How to Do a Science Fair Project
Science fairs are a wonderful opportunity to go beyond the knowledge you learn in a textbook. Through independent research, a science fair project allows you to explore any scientific or engineering topic that interests you, study a subject in depth and come up with a hands-on experiment that investigates a question you have about the world around you.
Let’s walk you through the complete process of coming up with an idea, creating a testable question, conducting the experiment, recording and examining your results and even preparing your presentation. Make sure that when you conduct any project, you follow all safety procedures and have adult supervision.
The expectations for varying ages will be different. Although all the steps for a science fair project are covered in the video below, you’ll want to note these average expectations by grade level:
1 -3rd grade: What I Did and What I Learned
- Younger elementary students would explore a science topic that reflects their current interests, as well as share what they did and what they learned in the process.
4-6th grade: Simplified Scientific Method
- Older elementary students would explore a topic more in-depth by creating a simple hypothesis and going through a simplified version of the scientific method.
7-8th grade: Scientific Method
- Middle school students should follow the scientific method; however, their background research and future studies would be brief.
9-12th grade: All Portions, Including Research, Conclusions and Future Studies
- Finally, high school students would complete all portions of the process covered in the video, including in-depth research, conclusions, and future studies.
Ultimately we want you to have fun exploring and experimenting in a safe manner, experiencing the joy that comes from discovering something new.
Brainstorming an Experiment Idea
The first thing you need for a science fair project is an idea, and the key to a successful science fair project begins with you. What are your interests? What questions do you have about the things you like to do every day? Because you are going to spend lots of time researching, experimenting, and presenting, make your topic something you are excited about. If you choose a project idea that interests you, then you’ll be more motivated to complete it, do it well, and, most importantly, have fun learning!
A good science fair project goes beyond the classic volcano model (unless you absolutely love studying volcanoes). You want your project to stand out as you share your newfound knowledge with others.
Now there are some topics that are not a good choice for a science fair project. For example, don’t pick any topics that include hard-to-measure data, such as how a person’s feelings or memory would be affected by certain foods, music, or other stimuli. If you are comparing products, try to avoid results that are open to personal opinions. You want results that are measurable. Do not choose a topic that requires dangerous materials, and please don’t pick a topic that could cause injury or pain to a living animal or human!
A traditional science question may come about like this:
- Let’s say you enjoy baking bread- you have always been fascinated to watch the loaves grow as you stare through the oven window. This might start you thinking about how yeast causes the bread to rise.
- Or perhaps you have a garden that is constantly bothered by ants. You might start to wonder what structural barriers you could test that would keep them out.
- If you like to play sports, perhaps you could test what types of shoe treads would make you run faster.
- If you’re considering an engineering design project, look around at designs and technology around you to see if there are ways to improve them. Maybe you want to make something stronger, faster, or smaller. For this type of project, you’re basically looking for ways you can improve existing designs.
These are all great topics to start with, but you need to think about that subject a bit in order to come up with a testable question. So the next step involves doing some research to gather background information on your topic.
Doing Some Background Research
Once you’ve come up with an idea, gather some library books and research internet sources on the subject. If you know a professional in the area of your study, they might be helpful to brainstorm ideas with, too. For older students, it’s important to learn what research has already been completed about your subject. This way, you can create an intelligent experiment. Particularly for high school students, background research (called a literature review) is an important part of your project- taking up a good portion of your efforts.
Let’s say that in reading about yeast and its role in bread, you learn that yeast is a type of single-celled fungus. When yeast cells are activated (by placing them in warm water), they feed on sugars and release carbon dioxide, which forms bubbles that become trapped in the dough, causing it to rise. That background information might cause you to ask some questions:
You might ask, “Does yeast do better with warmer or cooler oven temperatures while baking?” “Are there certain acidic materials that affect yeast, such as lemon juice or vinegar?” “How much sugar do yeast cells need?” “What type of sugar works best to get the most even rise?”
Make sure to write your research discoveries and all of these questions in your lab notebook. That way, you can refer back to this information when you need to.
This brings us to the next step in the process.
Choosing a Testable Question and Formatting it as a Hypothesis
In looking over your questions, you should now try to identify which of them can be tested. Which questions might be easy to explore and measure? You want to pick one thing to test in your project, and don’t forget to identify which one of the topics is interesting to YOU!
A helpful way to format your questions is “How does (something) affect (something)? That way, you are setting yourself up to create an experiment to answer that question. You might ask, “How does tail length affect a paper airplane’s distance of flight?” Or “How does fertilizer affect the growth of a tomato plant?”
In reviewing your background reading and research on baking bread, you might wonder what type of sugar is best to produce the greatest bread rise. Your question might be, “How does sugar type affect bread rise?” You imagine trying a bread recipe using white granulated sugar, unbleached sugar, honey, agave syrup, maple syrup, or stevia. Then, you can discuss this thinking process with your parents, a science teacher, or a professional baker.
Is this a good, testable question? Can you easily measure bread rising? Yes, you can use a ruler to measure the height of each loaf after it is baked. So this looks to be a good science fair topic – it’s testable, it’s measurable and you are interested in exploring the outcome!
Don’t forget to write this thought process in your notebook. If you discuss your idea with a professional, make sure to write down what you talked about. Again, this will be helpful for later reference.
Once you come up with a good question, it’s time to reword it into a statement called a hypothesis. A hypothesis is a testable statement – not a question – that is based on some observed situation or the relationship between elements in a situation. To say it more simply, you are making an educated guess based on the information you have observed and researched. You want to try to answer the question you have and then conduct an experiment to see if the results will either support your hypothesis or reject it.
So, if your question is, “How does sugar type affect bread rise?” you need to predict which sugar type YOU think would work the best. After doing some reading on the subject, you might notice that most yeast bread recipes call for white sugar. So your hypothesis might be, “If I use white sugar in yeast bread, then it will rise higher than other sugars.” Now THAT is a statement you can test.
One of the easiest formats for a hypothesis is called an If-then statement. It is worded in an easy-to-test way. Some examples include,
If a paper airplane is made of heavier paper, then it will fly farther than paper airplanes made of lighter paper.
If disinfecting wipes are used on a cell phone daily, then the cell phone will have fewer bacteria on it compared to a cell phone that is not disinfected daily.
At this point, you have chosen your topic, done some background research on it, chosen a testable question and formed a hypothesis. All of these should be listed in your notebook. Now it’s time to set up your experiment.
Planning Your Experiment to Test One Variable
When setting up your experiment, it’s important to make every component the same, except the one you want to test. Each changeable element in an experiment is called a variable. It can vary within the experiment. For example, in varying the sugar type for the bread baking example, there are other things that could possibly change. You could bake your loaves in different types of bread pans. You might use different recipes for each loaf. You might bake the loaves at different time periods or cook them at different heights within the oven. All these variables – these things that can vary – can have an effect on your result – which is how high the bread rises. So, in order to make sure that ONLY sugar type changes, you should reduce or remove all the other variables as best as possible.
That means you should use the same type of baking pans, and bake them in the same oven on the same oven rack. And to make it even better, bake each of the loaves in the center of the oven. That might mean you have to bake them one at a time, but oven temperatures vary around the inside. You should follow the same recipe for all your loaves, using the same quantity of sugar, but the ONLY thing you vary is the type of sugar. That way, any differences in rise will most likely be due to the sugar type the yeast fed on.
Ideally, you also should conduct this same experiment more than once for each sugar type – preferably at least three times. These are called trials. You should conduct several trials so that you have more than one set of results to analyze. Each trial will include the use of the same bread pans, the same recipe, the same placement in the oven, etc. The only variable that should change is the sugar type.
If you are doing an engineering project, your experiment might look a bit different. Say you are designing a machine or device to do a task, such as exploring the best wing design for a paper airplane glider in order to make it travel the farthest. You come up with a design, create a model, test it, and then refine the design. In this case, you’ll be making several illustrations in your notebook that you can refer to. Engineering project design is more of a cyclical process. You create a design, test it several times, make a design adjustment, retest it again several times, and so on until you find the design that works best. However, just like the bread-baking example, you should still keep all the other variables, besides wing design, the same. Variables such as the height you release the plane from, the way you release the plane and the location in which you perform the experiment (which would preferably be indoors, so there is no wind variable) should all be kept constant. Once you discover the best wing length, for example, you could continue the process of keeping that best wing length and then varying another aspect, such as adjusting wing width or bending the wings upward on the tips.
As you plan your experiment, make a list in your notebook of all the materials you are going to use and write out your planned procedure. Make sure your notebook is neat and easy to read.
Now it’s time to do the actual experiment.
Conducting Your Experiment and Recording Your Observations
When conducting your experiment, measure the data carefully, record it in your notebook and include any units. In the bread-rising example, you might measure how many centimeters high each loaf of bread is, once it is removed from the loaf pan. Whenever possible, use the metric system of measurement. If you’re testing the speed of a wooden car, you could use meters per second by marking off the number of meters in the car’s path and using a phone stopwatch. When you record your data, you might want to use a chart or table to keep everything organized.
Along with your data, include photos or illustrations of your experimental setup.
Make a note if you have to change your procedure at all. Sometimes once you begin conducting an experiment, you notice new variables or other issues that need to be adjusted. That is perfectly fine, as long as you make a note of what you actually did and include that in your final report.
Examining Your Results and Making a Conclusion
The purpose of examining the results of your experiment is to look for any trends from your data and come up with conclusions based on those trends.
In the bread-baking example, you might have observed that using honey produced the highest rise. Compare that result to your original hypothesis. In our example, the hypothesis was, “If I use white sugar in yeast bread, then it will rise higher than other sugars.” Was the hypothesis correct? Did you discover a different result?
In this case, the hypothesis was not supported. Now, it’s perfectly OK if your results do not support your hypothesis. In your discussion about your experiment, you can explain what you learned from the data you collected and add the new result as your conclusion.
The most important part of this step is that you understand your subject well and can use the data you collected to come up with a conclusion – even if it is a conclusion you were surprised to get. If you hypothesized that white sugar would produce the highest rise, and your results demonstrated that honey produced the highest rise, then you’ve learned something by conducting this experiment (and you can adjust how you bake in the future!).
Some experiments will produce data that can be graphed. This is the time to do that. Analyzing data can include creating a pie chart, a bar chart, a line graph, or tables. These are great ways to present your data in an easy-to-read manner. Add these graphs or charts into your notebook, if you haven’t already.
A final part of this step includes identifying any data that were way outside of the expected findings. Perhaps one of the loaves of bread using white sugar didn’t rise at all. If something like this happens, think about what might have caused it. Maybe in this one case, the yeast was dissolved in water that was too hot, and perhaps they didn’t survive. Or perhaps the electricity went out during a portion of your cooking time, and the oven may have cooled down a bit. Although both the water temperature and the baking temperature should be variables that are controlled, sometimes there are circumstances that cause one of these variables to change, causing an unexpected outcome.
Creating a Science Fair Display Board and Report
Now it’s time to take your scientific process, findings and conclusions and create a display board and project report.
It’s best to write a report first so you can chronicle the entire process of your project. The format of a science fair report is basically the same as a lab report. You can find helps in writing a lab report by watching our “How to Write a Lab Report” YouTube video. Younger students, of course, are not expected to write as much as older students. For example, early elementary students should write or dictate a sentence or two for each of their steps.
The display board is a way people can tell at a glance what your project was all about. It is typically a three-sided corrugated board that presents all the elements of your science experiment. It has a clear title at the top center, of the board that is a form of your original question. As a general rule, the display board has your Problem, Purpose, and Hypothesis on the left side of the board, your Procedure and Materials – diagrams, graphs, and/or pictures go in the center of the board and your Results and Conclusion (along with any other images) go on the right side of the board.
Keep everything clear and simple – not cluttered. Don’t include too much text, and add clear graphs or tables in coordinating colors. Add pictures of you conducting your experiment and close-ups of some of your results. The goal is to make your display board pleasing to the eye – not too flashy, and not too plain – but you want to include all of the major elements.
In your conclusion, tie the new information into a bigger-picture statement. In our bread-baking example, you might say that producing higher-rising bread would create more delicious bread and larger-sized sandwiches. Think about why people should care about this particular issue. Make it something they will be happy they learned about – something they can relate to. How can this information help in other areas? You can suggest how this information might benefit other types of baking, improving the texture and rise of cookies and cakes.
Preparing a Short Presentation
One of the unique things about a science fair is that students get to present their work to others. Presentations might sound a little scary, but you are basically describing how you chose your project, what you did, and what you discovered. It is a good way to teach others what you learned!
You can discuss how you came up with the idea for your project, whether it was a question you had or a problem you wanted to try to solve. Make sure you can explain the experimental process and the results you collected. Note whether your experimental results supported your hypothesis or not, and what you learned from this process. If something surprised you, include that as well. Finally, it’s always good to include how your results might be a springboard to future experimentation on your topic.
Practice your presentation for your family or friends to get some feedback and encouragement.
Science fair projects help you better understand a STEM topic and see its real-life application. Plus, they build creativity and can be both interesting and fun. You can immerse yourself in an experiment, exploring the answer to a question you have and eventually becoming an expert on the subject.
There are lots of potential experiments to choose from, but the best ones come from your own ideas. You might be way more excited to test “Do video games really rot my brain?” versus “Do plants need sunlight?” Both involve critical thinking and creativity and yet when the exploration comes out of something you enjoy, the fun – and greater learning – begins!