Science Fair Project: Ideas & Questions

Instructor: Rachel Tustin

Dr. Rachel Tustin has a PhD in Education focusing on Educational Technology, a Masters in English, and a BS in Marine Science. She has taught in K-12 for more than 15 years, and higher education for ten years.

This lesson will walk you through the process involved in developing student science projects. It will provide insight on how you can structure the overall process and identify common struggles students may encounter along the way.

Science Projects Are Not for Procrastinators!

When starting science projects with your students, regardless of the level, start early. It is a science project, and developing a project is a process. Students will face stumbling blocks along the way, and they need time to work through those hurdles if they are to be ultimately successful in the end.

Science Project Timeline

Establishing a Science Project Timeline

If you are planning your projects for a formal science fair, you want to map out your timeline beginning with the deadline and working your way backward. In that timeline, be sure to build in a few weeks for troubleshooting any issues students encounter. Also, allow a reasonable amount of time for students to submit drafts of each step and for you to read their drafts and provide feedback. When developing a science project, the foundation needs to be solid, or you may be setting your students up for failure.

The Process to Arrive at a Final Science Project

The process

Begin With The Students' Interests

Science projects are a time-consuming topic, and if they don't pick something they are genuinely interested in, it could become a miserable process for both student and teacher. You need to allow a few weeks for students to develop their background knowledge on the topic that sparks their interest.

You will want to start by brainstorming with students their interests. It does not necessarily have to be a topic clearly tied to science - a lot of students may not have a passion for science at the start. For example, you may have students who are excited about makeup or cars. Don't be discouraged! You can find a solid science project on these topics, you just have to help your students be creative!

Once students have identified a clear topic, provide them with tools to research their topic. They need to become experts in order to develop a sound experiment around their passion. Students may be overwhelmed by the plethora of information online, so be sure to provide some scaffolding, or incremental evaluation, to help them sort the reliable from the unreliable sources.

You will also want to help them organize that information. The form that takes is entirely up to you. Depending on the students you teach it might be a formal paper, or a simpler presentation or video. The purpose of requiring a product at the end of the research phase is to help your students process the information so that they are comfortable enough to communicate the information to others.

Developing an Experiment Requires Creativity

Once students have developed their expertise in the background information, they are ready to start developing experiments. Some will immediately have ideas, and others may need you to facilitate this process. In either case, you need to allow time to conference with your students during the planning phase.

So, let's say you have students who are passionate about makeup. In their research phase, they learned about how makeup is made, the chemicals involved, and so forth. At this point, they may have hit a wall and are clueless about how to develop their experiments. Have them think about the science behind cosmetics. They may decide to manufacture their own, and test the longevity of store bought makeup against their natural alternatives. If they conduct an experiment in this way, it is a perfectly valid experiment.

Before students leave the planning phase, make sure they have a clear grasp of the fundamental components of the experiment itself. They need to be clear on their hypothesis and variables - the independent, the dependent, and the controls. If these aren't solid, they will struggle later on trying to analyze their information. Be sure to provide feedback and help them edit their procedures so that they are explicit. Students will try to write 'add some water,' rather than saying exactly how much water to add in their experiment.

Sample Experiment Plan Checklist

A Data Table Is a Must

Finally, make sure they have a data table to use as their guide moving forward. There is no worse feeling then having students conduct their entire experiment, and discover later on they didn't write down key pieces of data along the way. Remind them that it is perfectly normal if the experiment didn't turn out as planned, or they had to repeat it several times because things went wrong. Scientists themselves have that same experience! Few experiment turns out as expected the first time.

Data Collection Can Be a Bit of Trial and Error

During the timeframe students have to collect data, your phone and your email may ring a bit more than normal. Be prepared!

Students tend to expect to do something one time and have their procedures work out perfectly. That is not usually the case at all. You will have to remind them that it is okay to realize something doesn't work, and go back and revise their procedures.

Some students might not reach out to you because they perceive themselves as a failure if the experiment didn't work. So again, during this time set up conferences with your students about their progress. Be clear with them and explain that the purpose of these conferences is to help them troubleshoot their experiments - and that most of them will need to troubleshoot a bit. That is normal.

We Have Data, So We're Done, Right?

Students may feel that once they have conducted their experiments they are done with the project. Oh, if only that were true!

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