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Neuroscience For Kids

Successful Science Fair Projects

By Lynne Bleeker
(Science teacher, science fair organizer and judge)

A successful science fair project does not have to be expensive or even terribly time-consuming. However, it does require some planning and careful thought. Projects become frustrating to students, parents and teachers when they are left to the last minute and thus don't have the chance to be as good as they possibly can. You can't rush good science!

A Science Fair Project display usually asks that you include certain sections. Your particular science fair rules and guidelines may use slightly different words to describe them, but be sure you address each of them as you go through your project and then again as you write it up.

Sections of a Science Fair Project

Title

Ideally the title of your project should be catchy, an "interest-grabber," but it should also describe the project well enough that people reading your report can quickly figure out what you were studying. You will want to write your Title and Background sections AFTER you have come up with a good question to study.

Background or Purpose

The background section is where you include information that you already know about your subject and/or you tell your project readers why you chose the project you did. What were you hoping to find out from the project?

The Question (Or Selecting Your Subject)

Probably the most difficult part of a science fair project is coming up with a good subject to research. I suggest to my students that they:

A. think about WHAT INTERESTS them.
B. think of a TESTABLE QUESTION about the subject.

If you are doing a project about something that interests you, you will likely enjoy the research more and stick with it long enough to get some good data. Remember, you are being a scientist. Scientists go to work each day because they are interested in what they are studying and because they are curious to know the answers to the questions they are researching.

If you are working to ANSWER A QUESTION, you will be doing real research. (Often students tell me that their parents have suggested doing something such as "volcanoes" or "tornadoes." It is possible to build cute models of these things, but it is pretty hard to come up with questions about them that are testable with materials available to the average person and in the time frame between when the science fair project is assigned and when it is due!) Another problem occurs when students need special equipment to test a question. For example, it might be interesting to find out if television commercials really are louder than regular programming ... but how would you test that without a decible-meter?

Some of the best science fair projects I have seen have also been the simplest. For example, I had students whose parents bought "off-brands" of cereal. They wondered if those brands were really any different from the name brands. They bought 3 or 4 different brands of the same type of cereal and asked permission to test them with the whole class. They had their peers evaluate them for taste, appearance, and sogginess in milk after 1 minute. They also did a cost comparison. They got a lot of interesting data! (I won't tell you what they found out in case you want to do something similar!) Other students who like sports have done experiments with the equipment for their sport: Do new tennis balls bounce higher than old ones? Do basketballs that are fully inflated bounce better than flatter ones? These projects just require some tennis balls or basketballs, some volunteer "bouncers" and a meter tape or meter stick!

There are many good sources for science fair project questions. The Neuroscience For Kids Web Site has some neuroscience-related questions that might spark your interest. Projects involving food - tasting, smelling etc - can be very simple to set up yet also very interesting. "Can blindfolded people taste the difference between ...?" You can also get lots of ideas from science trade books, such as Janice Van Cleave's books ("Biology for Every Kid" etc). If you browse through these books at a store or library, they may give you some ideas for a project of your own.

Project Guidelines

Be sure to carefully read the project guidelines for your particular science fair. Rules vary greatly from fair to fair in what is allowed, both for safety and ethical/animal use considerations. Obviously, experiments should not involve illegal substances or involve clearly preventable danger to you or your research subjects.

Some situations may require clarification from your teacher and/or parents. For example, suppose you were doing an experiment on the effects of caffeine (or chocolate) on concentration or reflexes. Think about the possible consequences! You would need to get permission before providing large amounts of high-caffeine soda pop. Some science fairs discourage the use of food in experiments because of food allergies. Again, check with your science fair guidebook or your teacher, and be sure you clearly communicate to your (human) research subjects what you will be asking them to consume so they can tell you if they have allergies.

Some science fairs allow experiments with live animals and others don't. For example, one classic experiment (found in most older science fair project books) involves changing the temperature of fish tank water and seeing what it does to the respiration rate (breathing) of goldfish. In some places around the country, that experiment would not be allowed at all. In others, you would need a special permission form guaranteeing that you will take good care of the animal. In other places, they don't yet have such restrictions. Again, use common sense. I once had students do a very clever experiment to see if their hamster or their cat could learn to go through a maze more quickly. This experiment, though it had animal subjects, obviously involved no chance of harming the cat or the hamster so I gave them permission to do it. Generally you are safest if your experiments involve plants or insects, and both types of organisms can lead to some fascinating studies! If you REALLY want to do an experiment with your pet, be prepared to explain what information you are hoping to gain from the experiment and how you will ensure the safety of the animal.

Prediction or Hypothesis

As soon as you come up with a testable question, you will probably instantly have a hypothesis (prediction) about what the results will be from your testing. (Isn't the human brain an amazing thing?!) It's a good idea to write this down before starting, because it may change as you go about your experimenting.

Materials and Methods

Once you have come up with a question that you can actually test with materials at your disposal, you need to figure out how to set up the tests. If you will have a survey for your participants to fill out, get that written up and duplicated. If you will need a chart to write down your test results, get it made. If you take the time to make it look nice with a straight-edge, you can include the actual chart or survey instrument in your project write-up. This really impresses the judges!

Let your teacher or science fair coordinator know what your question is and how you plan to go about testing it. They will likely have some good suggestions to save you lots of time and trouble. Once you have their go-ahead, then make a list of your materials, gather them up and GET STARTED! If you are really doing science, you will probably find that some things don't go quite as you had predicted they would. You will have to modify your research methods or even your original question. You may have to add more materials to your list. My students often get discouraged by this, but actually it is a good thing. This is how science really works!

Keep good notes of the things you have tried and plan to include even the "didn't-works" and "mess-ups" in your project report. Be sure to try your experiment several times to be sure you have enough data to make a logical conclusion. If you tell me that one brand of cereal gets soggier in milk but you've only tried each cereal in one cup of milk, I would suspect that maybe it was a fluke; you need lots of "trials" (generally at least 3; the more, the better) for believable data. Remember, too, that you want to keep all of the experimental factors (variables) the same except the one you are testing. In the cereal experiment, it wouldn't be fair to all of the cereals if you left one brand in milk for one minute and tried the others after two minutes or something like that. Again, GET STARTED EARLY on carrying out your project. You can't still be doing the experiment the day before the project is due and expect to have a first-class write-up!

In science fair projects as in life, "a picture is worth a thousand words." Plan to take pictures of the materials you used and of the experiment as it is being carried out. If you get started early, you will have time to have the pictures developed and include them as part of your report. (Or if you are lucky and your school has cameras that will take pictures and put them right into the computer, you will have time to learn how to do that and print them out for your report.)

Results or Data

The results section is where you tell your reader the actual numbers (or other data) that you got as you were doing the experiment. (In the tennis ball experiment, this would be a table with the different brands of balls and the actual heights each of them bounced on each trial.) You might also include a graph, if your data lends itself to it. But you do not tell your interpretation of the data - that's for the last section.

Conclusion

In the conclusion you finally get to tell your readers what you found out from the experiment, or how you interpret your data. Students often like to use this section to expand upon how much they liked doing the experiment (and how wise the teacher was to require such a good assignment!) or how much they learned from it ... but really this section should be focused on what you learned about your original question and hypothesis. For example, DID cheaper cereals get soggier in milk faster?

The Display

Project displays tend to be another source of great frustration to students, teachers and parents ... but they don't have to be! Again, what you need to do is PLAN AHEAD and then THINK OF YOUR AUDIENCE. Remember that they weren't there when you did the experiment, so what seems obvious to you will not be obvious to them unless you make it extremely clear.

Check to see if your science fair has any special rules to guide your display. For example, are there rules about the size of your display? Ideally, choose a display board that is cardboard and a "tri-fold," meaning that it folds into a middle and two side sections. This shape is the most stable and will stand up in the science fair display. These boards can be ordered from supply companies and are also usually available at stores like Office Depot. Check and see if your school has some from last year that can be re-used. This is good for the environment and for your pocketbook! I strongly advise against the flimsier posterboard, which tends to fall down easily and irritates teachers and judges. Also avoid wood backboards, which are VERY difficult to transport!

Once you have written or typed up all of the above sections, be sure you have TITLES for each section that are large and legible (I'd suggest 24 point or so on the computer). That way if people have questions about some part of your project, they can go right to the section they need to answer their question. Arrange the sections of the report on the board in a way that is attractive and also logical. The purpose and hypothesis should be easy to see right away. An art teacher can give you some good suggestions about how to use paper of different colors to draw attention to parts of the report and make it look terrific!

Other Science Fair Web Sites

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