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3 Strategies for an Original Science Fair Project

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Is a looming science fair project keeping you up at night?  Has the teacher sent home an “informational packet” that requires your child to bring back a completed project?  Does the teacher’s kid win the school fair every year anyway?  Fear not – help is here!  I have launched a new (and free) website/blog to help parents help kids complete exciting, enjoyable, and technically correct science fair projects – even if it is due… tomorrow.  So let’s get started.

The first you thing you need to know is that a science fair project is different from a school report on a special topic like whales, planets, or climate change. It is also different from making a model such as a volcano or solar system. A science fair project involves conducting an experiment to answer a question or solve a problem.  The key to a successful project is combining the correct use of scientific method with an original idea.

First, learn the basics of the scientific method

  • STEP 1:  Based on observations, ask a question
  • STEP 2:  Predict the answer to the question (we call that prediction a hypothesis)
  • STEP 3:  Design an experiment to generate data to test the hypothesis (easier than it sounds)
  • STEP 4:  Analyze the data to determine if the prediction should be accepted or rejected
  • STEP 5:  Ask a new question, based on the results.  Repeat steps 2-5 for as long as you have time, resources, and interest.

Next, you have to find an idea. This is unquestionably the hardest part, so here are 3 strategies for finding an original idea, ranked from easiest (good enough) to hardest (best):

  1. Find directions for a project online or in a science fair project book.  Complete the project as it is because this is a good way to learn the scientific method.  For your original project, you will need to change something about the one you found.  For example:  if the project was “what is the effect of pumpkin size (weight) on the number of seeds inside?”  you could make an original project by asking any (or all) of the following questions:
  • What is the effect of pumpkin volume on the number of seeds inside?
  • What is the effect of pumpkin size on the average size of the seeds inside?
  • What is the effect of jalapeño pepper size on the number of seeds inside?

In all cases the independent variable (aka manipulated or explanatory variable) is the one you will manipulate (pumpkin weight, pumpkin volume, pepper size) and the dependent variable (aka response variable) is the one you will measure (number of seeds inside, size of seeds inside) in your experiment(s).

  1. Find something to measure:  You must measure something!  Think about all the things you can measure:
  • For your DEPENDENT VARIABLE (must be quantitative), you could measure…

• size
• speed
• concentration
• frequency (how often something happens)
• angles and/or direction

  • The INDEPENDENT VARIABLE can be either quantitative (i.e. measurable with numbers) or qualitative (i.e. describable with adjectives).

Examples of qualitative variables would include:
• color: red, blue, green, yellow, orange
• gender: male, female
• size: small, medium, large
• age: old, young

Now that you have identified what you are able to measure, ask a question as to how that variable changes as a function of time (hourly, daily, weekly, etc.), or space (distance from something, distance along a path, within an area of interest, etc). Along the same lines, you could build a piece of equipment (just search for “how to build a” … thermometer, barometer, secchi disk, etc) as part I of the project and then use that equipment to answer a question as part II.

  1. Find an observation: If you have a good understanding of the scientific method and are just searching for a creative idea, this is the strategy for you.  Home remedies and “old wives’ tales” are a fantastic place to start.  For example, I have too many spiders in my house and I once heard that spiders will not build webs near coconut oil.

This would be my observation.  My question becomes:  Do spiders avoid coconut oil?  Can you make a hypothesis and design an experiment around this question? Try it before reading on.

Here are some hints:  My hypothesis could be (I would have to pick one):

  • If there is coconut oil, then there will be fewer spiders
  • If there is coconut oil, then there will be more spiders
  • If there is coconut oil, then there will be no difference in the number of spiders

The hypothesis often yields clues about what the experiment will need to be.  Here I would need well defined areas with and without coconut oil and then I would need to count the number of spiders that are in those areas.  The details are up to you!

Along the same lines, you could also flip through your science text book and look for interesting relationships or factoids.  For example:  Does cricket chirping track with the phases of the moon?  Try again to design this project before reading on.

Hints:  My hypothesis could be (pick one)

  • As the phases of the moon change, crickets chirp more frequently
  • As the phases of the moon change, crickets chirp less frequently
  • As the phases of the moon change, cricket chirping does not change

For an experiment, I would need to monitor the phase of the moon (independent variable) and measure the frequency of chirping (count the number per unit time).  Again the details are part of your project design.

Good luck and have fun!  If you like what you have read, and want more tips and guidance, come visit my website and blog (http://science-fair-coach.com).  It is designed to help parents, teachers, and other mentors (that are not scientists) help kids complete interesting, fun, and technically correct science fair projects. Although the information targets 3rd through 8th grade students, the details will be useful for all first time participants.  It will also help those that don’t want to win the science fair, but rather desperately need the good grade or extra credit in science class.

 

 

Maille Lyons About the Author: Maille Lyons is an environmental microbiologist specializing in aquatic bacteria. She has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Biology from the University of Massachusetts (UMD), a Master’s Degree in Biology from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), a post-graduate certification in Epidemiology and Biostatistics from Drexel, and a Ph.D. in Oceanography from the University of Connecticut (UCONN). Follow on Twitter @ScienceFairInfo.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 4 Comments

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  1. 1. jaia 1:44 pm 11/21/2011

    What’s the advantage of having kids come up with a “hypothesis” when the question can be addressed directly? The spiders and coconut oil example is a great one. What does a hypothesis add to that project? Is this just a common science fair requirement?

    Link to this
  2. 2. MailleLyons 5:41 pm 11/21/2011

    Great question. The hypothesis (used to be called an “educated guess” – but that is misleading, the student should not be guessing)is a critical part of the scientific method and helps focus the project idea. It also gives clues as to what the experiment will need to test. Later (more advanced students), the hypothesis is important for statistical testing, which determines what the results actually provide evidence for/against.

    So the answer is, the hypothesis adds structure and leads the student toward the appropriate experiment. Many teachers will ask for it in an If…then… format, but that is not required.

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  3. 3. Bora Zivkovic 9:49 pm 11/21/2011

    That is a great question. I think hypothesis-testing has education value. Of course, there are other ‘scientific methods’ than just hypothesis-testing (I discussed that in more detail here: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/a-blog-around-the-clock/2011/08/06/bio101-biology-and-the-scientific-method/ ) but hypothesis-testing has the advantage of being structured and formalized. It is then rather easy for students (and teachers, parents, and judges) to come up with good projects if they use this method.

    The other scientific methods are harder to do – they are a little fuzzy around the edges, sometimes it is not easy to figure out what is and what is not science (so weird project, including pseudoscience, can creep in). These also require much more background knowledge, experience, training and resources. Total species survey of an area takes a lot of know-how, space, time and resources to do. Likewise with sequencing a genome (though microbial genomes are easy and cheap enough for some schools/students). In many ways these non-hypothesis-testing methods are harder to do than hypothesis-testing. I’d leave them for later, once the students have already grown as scientists to some degree.

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  4. 4. jaia 3:33 am 11/22/2011

    I can see how in some cases hypothesis testing can help structure a project. If there are many potential explanations for a phenomenon, then you can pick one and test it as a hypothesis. But with the spiders and coconut oil, there are only three possibilities: more spiders in the presence of coconut oil, fewer spiders in the presence of coconut oil, or there’s no difference. These “hypotheses” are all tested in the same way. Even if you do statistical analysis, they’re the same, because you’re always testing the null hypothesis.

    Bora, I think some purely exploratory questions are easy for kids to study. For example, they could see what birds come to their bird feeder or record flower blooming dates. (Phenology has become an important source of data on the effects of climate change.) But what I had in mind was question-driven research. The coconut oil example is a good one. They could also ask what kinds of food different birds prefer, how acid affects growing plants (my fifth-grade project), or any number of other things. I think this is the most natural way of introducing kids to science and a very important type of research for professional scientists. Requiring a hypothesis here is a bit like the Jeopardy requirement that answers be in the form of a question.

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