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Keys to a Great Science Fair Project

I am in the midst of organizing the science fair at my son’s school.  In particular, I am busy going through all the registration forms and making sure everyone has their research plan in order.

Earlier, in the fall,  I visited most of the classrooms to talk about the science fair and do a mini-project.  The kids are most excited to hear about the opportunities to go to the regional and state science fair with all the cool prizes.  But before you can move on to higher competitions, you need to win at the school level.

Each year I ask the judges  “What can the students do to improve their projects?”

Here is what they say year after year:

  1. Research!  Before you even design your experiment, find out as much as you can about your topic.  You may know enough already to do some okay science but if you want to move on to higher levels you really need to know what you are talking about.  Find books, web sites, journal articles, even interview some experts.
  2. Write everything down.  Write down what you learn.  Write down (or even draw/photograph) what you observe.  Write down questions you have.  Write down every detail of your experiment. Write down EVERYTHING.  You may need it later and what you observe or read about at the beginning of the experiment might give you insight into the meaning of your results.
  3. Ask a good question.  A good research question makes all the difference.  Avoid words like better, best or worst.  Keep it simple too.I recommend the following format:  Does ______  affect/determine/predict __________?
    You just need to plug in your variables for the blanks and make sure they are observable or measurable.  For example “Does the mass of a planet affect the rate at which it falls in a black hole?”  would not be good because we have no means to measure the mass of a planet and then observe it falling into a black hole.  However “Does the color of apple juice affect the perceived flavor?” or “Does color and roughness of the outside of a geode predict the color and size of the crystal inside?” work just fine.
  4. Do multiple trials.  Especially at the elementary grade levels students make the mistake of only doing one measurement or trial.  I recommend at least 6 trials for each measurement.  If you are testing people or animals you should do as many as you possibly can because it is much more difficult to control all the variables in these situations.  This means that if you are testing the affect of different types of soil on the growth of lima beans you should have at least 6 different pots for each type of soil.

Do you have any suggestions for an awesome science fair project?