The classic vinegar-and-baking soda volcano has gone the way of the dinosaur as a prize-winning science fair project. In the realm of hyper-competitive and wired classrooms teachers students and parents are feeling the pressure to step up the science when it comes to choosing and executing this annual assignment.

There is no shortage of science fair activity ideas online these days, and a child—or adult—can easily get lost looking at endless lists of homemade battery or bacterial culture set-ups. But one site is taking the search for a winning project one step further by enlisting working scientists to help design cutting-edge experiments that qualify as real research.

Science Buddies, founded by engineer and dad Kenneth Hess, launched about 10 years ago. It now has so much scientist-generated material that a 26-question survey is required to match users with projects that best match their interests (e.g. "Do you enjoy watching or participating in sports?"; "Do you like animals more than machines?"; "Do you prefer thinking about a problem in your head more than doing it with your hands?").

The goal is to encourage and help "students who didn't have an engineer as a father," Hess said in a prepared statement. Scientists can submit a plan for a project inspired by their research. Some of these impressive projects include applying a Princeton University research group's radio telemetry data to student's own observations of song birds to study bird migration and navigation; another, posted by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology team, guides students to find "new catalysts for splitting water" in the search for water-based fuel, Hess and his colleagues described in a letter in Science last month.

Scientists can also sign up to field questions from students via a moderated message board. "Many scientists are very interested in reaching out and letting people know what they're doing," Hess said.

The site was awarded the 2011 Science Prize for Online Resources in Education for its work in improving science education, and it now averages about 8.9 million unique visitors each year and boasts some 15,000 pages of material from scientists.

Hess attributes the site's success to lessons learned from the data that his team has accumulated about students' interests and experiences. "We monitor which areas of science receive the most interest, develop new project ideas in the areas with the most traffic and always try to broaden the scope of scientific concepts covered," he and his colleagues wrote in the letter in Science. "We strongly believe that students learn the most from a project when they have an intrinsic interest in the subject matter."

Credit: National Science Foundation