Does the mere mention of the impending Science Fair strike fear in your heart? Trust me—it’s really not that bad. With a positive approach and planning, helping your child complete a science fair project can be a valuable and fun learning experience.
The Scientific Method
Science fair projects are all about the scientific method: Ask a question, research the question, make an educated guess on the outcome, test your guess, analyze your data and deliver your results.
Student requirements may vary based on the age and grade of your child, but the basic method stays the same.
- Start with the question. Basic science projects begin with some type of question about which the student wants an answer. Have a discussion with your child and brainstorm a list of possibilities. Do some coats keep you warmer than others? What type of cup keeps hot chocolate hot? How does the weight of an object affect its speed? Generate a list of questions, then, have your child select one that interests him most. The question you come up with will generate your purpose. Although project websites are a great springboard for ideas, try to refrain from printing directions for a project that tell you what the outcome of your project will be. This approach discourages investigative learning and defeats the purpose of experimentation.
- Test the question. How can you effectively test your question? For example, if you want to find out what type of cup keeps drinks warm longest, you could use a mug, a plastic cup, a Styrofoam cup and a coffee thermos. Ask your child to predict the outcome before the experiment is performed. This is the hypothesis. “If I test___, then___ will happen, because…”
- Gather your materials. This list of items needed to perform the project comes from your question and hypothesis. Be inclusive and specific; include specific measurements if necessary.
- How will you perform the experiment? Your procedures are a step-by-step explanation of how you are trying to find the answer to your question. Ask your child to pretend as if he is calling his best friend and telling him how to do this project. Record the directions, and have your child write them out specifically; it’s all about the details at this point! Then, perform the experiment, or for multi-day, ongoing projects, set up the experiment.
- Record your results. Record your results in a journal, graphs, charts, photos, diagrams or illustrations.
- In conclusion. What was learned in this experiment? For example, “I learned that a Styrofoam cup has the best insulation because it contains tiny air pockets.” A conclusion simply states what was learned through experimentation, and it should directly answer the purpose question.
There are many websites offering project ideas, and it’s nice to refine your search to your child’s specific interests. Be careful to select a project that is age-appropriate for your child. Remember, this is your child’s schoolwork; you shouldn’t be shouldering the work for him.
Tips for a Successful Project
- Find a topic that interests your child. Chemistry? Environmental studies? Encourage your child to come up with an original purpose. Avoid repeating the same project that his sister did two years ago.
- Consider real-life science principles, to create a purpose question, like the example we used of testing what type of cup keeps a drink hot the longest.
- Plan ahead. Waiting until the night before creates stress for everyone. Stick to the timeline the teacher has provided or have your child come up with his own. Also, take into consideration that some projects require more time than others (i.e. plant growth projects).
- It doesn’t have to be perfect. A neat presentation on the backboard is a plus, but perfectly placed letters aren’t the most important part of the process.
- Ask questions. If you are unsure about a particular step, email the teacher for clarification.
- Plan properly. Create a list of materials needed, and plan ahead. No one wants to be running around the city looking for a certain type of sandpaper the night before it’s due.
State Science Fair Guidelines
Taken from the Oklahoma State Science Fair website (www.ossef.ecok.edu), here are the defined science fair categories:
- Biochemistry, medicine, and health science. All projects that primarily involve investigations in molecular biology or blood, protein or food chemistry, as well as projects related to the fields of medicine and health such as medicine, dentistry, optometry, speech, and hearing.
- Earth and space science. All projects that primarily involve investigations in geology, astronomy, weather, aviation and aerospace.
- Behavioral and social science. All projects that involve studies of the behavior of all plants and animals and the mechanisms of a social system.
- Engineering. All projects that primarily involve technological and utilitarian applications of other categories.
- Mathematics and computer science. All projects that primarily involve investigations in mathematics, such as number systems and/or their properties.
- Environmental science. All projects that involve investigations designed to improve the quality of the environment or the study and development of computer software, hardware, or associated logical devices. Note: Projects that use computers or apply computer procedures to scientific problems should be placed in another category.
- Physical science. All projects that involve investigations in physics and chemistry.
- Zoology and botany. All projects that primarily involve investigations in animal and plant life.
Unless special permission is obtained, most districts do not allow projects with:
- living organisms
- preserved animals
- human or animal food
- laboratory or household chemicals
- poison, drugs, controlled substances, hazardous substances or devices
- dry ice
- sharp items (syringes, needles, craft knives)
- flames or highly flammable materials
- glass or breakable items
Julie Dill is a National Board Certified Teacher from Oklahoma City and mother of two.