many science projects require a number of steps and multiple trials. By recording the steps of the procedure, their observations, and any questions that arise as they go, students create a record of the project that documents exactly what they did and when they did it.
- With a complete record of the project in their lab notebook, students can look back at their notes later if a question arises, or if they decide to pursue a related project based on something observed.
- Writing down product design ideas, engineering challenges and product testing data will help students keep track of all of their ideas, what they 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” the lab notebook. Enter something 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. Allow students to choose one that works best for them.
Advanced: Using Your Laboratory Notebook
Once the student has selected a lab notebook, the following tips and techniques will help them get started keeping an organized, well-maintained journal for their science or engineering project:
- Label the lab notebook. Put their name, the 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 they accidentally leave the lab notebook behind or lose it, someone will be able to reach them if it is found. If the notebook will be used for a single science or engineering project, be sure to also label it with the project title and the year.
- Use ink. Make the lab notebook entries in pen, not in pencil. Using a smudge-proof pen may reduce the risk of smears. If a mistake is made in the lab notebook, simply cross out the error and write in the necessary correction.
- Number the pages. Numbering the pages of the lab notebook helps keep the notebook organized. Students can use these numbers to set up an index or table of contents (see below) or to cross-reference earlier observations within the journal. If the pages of the lab notebook are not already numbered, students may want to number them before beginning to use the notebook.
- Create a table of contents. To quickly go back and find information in the lab notebook, it helps to create one. The traditional way (used by professional scientists and engineers) is to create it as you go. Label the first page “Table of Contents,” and then, as students work on the project, enter important pages in the Table of Contents. For example, when a student begins their experimental procedure, they might note “Trial 1, Page 10” in the Table of Contents so they can quickly find their notes at a later date. If this method is too confusing, students can create tabs for the different sections of the science project. This optional approach may help students keep their notes and records organized. The sections will vary based on the science or engineering project, and students may find that their class assignment or the steps of the Scientific Method can help them determine the sections they will use.
- Date entries. Always date lab notebook entries. Even if the entry is very short, adding a date helps students track when they took certain steps or made certain observations. Their lab notebook will be a sequential record of the project, so the dates are important.
- No blank pages. The lab notebook entries should be entered consecutively, starting at the front of the notebook. When making entries, students should not skip pages. (If they 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.
- Be brief. While some entries in the lab notebook may require in-depth notes, many of their 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 students record enough information so that they fully understand the notes they’ve made, and so that the notes contain all important or necessary details. When looking back at an entry, even months later, it should be clear exactly what the student did or documented on a specific day. It should also be clear to the teacher, another scientist or engineer.
- Do not remove pages. If something is wrong on a page, or if the student discovers 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.
- The student needs to keep it with them. They will want to record every single detail of their science or engineering project in the lab notebook, so they need to make sure they have it with them at all times — especially when they are in the lab, working on the procedure, doing research or collecting data. Do not take the chance that the student will remember all of the details to record at a later date. Also, students do not want to make a habit of recording data on scraps of paper and entering them in the lab notebook after the fact. Loose papers are easily lost. Students need to keep the lab notebook with them and make their entries on the spot.
- Do it every day. Students need to develop the habit of starting a new entry as soon as they go to the lab, or begin working on their science project for the day, even if they are only taking a quick measurement or doing a visual check. Students need to write down the date and then record what they’ve done. As students get in a routine of documenting their research and experiment every day, using the lab notebook will become an important part of how they navigate a science or engineering project.
Writing Their Question
The question that students select for their science fair project is the cornerstone of their work. The research and experiment they 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 them 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. Students may want to study dolphins, but if they live in the desert that may have to wait. Can they study fish in an aquarium, instead?
- There should be at least three sources of written information on the subject. Student researchers 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 them from lots of unhappiness later. Imagine the experiment they 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 students can’t measure the results of their experiment, they’re not doing science!
– Students must be able to control other factors that might influence their experiment, so that they can do a fair test. A “fair test” occurs when they change only one factor (variable) and keep all other conditions the same.
- Is their experiment safe to perform?
- Do they have all the materials and equipment needed for their science fair project, or will they be able to obtain them quickly and at a very low cost?
- Do they have enough time to do their experiment before the science fair? For example, most plants take weeks to grow. If they want to do a project on plants, they need to start very early! For most experiments, they will want to allow enough time to do a practice run in order to work out any problems in their procedures.
- Does the science fair project meet all the rules and requirements for your school’s science fair?
If they don’t have good answers for the above issues, then they 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 Scientific Review Committee (SRC) approval from your science fair BEFORE they start experimentation.
Now is the time to start thinking about getting approval, if necessary for a science project (See SRC.)
Background research is necessary so that students know how to design and understand their experiment.
- Has the student identified all the keywords in their science fair project question?
- Has the student generated a focused research questions?
- Has the student thrown out irrelevant questions?
- Will the answers to their research questions give them the information they need to design an experiment and predict the outcome?
- Did they describe equipment or techniques they will need to perform an experiment?
Write a Research Plan
- Identify the keywords in the question for the science fair project. Brainstorm additional keywords and concepts.
- Use a table with the “question words” (why, how, who, what, when, where) to generate research questions from keywords. 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. Students will need to add to their background research plan a list of mathematical formulas or equations (if any) that will be needed to describe the results of the experiment.
4. Students should also plan to do background research on the history of similar experiments or inventions.
5. Suggest that students network with other people with more experience than them: their mentors, parents and teachers. Have them ask, “What science concepts should I study to better understand my science fair project?” and “What area of science covers my project?” Better yet, encourage them to ask even more specific questions.
A hypothesis is an educated guess about how things work.
After having thoroughly researched their question, students should have some educated guesses about how things work.
- Most of the time a hypothesis is written like this: “If ___[I do this]___, then ____[this]____ will happen.” (Have students fill in the blanks with the appropriate information from their experiment.)
- Their hypothesis should be something that they can actually test. That’s called a “testable hypothesis.”
- In other words, they need to be able to measure both “what they do” and “what will happen.”
The hypothesis must be worded so that it can be tested in their experiment. Have the students do this by expressing the hypothesis using their independent variable (the variable they change during their experiment) and their dependent variable. (The variable they observe, changes in the dependent variable, depend on changes in the independent variable).
Is it OK to Disprove Your Hypothesis?
Is all science accomplished using this same method that is taught in schools and emphasized at science fairs? Should students worry if they end up disproving their hypothesis? Actually, the answer is: No it’s not. And don’t worry if the student disproves the hypothesis.
Example Hypotheses (thanks to Science Buddies)
- “If I open the faucet [faucet opening size is the independent variable], then it will increase the flow of water [flow of water is the dependent variable].”
- “Raising the temperature of a cup of water [temperature is the independent variable] will increase the amount of sugar that dissolves [the amount of sugar is the dependent variable].”
- “If a plant receives fertilizer [providing fertilizer is the independent variable], then it will 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 they will keep the rider dry when riding through puddles [the dependent variable is how much water splashes on the rider].”
Note: When students write their own hypothesis they can leave out the part in the above examples that is in braces [ ].
Notice that in each of the examples it will be easy to measure the independent variables. This is another important characteristic of a good hypothesis. If we can readily measure the variables in the hypothesis, then we say that the hypothesis is testable.
Not every question can be answered by the Scientific Method. The hypothesis is the key. If students can state their question as a testable hypothesis, then they can use the Scientific Method to obtain an answer.
Cause & 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 for students to wonder about and measure.
During Their Experiment
Planning the Procedures or Method
Write the experimental procedure like a step-by-step recipe for the science experiment. A good procedure is so detailed and complete that it lets someone else duplicate the experiment exactly!
- Write a step-by-step list of everything the student must do to perform their experiment. Think about all the steps that they will need to go through to complete the experiment, and record exactly what will need to be done in each step.
- The experimental procedure must tell how the students will change their one and only independent variable, and how they will measure that change.
- The experimental procedure must explain how the student 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 the student intends to repeat his or her experiment, so that the researcher can verify that their results are reproducible.
A good experimental procedure enables someone else to duplicate your experiment exactly!
Where will the student conduct their experiment?
They may need a lot of room for their experiment, or they may not be able to move their experiment around from place to place. If they are working with human or animal subjects, they may need a location that is quiet. They will need to think about these limitations before they start their experiment, so they can find a location in advance that will meet their needs.
Sample Beginner Method:
- Number each battery so the student 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 step #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 five 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 of designing experimental procedure involves planning how students will change their independent variable and how they will measure the impact that this change has on the dependent variable. To guarantee a fair test when they are conducting their experiment, they need to make sure that the only thing they change is the independent variable. Important: All the controlled variables must remain constant. Only then can the student be sure that the change they make to the independent variable actually caused the changes they observe in the dependent variables.
- Scientists run experiments more than once to verify that results are consistent. In other words, students must verify that they obtain essentially the same results every time they repeat the experiment with the same value for their independent variable. This insures that the answer to their question is not just an accident.
- Each time students perform their experiment it is called a run or a trial. So, their experimental procedure should also specify how many trials they intend to run. Most teachers want them to repeat their experiment a minimum of three times. Repeating the 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, students can run the trials all at once. For example, if they are growing plants, they 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, students will not need to repeat the experiment multiple times. However, in order to insure that their results are reliable, they need to test or survey enough people to make sure that the 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 seen when they 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 the student changes the independent variable. For example, if their 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 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 seen when fertilizer is added are in fact caused by the fertilizer and not something else.
- However, not every experiment is like the fertilizer example. In another kind of experiment, many groups of trials are performed at different values of the independent variable. For example, if a student’s question asks whether an electric motor turns faster if the voltage is increased, he or she 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, the student is comparing the experimental groups to each other, rather than comparing them to a single control group. They must evaluate whether their 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 the 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 the fertilizer example, the student 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 the student’s experiment will run smoothly and that they will not encounter any unexpected surprises at the last minute. Students will need to prepare a detailed experimental procedure for their experiment so they can ensure consistency from beginning to end.
Think about it as writing a recipe for the experiment. This also makes it much easier for someone else to test the experiment if they are interested in seeing how the student got their 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. Students conduct a fair test by making sure that they change one factor at a time while keeping all other conditions the same.
For example, let’s imagine that a student wants to measure which is the fastest toy car to coast down a sloping ramp. If the student gently releases 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; the student 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 a student’s experiment is a fair test, he or she 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.
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.
Before the student even begins to start, think about what materials they will need to complete their project.
What type of supplies and equipment will they need?
By making a complete list ahead of time, the student can make sure that they have everything on hand when they 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 the students can get everything they need before they start their science fair project.
Then, as students are working, and realize that they added other materials, they need to include them in their 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 (I used Panasonic)
- Kitchen timer or watch with a second hand
- Pen or pencil to record data
Doing the Actual Tests
With a detailed experimental procedure in hand, students are almost ready to start their science experiment. But before they begin there are still a few more things to do:
Know what to do. The student needs to read and understand the experimental procedure. Are all of the necessary steps written down? Do they 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 needed to do the experiment. Do they have all of the materials they need? Are they handy and within reach of their workspace?
Think ahead about safety! Are there any safety precautions the student should take? Will the student need adult supervision? Will they need to wear gloves or protective eye gear? Do they have long hair that needs to be pulled back out of their face? Will they need to be near a fire extinguisher?
Students will need to prepare a data table in their laboratory notebook to help them collect their data. A data table will ensure that they are consistent in recording their data and will make it easier to analyze their results once they have finished their experiment.
During the Experiment
It is very important to take very detailed notes as the students conduct their experiments. In addition to their data, students need to record their observations as they perform the experiment. Students will write down any problems that occur, anything they do that is different than planned, ideas that come to mind, or interesting occurrences. Students need to be on the lookout for the unexpected. Their observations will be useful when they analyze their data and draw conclusions.
We suggest students keep a lab book or journal so that all your information is kept in one place. Don’t use loose-leaf notebooks, as students want to make sure all their information stays together. Data that is recorded now will be the basis for their science fair project final report and their conclusions. Help the students to capture everything in their laboratory notebook, including successes, failures and accidents.
If possible, take pictures of the experiment along the way. These will later help you explain what was done and enhance the display for the science fair.
Remember to use numerical measurements as much as possible. If the experiment also has qualitative data – which are things like observations of what is happening (not numerical), then take a photo or draw a picture of what happens.
Tell students to be as exact as possible about the way they conduct their experiment, especially in following their experimental procedure, taking 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. Students should have built enough time in their schedule to allow them to repeat their test a couple of times.
In fact, it’s a good idea to do a quick preliminary run of the experiment. Students need to show the preliminary data to their mentor or teacher, and make revisions to their experimental procedure if necessary. Often there are glitches in the procedure that are not obvious until they actually perform the experiment. This is normal! If students need to make changes in the procedure (which often happens), write down exactly the changes that they make.
Stay organized and be safe!
They Have Results — Now What?
Data Analysis and Graphs
Review the data. Try to look at the results of the experiment with a critical eye. Students will need to ask themselves these questions:
- Is it complete, or did I forget something?
- Do I need to collect more data?
- Did I make any mistakes?
Calculate an average for the different trials of your experiment, if appropriate.
Make sure to clearly label all tables and graphs. Include the units of measurement (volts, inches, grams, etc.).
Place their independent variable on the X-axis of their graph, and the dependent variable on the Y-axis.
Take some time to carefully review all of the data they have collected from their experiment. Use charts and graphs to help students analyze the data and patterns. Did they get the results they had expected? What did they find out from their experiment?
Encourage students to really think about what they have discovered while using their data to help them explain why they think certain things happened.
Advanced: Calculations and Summarizing Data
Often, students will need to perform calculations on their raw data in order to get the results from which they 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. Don’t forget to include the units of measurement (grams, centimeters, liters, etc.).
Students should have performed multiple trials of their experiment. They will want to think about the best way to report and summarize their data.
- Do they 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 their data as individual data points?
- Are there any calculations that are necessary for the student to analyze and understand data from their experiment?
Pay careful attention, because the student may need to convert some of their units to do their calculation correctly. All of the units for a measurement should be of the same scale.
Graphs are often an excellent way to display the student’s results. In fact, most good science fair projects have at least one graph.
For any type of graph:
Generally, students should place the independent variable on the X-axis of their 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 the student has 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 the student’s 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 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.)
Students’ conclusions summarize how their results support or contradict their original hypothesis:
Students will want to summarize their science fair project results in a few sentences, and use this summary to support their conclusion. Include key facts from their background research to help explain the results as needed.
State whether the results support or contradict the hypothesis. (Engineering and programming projects should state whether they met their design criteria.)
If appropriate, state the relationship between the independent and dependent variable.
The students’ conclusions will summarize whether or not their science fair project results support or contradict their original hypothesis.
If the student is doing an engineering or computer-science programming project, then they should state whether or not they met their design criteria.
Students may want to include key facts from their background research to help explain their results.
Do the results suggest a relationship between the independent and dependent variable?
If Your Results Show that Your Hypothesis is False
If the results of the student’s science experiment did not support his or her hypothesis, don’t change or manipulate the results to fit the 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 the student thinks they need additional experimentation, describe what they think should happen next.
Scientific research is an ongoing process, and by discovering that the hypothesis is not true, students have already made huge advances in their learning that will lead them to ask more questions that lead to new experiments.
Science fair judges do not care about whether the student proves or disproves their hypothesis; they care how much you learned.
Make sure the conclusions only state the facts. Students need to save their own thoughts for the discussion.
This is the students’ chance to explain their results in more detail.
They discuss what happened and what they found out. This section is often critical when judges are trying to decide between two projects.
Summarize and evaluate their experimental procedure, making comments about its success and effectiveness.
Students can talk about some of the uncontrolled variables that may have affected their results.
And they can discuss the limitations to the using of the conclusions from their project when thinking about other similar situations.
Discuss what the student would have liked to have done or wants to do in the future! The student should suggest changes in the experimental procedure (or design) and/or possibilities for further study.
Want a secret clue to doing well in a science fair? Put some extra time into this section! Here is where the student can explore why their project is important to the real world. Have them tell the judges and readers why this issue is interesting or critical. It is the student’s final message to readers and judges.
Not Quite Done Yet!
Making a Display Board
The Display Board
For almost every science fair project, students need to prepare a display board to communicate their work to others.
In most cases students 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 it 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.
Students may not use any other space (such as under the table).
Students need to organize their information like a newspaper so that their audience can quickly follow the thread of their 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 other great examples:
- Use a font size of at least 16 points for the text on the 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 the work, but also grabs peoples’ attention.
- A picture speaks a thousand words! Encourage students to use photos or draw diagrams to present non-numerical data, to propose models that explain the results, or just to show the 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 the student’s name on the front of the display board. Place his or her name and school on the back using a a 3×5 card.
- Do not include photos of faces. Photos of even the student should be from the back or side, as they are doing the project only.
- Please do include captions that include the source for every picture or image.
- Do NOT include acknowledgements of people who helped the student on the board. These should go in your lab book.
- DO include your laboratory notebook.
- Do NOT bring equipment such as the laboratory apparatus, or the invention. They 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, students are in the home stretch. Preparing their science fair project final report will just entail pulling together the information they have already collected into one large document.
Their final report will include these sections:
- Title page
- Abstract. This is an abbreviated version of your final report.
- Table of contents
- Question, variables, hypothesis
- 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 the students found out in their experiment, focusing on their observations, data table and graph(s), which should be included at this location in the report.
- Ideas for future research. Some science fairs want the students to discuss what additional research they might want to do, based on what they have learned.
- Acknowledgements. This is the students’ opportunity to thank anyone who helped them with their science fair project, from a single individual to a company or government agency.
The final report will be several pages long, but students shouldn’t be overwhelmed! Most of the sections are made up of information that they have already written. They will gather up the information for each section, and type it in a word processor if they haven’t already.
Suggest that they save their document often! They do not want to work hard getting something written the perfect way, only to have their computer crash and the information lost. Frequent file saving could save everyone a lot of trouble.
Remember to have them do a spelling and grammar check in their word processor. Also, have a few people proofread their final report. They may have some helpful comments.
Preparing for Judging Day
Judging is the fun part! Although students may think they will be nervous, they will soon learn that they do not have time to be. Judging is when students get to finally talk about what they did – and to show that they are the expert!
- High school students are required to attend the entire judging session from 12-3:00 p.m. on Thursday.
- Middle school students are HIGHLY encouraged to attend that same day from 10:00 a.m.- 11:30 a.m. Although the points are not added into the scores for Grand Awards, there are several sponsored prizes that only awarded to students who attend the interview session. The Intel Observer (who travels to the International Fair with a parent at our expense) is selected from Grade 8 students who attend the interviews.
- Elementary students are not interviewed.
It may help students 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 30-60 seconds long – because the judges have already had a chance to go around and read the projects before students come.
Students will want to organize a list of questions they think the judges will ask them and prepare/practice answers for them. They may want to practice explaining their science fair project to others, and pretend they are judges.
Practice explaining the science fair project in simple terms so anyone can understand it.
How Students should Present Themselves During the Science Fair Judging — Be Professional!
- Always dress nicely for the science fair judging period. Do not wear jeans.
- Make good use of the display board. Point to diagrams and graphs when discussing them.
- Always be positive and enthusiastic.
- Be confident with answers. Do not mumble.
- If a student has no idea what the judge is asking, or does not know the answer to the question, it is okay to say “I do not know.”
- Treat each person who visits like a judge — even non-scientists.
- After the science fair, always ask for feedback from the judges to improve the project.
For some science fairs, students will actually have a chance to meet and speak with the judges. If students prepare for these interviews, they’re a great opportunity to create a positive impression of their 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? (This would cover future study plans.)
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!
Share these tips with your students:
Always dress up nicely for the science fair judging period. Do not wear jeans. You will be taken 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 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.