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The Basics

Part III: What every great science project has in common

Every great science project includes the same basic activities:

  • Identifying a testable question. The question should be answerable, using affordable materials and methods that are both safe and feasible.
  • Testing each variable in an experiment more than once. Repeated testing will ensure you have enough data to make valid conclusions.
  • Testing only one variable at a time. This approach allows you to identify and measure the effect of each variable individually.
  • Data gathering and recording. Data include measurements and observations.
  • Graphing data, and then identifying trends in the data. That will help support your conclusion.

This science fair project guide published by Science Buddies can help you get started. This 15-minute animated video, by a young artist named Kevin Temmer, provides a great introduction to preparing for a science fair. And at SSP, we share tips and advice from past participants in the Intel ISEF.

Now that you know what to do, choose a topic and then:

  • Research the topic. This means becoming a mini-expert on the topic.
  • Organize. This includes stating the question you want to answer.
  • Create a timetable. Research takes planning, pacing and usually much more time than you expect.
  • Make a research plan. This is a roadmap of the questions you will have to answer as you design, conduct and interpret your experiment.
  • Review rules, and have an adult review and approve your experiment if necessary. Every science fair requires students to follow a set of rules. For example, here are the rules for Intel ISEF competition for high school students. Some projects also require the review and approval of an adult. These can include projects involving hazardous or potentially hazardous substances and devices, or live animals (including people).
  • Construct a hypothesis. This is an educated guess about how something will work. An experiment will test your hypothesis.
  • Conduct the experiment. You will have to repeat it multiple times, following the same procedure each time.
  • Record results. This means collecting your measurements and observations.
  • Analyze results. Review your data, using charts and graphs to help interpret them.
  • Draw conclusions. Your data will either support or refute your original hypothesis.
  • Present results. You can share the results of your experiment through an abstract, or brief summary. You may also present your results in a research paper or on a presentation board.

Project Timing

Each of the above steps will take time — more than you may think at first. Making a timetable will help you plan. Be ambitious but realistic. That means making sure that the topic you choose not only interests you but also can be researched in the amount of time you have. Once you have identified your testable question, next develop a timeline to manage how you will test it. Build into your project some extra time to accommodate unexpected problems. These might include taking a big test, getting the flu or having to leave town for a family event.

If you will be taking part in a large science fair, you may have to fill out entry forms and review your research plan with your sponsor. Allow time for that. Certain projects will require more time because they need prior approval from a Scientific Review Committee (SRC) or an Institutional Review Board (IRB). Budget time for that. And allow plenty of time to experiment and collect data. Sometimes experiments don’t work. Sometimes experiments raise more questions than they answer — and require even more experimenting. This all takes time. Finally, you may have to write a paper that pulls together your findings. Or you may need to create a display or poster that presents your data and findings.

Project Support

Creating an independent research project doesn’t mean you can’t ask for help. Parents, teachers, experts and other students may offer to help you on your project. Figuring out what kind of help is fair — and what type of help is not — can be tricky. Below are several stories from Science News for Kids that help offer guidance on that issue.

Many students find a mentor to help them refine what questions to ask and how to answer them. Ideally, a mentor should never tell you what to do (even if you ask). Instead, a good mentor will help you find information that will inform your decisions on what to do and how to do it. For example, this story from Science News for Students gives examples of the proper roles played by mentors. This article discusses the advantages of working with a mentor. Meanwhile, we feature in this story the rewarding example of a young student who had the courage to contact an outside expert in the topic he was researching.

Parents and teachers can play a role too. Parents and teachers may offer advice and give assistance, but they must not do any of the actual work on a research project.. For instance, they may help you map out the time you have available to do your work. Parents and teachers also can evaluate whether the project you want to do can be done in the time available. They also can help determine whether supplies will cost more than you can afford, or whether what you plan to do might be dangerous or require approval from others. Here are two links to SNK stories that expand on this topic.

This Science News for Students article features what parents learned about their role in helping on science fair projects. And this story highlights teachers sharing the roles they played.

Presentation and Competition

Once you have completed your experiment, analyzed your results and drawn your conclusions, there is still more to do: You must communicate your findings. You also should be prepared to discuss your project, answering any questions that judges, teachers or others might have about how and why you tested or developed something the way you did and how to interpret your findings.

There are many different ways to present the results of your research. Remember: Presenting results doesn’t mean performing, demonstrating or repeating your experiment. Instead, you should prepare:

  • A research paper. This gathers in one document all the work you have done on your project. The contents will vary, but should include a title, table of contents, hypothesis, background research, materials, procedures, data analysis, conclusions and a bibliography. You might also include ideas for future research and acknowledgements.
  • An abstract, or brief summary of your research paper. An abstract typically includes the purpose of the experiment, procedures used, results and conclusion. You also may want to include an introduction. Science Buddies offers this concise guide to writing an abstract.
  • A project or display board.  The board includes much of the same information as in your research paper. However, it is designed for display and brevity. That means it must be organized and laid out in a way that makes it easy to read — even by someone standing a short distance away. Again, Science Buddies provides some clear guidelines for preparing a board. For most science fairs, there are complex and strict rules that govern what a board must (and cannot) include. For example, review the Intel ISEF Display and Safety Regulations.

At SSP, we provide several online guides to completing a science fair project. That page includes links to guides on writing an abstract and creating a display.

When presenting your work, it can be helpful to keep in mind what judges look for in reviewing the entries in a science fair. Even if you don’t plan to compete, these criteria can help you focus in creating a presentation of your work. Some of the criteria include originality and creativity, design and methodology, knowledge achieved, and clarity of expression.

For more examples of what judges look for, review the Intel ISEF Judging Criteria.  You can also try searching on the Internet for “science fair judging criteria.” You can narrow your search by adding, for example, the name of your state. SSP-Affiliate Fairs are listed in a Find-A-Fair index by state; many have websites with details about registration, judging and past winners. 

Next: Feed Your Brain

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