Archive for Project Tips & Tricks

The 12-Hour Science Project

Okay, it’s the eve of your science fair project deadline, you haven’t even started your project, and you’re on the brink of calling Procrastinators Anonymous… but you’ve found your way here instead.  Here is our secret recipe for the world’s easiest science fair project that will take you less than 12 hours to complete, with one trip to the drug store. (To get the full-blown version (with 75-minute video) for under $10, click here.)

Shopping List:

  • Foam core display board
  • White copy paper
  • Colored (can be construction) paper
  • Fuji (white) film canisters (NOT Kodak)
  • Two packages (72 tablets total) of effervescent tablets
  • Measuring tape or ruler
  • Photo paper for your digital camera
  • Glue or double-sided sticky tape to nail down the photos and paper to the display board
  • Tablespoon measure (already in your kitchen?)
  • Thermometer (you probably already have this)
  • Stopwatch or clock (you’ll need to count in seconds)
  • Graph paper (you can make your own grid on a sheet of paper if you need to)

Your First Step: Play with the experiment first.

Place an effervescent tablet in a canister (you may need to break it into pieces) and fill part way with water. Working quickly, cap it and invert it on the sidewalk. Stand back… POP! You’ll find there’s an optimal water level for maximum height. If you work fast, you can get about four launches from one tablet. What happens if you try two tablets at once?

Here’s a short video so you can see what’s going on:

What’s going on? The tablets contain sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and citric acid (a solid form of vinegar). What happens when you mix together vinegar and baking soda? It fizzes all over the place, doesn’t it? Note that this reaction takes place because the vinegar (acetic acid) is in a liquid state. Notice how the effervescent tablets contain both chemicals, but they don’t react until you get them wet.

The chemical reaction of sodium bicarbonate and citric acid generates gas carbon dioxide gas bubbles (the same molecule you burp after chugging an entire soda), and those bubbles foam up and out of the canister. When you cap it, there’s no room for the bubbles to go, and they build up pressure… and more pressure… and more pressure… until POP! There’s so much pressure that the canister just can’t hold it together anymore, and off flies the cap (or the canister, if you’re doing it upside-down).

Formulate your Question or Hypothesis: You’ll need to nail down ONE question or statement you want to test if it is true.  Be careful with this experiment – you can easily have several variables running around and messing up your data if you’re not mindful. Here are a few possible questions:

  • Do more tablets give  a higher flight?
  • Does more water give a higher flight?
  • Does less water give a higher flight?

Once you’ve got your question, you’ll need to identify the control and the variable. For the question: “Does more water give a higher flight?”, your control would be one tablet, and your variable is the amount of water.

Taking Data: Sticking with the Question “Does more water give a higher flight?”, here’s how to take data. Grab a sheet of paper, and across the top, write down your background information across the top of the paper, such as your name, date, time of day, weather (and wind conditions), size of tablet (in weight, or grams – check the box), water temperature (in degrees), and anything else you’d need to know if you wanted to repeat this experiment exactly the same way on a different day.

Then get your paper ready to take data… and write across your paper these column headers, including the things in ( ):

  • Trial #
  • Water (teaspoons)
  • Time to Launch (seconds) <– Note: This is the time it takes for the rocket to pop after you’ve capped it.
  • Maximum Altitude (feet)

Run your experiment starting with no water… while this seems pointless, you still need to test and see what happens.  Plus, this is an excellent time to pull out your camera and get a good photo of you doing your experiment (you’ll use this later on your display board). Run your experiment again and again, increasing the water amount by one teaspoon each time until you reach the volumetric limit of your film canister.  Be sure to use a fresh tablet EACH TIME, or you’ll also be varying the amount of fuel in this experiment also. Don’t forget to take photos as you go along – see if you can get a picture of the rocket actually blasting off the ground!

NOTE: Kodak (black) canisters will NOT work for this experiment!! Record your results.

Analyze your data. Time to take a hard look at your numbers!  Make yourself a grid (or use graph paper), and plot the Altitude Height (in feet) versus the Water Amount (in tsp). In this case, Water Amount goes on the horizontal axis, and Altitude does on the vertical axis).  You can make a second graph showing the Altitude (feet) and Time  to Launch (seconds).

For more advanced students, use your projectile motion equations from physics to check your measurements against your theoretical values.  Major bonus points!

Conclusion: So – what did you find out?  What water amount gives you the highest altitude?  Is it what you thought originally?  Science is one of the only fields where people actually throw a party when stuff works out differently than they expected!  That’s because scientists are really investigators, and they get really excited when they get to learn something new.

One of the biggest mistakes you can ever make is to fudge your data so it matches what you wanted to have happen.  Don’t ever be tempted to do this… science is based on observational fact.  Think of it this way: the laws of the universe are still working, and it’s your chance to learn something new!

Recommendations: Okay, so this is where you need to come up with a few ideas for further experimentation.  If someone else was to take your results and data, and wanted to do more with it, what would they do? Here are a few spins on the original experiment… your recommendations don’t need to be this crazy…

Add foam fins and a foam nose, hot glued into place (foam doesn’t mind getting wet, as paper does).Put the fins on at an angle and watch it spin as it flies upwards. You can also tip it sideways and add wheels for a rocket car. Stack them high for a multi-staging project, or strap three together with tape and launch them at the same time! You can also try different containers using corks instead of lids.

What other chemicals do you have which also produces a gas during the chemical reaction? Chalk and vinegar, baking soda, baking powder, hydrogen peroxide, isopropyl alcohol, lemon juice, orange juice…

Make the dislpay. Fire up the computer, stick paper in the printer, and print out the stuff you need for your science board.  Here are the highlights:

  • Catchy Title: This should encompass your basic question (or hypothesis).
  • Purpose and Introduction: Why study this topic?
  • Results and Analysis (You can use your actual data sheet if it’s neat enough, otherwise print one out.)
  • Methods & Materials: What did you use and how did you do it? (Print out photos of you and your experiment.)
  • Conclusion: One sentence tells all.  What did you find out?
  • Recommendations: For further study.
  • References: Who else has done work like this?  (Wernher von Braun, Robert Goddard, etc.)

For tips & tricks on making your exhibit board, click here.

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Science Fair Survival Tips, Part 3

How to laser in on the scientific method and make it work for you and your project…

First and foremost, your project must answer a question.  That’s pretty much the heart of the scientific method… what question does YOUR project answer?  Here are a few examples to get you started:

  • Does more fuel result in a higher rocket altitude
  • Does it matter what angle the solar cell makes with the sun for maximum output?
  • How much weight can a kid lift using leverage?

You can either state your question as a ‘question’, or rewrite it as a hypothesis… but in either case, be sure it’s the most prominent thing on your display board.

You’ll need to figure out a way to clearly demonstrate how you did your experiment, and what you used to do it.  This is your Materials and Methods section, and this is a great place for photos.  You can itemize your list of steps, cal out a shopping list of materials, and outline your variable and controls.  Click here for more detail about how to vary your experiment using the scientific method.

After you’ve run your tests, gathered your data, taken your photos, you’ll need to analyze your data and finalize results. Which run had the highest rocket altitude? Which purified sample was the cleanest? This is a great place for tables, charts, and graphs that show your results all in one swoop.  Can you make a graph that a newbie can instantly pick out your results?

Once you’ve finalized your data into concrete results, you’ll need a section for Conclusions & Recommendations.  This section basically answers the initial question or hypothesis you had.  No, more fuel did not result in a higher rocket altitude gain, but if you were to do further experimentation (which is currently out of your scope – you’re doing school project, not working for NASA), you’d test out less fuel.  Extra credit points given for recommendations for further experiments that could be done as a follow-up to your own.

No need to re-invent the wheel!  References are the final step to every great book, project, and scientist-in-the-making.  Take advantage of other people’s work by standing on the shoulders of giants… and be sure to give credit where’s it’s due!  This may or may not make it onto your board (depending on how much you relied on outside sources for your work), but have a bibliography (computer-printed) sheet on hand in case you’re asked.

Well, there you have it – the best “Don’t forget these!” tips for making a great science fair project.

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Science Fair Survival Tips – Part 2

Let’s cover the basics of the display board.  There are several sections you need to cover to get your point across quickly, effectively, and with minimal fuss.

First, you need a title.  A good, catchy, no-holds-barred title. Which one of these would YOU stop at first?

  • The Complete Analysis of Multi-Dimensional Supersonic Fluid Flow of Dual Axisymmertic Thrust Vectoring Aircraft Engines
  • How to fly a fighter jet without falling out of the sky.

These were my two possible titles for my Master’s thesis… they both basically say the same thing.  I had to use the more complicated one, because that’s what my audience wanted.  You need to figure out the best way to reach your intended audience with a meaningful title.  Be as clear and concise as possible without losing any points for being ‘too clever’.  Which title strikes you as being an interesting exhibit?

  • Transforming coffee back into clear water using kitchen spices.
  • Defying gravity through more efficient rocket engine designs.
  • Life cycle of a water drop.
  • Using brains instead of brawn to lift ten friends with one hand.
  • Chewing gum leads to higher test scores in 3-5th graders.

As you go along with your Science Fair project, take pictures of your progress.  From the time it’s an invible idea in your head (photo:  me thinking up an idea) to a visible finished product (photo: me in front of my display board).  Tape the best photos to your board to help illustrate a point with less words.  Add small captions (printed from a computer) to the bottom of each photo, and attach the photo to colored paper to make a clean “frame” look.

While it may be obvious to you, most people will want to know why you’re studying your topic.  You’ll need to clearly state your purpose and a brief introduction when you have your board up.  I had a display board about solar astronomy, and the first title on the upper left said, “Why Study the Sun?”  By watching people as they came up to my display, I found most people started reading right at that spot.

In the next entry, we’ll talk about how to fit your findings, experiment, and everything else into the format of the Scientific Method.  Note that the scientific method is not the only tool out there, but it is one of the most widely-publicized at Science Fairs, so we’ll cover it first… then we’ll show you other ways, too!

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Survival tips for Science Fair project season… Part I

It’s getting near that time again… when the words “Science Fair Project” takes on an almost ‘dangerous’ chemical reaction in people – it strikes fear into the hearts students, dread into teachers, and frustration into parents worldwide. But does it have to be quite so dramatic?


I’ve got a list of the top Tips & Tricks to not only surviving the science fair project ‘season’, but making it so you can enjoy the process as you go along.  These tips are not for the kid building the nuclear reactor in the basement, or the student finding the cure for the common cold using household cleaning materials, or the kid down the street building an autonomous, robotic dog-walker.  Instead, they are for the rest of us trying to sludge through and make the best of it, and maybe even have fun learning something new.

The first step is figuring out what to do… and this will drive you bananas if you aren’t careful about how you go about finding a topic.  Once you’ve nailed down a topic, you’re going to need a few important components in your project to make it a true Science Fair project. We covered this topic in detail here.

Present your work using a tri-fold display board made  of sturdy cardboard or form core.  Steer clear of thin  poster board and recycled cardboard (unless it’s clean and painted neatly).

This may sound ridiculous, but make sure you can get the display board and project in and out of the door frame AND transport vehicle when you build it!  (I won’t tell you how many bloopers around this idea I’ve seen…)

Unless you’re a graphic artist, use a computer to print out the titles, text and graphics you need for the board.  One of the biggest mistakes people make is to throw as much information on the board as they possible can… Remember that you’re going for quality, not quantity.  One of the best questions you can ask yourself is… “Can the judge figure out what I’m trying to demonstrate?” Test it out on unwitting relatives and friends when they stop by to watch your progress.

Check spelling, grammar, and punctuation. No excuses.

Okay, enough tips for now.  In the next entry, I’ll show you the different sections you need to cover on your display board to be sure you’ve got your bases covered.

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What supplies do you need?

Our recommendations for a decent display board and science fair exhibit:

  • Foamcore display board
  • Copy paper and photo paper to print out your text , graphics, and photos.
  • Colored construction paper to set behind the text and frame your photos.
  • Graph paper (make your own with a ruler and a sheet of paper) for charts and graphs.
  • Glue, tape, scissors, and a sense of humor.
  • Touch-and-feel part of your exhibit people can hold, touch, press, or interact with to make it more real. This could be a holding a model rocket, turning knobs on a homemade laser light show, or anything you’ve bullet-proofed for the general public.

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Easy Steps to Science Fair Projects (Part III)

Yet another part of the same loooong article… feedback welcome!

When things go wrong…
So you’ve taken the steps, come up with questions, formed experiments, and even tested out your ideas, but the results you got make no sense at all. What do you do now?

When I taught at the university, I deliberately gave the students an experiment for which a conclusion did not exist… because the results were never the same twice. I did this for two reasons… first, to teach them never to cheat and lie about their results (they were given an immediate ‘zero’ without warning if they did “fudge” the results), and second… how to handle such a thing when it happens for real.

Over half the class got the “F”.

However, they were allowed to “redo” the experiment for a half-grade, if they chose to. Most of them did. Now, why would I do such a thing?

No matter what happens in your experiment, in any experiment, keep in mind that your results stand, no matter what. The laws of the universe, the laws of physics are still working and active… regardless of how you wanted the experiment to turn out. By fudging your results, you can’t really ever be sure if your conclusion stands, and you may as well throw away the entire experiment. But what do you do when you feel like you’ve tried everything, but it still doesn’t work right?

Your greatest moments of thought happen in instances just like this one… One of the most important parts of being a true scientist is being an observer – being able to step back and ask, “What’s really going on here? Why did the marble fly off the track? Was the marble going too slow or fast? Was the track too steep, or too wobbly?”

The truth is, you haven’t tried everything, because if you did, it would be working right now. But it isn’t, so you haven’t. It helps to write down what you have tried… and if you’re keeping good records of your results, this is where you’ll find the information.

You are a great scientist, no matter what results you produce in any experiment. The world will know how sharp you are, how ingenious your mind is when you are able to step back and observe what’s really going on… while the rest of the world gets wrapped up with thoughts that cripple their creativity. “Why didn’t it work? It’s supposed to! It’s broken… it’ll never work. This is dumb.”

When you get stuck, frustrated (hey, we all do!), or just upset, take a breath, go outside, and remember it’s just one experiment… and you’ll get back to it when you’re ready. Smile, get an ice cream, and remember that there will always more to learn, and no, you’ll never get it all done.

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Easy Steps to Science Fair Projects (Part II)

Wow – thank you to everyone who gave us feedback on the Part I! We received not only emails but phone calls, basically asking for the rest of the article NOW, because they already know they’ll need it soon! You are welcome to leave your comments below so everyone can see them – it’s okay – we’re all friends here and it helps others to see the comments we’ve been hearing from you. We aren’t afraid of feedback, as we know it only helps us get better!!

So… enough of that – let’s get on with another portion of the article. Here are a few more excerpts – and yes, let me know what you really think.

…Part (II)

Here is the basic recipe for science fair projects across the globe:

The Scientific Method
1. Ask a question/Think of an idea
2. Do background research (if possible)
3. Construct hypothesis/Plan your experiment
4. Test with an experiment (This is the fun part, and you can do steps 4 & 5 together)
5. Gather, collect, and record your data and analyze the results
6. Does the hypothesis and results match? If not, go back to step 3.
7. Reach a conclusion

Tips and Tricks for Great Experiments
Repeat good results. If you get the result you’re after, then do the experiment again to make sure you can duplicate what happened. And again. And again.

Remove yourself. After you’ve listened to music during a test, ask your friends to do the same thing. This checks to make sure that this phenomenon is not just linked to you, but can work for everyone. You are introducing several other variables here (other people), so you can cut down on these pesky variables by asking half the class to take a test with music, and the other half without, and then switch next time. This way, you’ve got music and non-music taking the same test twice. As for number of kids to test it out on, scientists usually aim for sample sizes of over 30, but work with what you’ve got.

End with recommendations. This is a personal favorite, not a requirement, but I always like to report on the things I would do if I were to continue experimenting. You can easily make three, four, or even five future experiments that you would consider doing that would further refine your conclusion by drawing on the results you found and the experience you gained.

If you can produce consistent results for not just yourself, but for the whole class, and not only that but plans for future areas of study and relate it back to why this was important enough to study in the first place, now you’ve got an experiment worthy of a blue ribbon.

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Easy Steps to Science Fair Projects (Part I)

I’m working on a new sequence of science articles…
tell me what you think about the topic and content (is it any good?)


Easy Steps to Award-Winning Science Fair Projects (Part I)

(…first few paragraphs missing…)

Does this sound familiar?

KID: “I have to do a science fair project.”
PARENT: “Hmmm… what are you going to do?”

KID: (pause) “I dunno.”
PARENT: (eager to help) “What are you interested in?”

KID: (whining now) “I don’t know…”
PARENT: (getting annoyed): “Well, there must be something you’re interested in.”

KID: (still whining) “Like what?”
PARENT: (picking up a science textbook) “Well, how about one from here?”

KID: (rolling eyes): “Yeah, sure. Not.”

The trouble with picking up a textbook and doing a project listed is that they are usually finished projects – meaning that everyone knows not only the experiment but what’s going to happen. No scientist in their right mind would do a experiment if they knew the ending! You’ve got to take a different approach, but before we do, let’s take a quick look at common myths about science projects (namely, your personal expectations about one has to look like).

Your teacher just strode into class and announced that it’s nearly time for the Science Fair, and projects are due next week. You scope out the room and find Brian Brainiac inventing a new addition to the International Space Station… Corey Comet discovering a new species of octopus… and Darlene Dazzler built a transporter. Your head begins to spin like hamster wheel as you try to hit on the Ultimate Science Project that would make Einstein gape with awe.

The truth is, science fair projects don’t have to be glitzy, glamorous, or even work quite right… they just have to be yours. And they need to be science experiments, not jazzed-up science reports masquerading as projects. A science experiment is a simple question you want an answer to, such as:

“Do later bedtimes really make you sleep better?”
“Does eating high-sugar foods before bedtime make your dreams more vivid?”
“How many balloons will lift a kid into the air?”
“What kind of grass needs to be mowed the least?”

A science report are questions that don’t require any real testing on your part – all you have to do is research to get the answer. Topics like: What is acid rain? What is the sun made of? How does a power plant work? How does the human body work? Is overeating bad for you? We’ve seen reports win local school science fairs, but they don’t make it into the big time regional or national competition. And they aren’t nearly as much fun as doing your own experiment.

So, where do you start? Suppose you want to find out if listening to music during a test will help you get a better grade, and if so, which one works the best. You’ll need to first figure out which “thing” (variable) you’re going to change in your experiment to give you different results.

So first, you’ll need to take a test with no music, and record in your notebook the score you got, along with a few other things to help you figure out if it was really the music choice or not. Things like: the weather, your mood, when you woke up, the date, and how difficult the questions were.

A word of caution – don’t change more than one “thing” from one experiment to the next, or you won’t know which change is actually responsible for the new result.

Then you’ll need to test out as many bands as you possibly can, recording not only the stuff above, but also the beat, tone, melody, and how fast or slow the song was… and be sure you’re using the same kind of headphones, too, or that’s another variable you’ve got to keep track of (does sound quality matter?). Are you eating the same breakfast each morning, too? Do you shower each morning, or every other day? If this is starting to sound like it’s getting a little hard to track all the little differences and changes, well… welcome to science! Scientists spend years trying to sort everything out, track the changes and differences, and make sense of it all. You only have to do it for a week or two. And you can discard any variables you think don’t have a big effect on your results.

Can you imagine what kind of argument you could have at your fingertips if your hypothesis (“Beach Boys Leads to 12% Higher Test Scores”) was successful? Your classroom would never be the same.

Okay… that’s probably enough for now… I’ll leave some for Part II. Just let me know what you think.

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