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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Venus, Jupiter, and the Crescent Moon together on Dec 1st!

Stargazers and astrophotographers, get ready for the most spectacular viewing and photography event of 2008. The conjunction of Venus, Jupiter and the crescent Moon over the next week, reaching its finale on Dec. 1st.

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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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Should the teacher be ‘smarter’ than the student?

TRUE STORY: When a theoretical physicist walked up to me after I finished a science class and pointed out an error (an omission, really) I made when teaching to the students… and he asked how I could call myself a scientist, let alone a rocket scientist, when I couldn’t even get the ‘facts straight’. I simply listened as he continued to elaborate about his own work, the stuff he’d designed and developed, using words I had not only never heard of, but no idea how to begin to pronounce.

Then an incredible thought hit me.

Here standing before me was no doubt a very highly educated individual who had spent years honing his skill and talent in the world of theoretical physics, been to the finest schools, taught by the most brilliant minds of the century, and worked on the most cutting-edge projects that would probably remain top-secret until the next century.

Yet I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about.

It has never been my goal to be the intelligent person in the world, in the scientific field, or even in the classroom… nor have I ever claimed to be. I have claimed to be a ‘rocket scientist’, which for some reason, means the same thing as the word ‘genuis’ to most people on the planet. I am, to put it simply, a scientist who enjoys working on rockets. This fellow assumed I meant otherwise.

He also had no acuity. He continued to talk without stopping for breath for thirteen minutes.

So here we have a highly-intelligent human being that has no sense whatsoever that he’s bored his audience (me). And furthermore, he’s has not made it clear to his listener whatever it is he wanted to convey. (I still had no idea what he was describing – some sort of lasing device, but any further information was barred by complicated terms and abstract descriptions.)

So if my goal has never been to be the smartest person in the world… what has my goal been?

My goal has always been to be the bridge between the scientific community and the real world I take big ideas and break them down into small steps that my audience can understand… and I change my approach mid-stroke if I sense that something I’m doing isn’t working. I use all my senses and abilities to get feedback and information from my audience so I can figure out the best way to deliver the right information in the right way so it makes the biggest impact on their learning long-term. I find new ways to get students to say, “Oh, NOW I get it!” To do whatever it takes to get kids wildly excited about learning science by focusing on wonder, discovery, and exploration. I know enough science so I have something of value to offer my students.

Are my students sometimes smarter than me? You bet!

Do I mind? No way. Because I want my students to stand on the shoulders of giants, just like I did.

So – when this theoretical physicist (who had a daughter in the class I just taught) finally drew a breath, I piped up: “Thank you for noticing and taking the time to let me know your thoughts, because I’m definitely a work-in-progress, and I can always use insights from people. You’re right – next time I should mention the particle-wave duality principle when we introduce the basics of light and lasers like we did in class, but I’ll have to think how the best way to deliver it to first graders. Let me know if you have any ideas – I would appreciate any help. Thanks again…”

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Educational Freebies on the Internet

I got this email in my box a few days ago, and wanted to share it with you:

We just posted an article, “101 100+ Ways to Score Freebies For Your Classroom”. I thought I’d bring it to your attention in case you think your readers would find it interesting. (I am happy to let you know that your site has been included in this list!)

Either way, thanks for your time!
Kelly Sonora

Sooo – have fun!

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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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