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Part IV: Learning what is known is the first step toward discovering something new

Once you have decided on a research topic, you need to focus on what aspect of that topic you will study. The best way to start is by doing some background research. That research will allow you to learn what is known about the topic. Then you can start figuring out what you might ask that might be new. It’s part of making a project your own. For instance, you might learn how research has shown that the pH of stream water in Germany tends to drop, or become more acidic, in the fall. You might study whether the same thing happens in the stream in your backyard or in a local lake. Picking a new variable — for example, a body of water in your hometown — is one way to make a research project yours alone.

Keep in mind that an important first step in creating your project is asking one question or testing one idea — not many. That will keep your research focused and manageable. Next, you need to figure out how to answer that question or test that idea. It may require surveying people, collecting data or designing and building a new device.

As you search for information on a topic, always consider the source. You must always ask yourself whether the source is trustworthy. If you are searching for information on the Internet, investigate the author or organization responsible for posting the information you find there. Whenever you are in doubt, ask an adult.

Students often start by searching for information on Wikipedia.  Always keep in mind that hundreds or thousands of people may have edited a Wikipedia entry. These volunteers may have little to no real expertise on a topic. It’s all right to start research on a topic, by collecting vocabulary and identifying concepts, using a website such as Wikipedia. However, you always should verify whether that information is reliable. Usually that means finding other sources to confirm, deny or expand on what you read on Wikipedia. Always do that. Those other sources should be credible and reliable. Credible sources can include professionally reported and edited articles from nationally known newspapers, magazines and websites. They also include scientific journals that publish original research. And it could include information from universities, laboratories or other organizations that fund or conduct research related to your topic.

Some other sources of information:

  • Science Buddies lets you "ask-an-expert”  if you have science fair project questions.
  • InstaGrok, which calls itself a search engine for learners, provides resources and other information to help students research science project ideas.
  • Here at SSP you can find out what award-winning projects have been done in your area of interest, and find new topic ideas, by searching summaries of projects, called abstracts, since 2003 from the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.
  • For more advanced searches, sites such as Google Scholar allow students to search scientific articles, theses, books, abstracts and other research sources.
  • The National Institutes of Health maintains a database of medical research, including millions of abstracts and studies, called PubMed. It's geared toward professionals but can also be useful for students.
  • EurekAlert!, operated by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, gathers together news from universities, medical centers, scientific journals, government agencies, corporations and other organizations engaged in research. Although the site is meant for use by the news media, it can be useful for students, too. EurekAlert! also maintains a page for students with news and other resources.

Next: Glossary of Research Terms

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