What’s Your Problem? {science fair 101}

by Diane Burdick, M. Ed.
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Rows of project boards displayed on tables in the school gym. Students-turned-reluctant-scientists lined up beside them, ready to explain their findings. This scene–the annual school science fair–is part of every American child’s education, a prerequisite of elementary and middle school graduation. And it’s also an experience that can either turn a child onto science for life…or bore them to tears. Here’s how to help your child (or students) achieve the former and avoid the latter.

First Stop: A Strong Question

A successful science fair project all starts with an interesting question. Science Buddies (www.sciencebuddies.org) suggests starting with student interests:
o Are you interested in plants?
o Do you enjoy sports?
o Are you interested in weather phenomenon?
o Do you enjoy mathematical calculations, formulas and looking at data?
o Are you interested in nature?
o Do you prefer mental or physical work?
o Are you interested in memory perception and learning?
o Do you enjoy learning about animals and their habitat?
o Are you interested in improving things?
o Do you like to create or design things?
o Are you interested in chemical reactions?
o Do you like to work with machines?

Next Stop: Problem Statement

The problem in a science fair project, sometimes known as the problem statement, is what the student will research and experiment. The wording of the problem statement often indicates what and how the student will research and experiment.

Good problem statements are easy to understand and directly relate to the rest of the project as a whole. Often, a problem statement discusses a variable–a part of the project subject to change–and indicates that the variable is important to the entire science project process. For example, a project on the best way to make rock candy might look something like: “Do seeded rock candy strings produce crystals quicker?”

Now Consider: Variables

Setting up the experiment in a couple different ways to explore different variables is the next step. Variables are the things that could change in the experiment to alter the outcome. An independent variable is something that YOU can change about the experiment. A dependent variable is something you OBSERVE about the experiment. A controlled variable is something you keep the SAME throughout the experiment. According to Science Buddies, a good variable is measureable, can be changed in the experiment, and is easily identifiable.

In the example of a rock candy experiment, for example, the independent variable might be how long you allow the crystals to seed on the string. The dependent variable is what you observe about the growth of the crystals on the string, and the controlled variable is what you keep controlled, such as the recipe of the rock candy mixture, the location of the curing rock candy, and the type of string used.

There you have it: three steps to a successful science fair project. First, consider personal interests, then construct a strong question, and finally alter variables to produce an answer to your question. Now all that’s left is assembling that project board for the gym!

Diane Burdick, M. Ed. holds a masters in elementary education and a bachelors in history, and is currently pursuing her specialists degree with a concentration in teaching and learning. A homeschooling mother of three, she also enjoys freelancing for online publications.

Article edited by Elizabeth Cossick, M. Ed.



Filed under Academic Success, Activities, Assessments, Science

3 responses to “What’s Your Problem? {science fair 101}

  1. These are great guidelines! Although I currently work with preschool children, I enjoyed this Learning Experience entry. As a child, I participated in science fair projects for several years. These projects are great because a student is able to explore an area of thier interest using the scientific methods and develop independent research expertise.

  2. Kay Wallin

    We always tried to select fun topics for science fair projects with our children. Our most memorable was “Just How Many Licks Does It Take To Get to the Center of a Tootsie Roll Tootsie Pop?” My daughter won first place at her school and second place in the county for this one. One other note–we had no problem getting volunteers for this project!

  3. Bryan

    Here’s a fun animated video that explains the steps to completing a successful science fair.