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A Beginner’s Guide to the Science Fair

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While it’s unlikely that you have reached high school without having ever heard of a science fair, it’s completely possible that you’ve gotten this far without having ever participated in one. For many students, a science fair is a rite of passage. It could be the first time that you design and complete a scientific experiment outside of a teacher-led lab period. It may also be the first time you have formally presented your learning to a panel of independent judges, most of whom you have probably never met before. It can be an intimidating or overwhelming experience if you are not quite sure what to expect. But lucky for you, the CollegeVine team has some great tips for first-time science fair participants!


If you’ve never participated in a science fair before, you may be wondering what a science fair really is.


Generally, a science fair is a formal competition in which contestants present the findings of scientific experiments in the form of a display and/or model that they have created. A panel of independent judges is assigned to assess each project and scores them on a pre-determined rubric. At the end of the fair, high scorers are announced as the winners and often the winners of a local science fair will be invited to compete at higher-level fairs, such as regional or state fairs. Winners can even progress all the way to national and international science fairs.


The level of your science fair will determine what type of project is appropriate. Typically elementary school level science fairs will include collections and report-based projects displaying new knowledge gained through independent study. These include things like rock collections and habitat reports. At middle school fairs, you will begin to see demonstrations of scientific principles, such as the oh-so-common baking soda and vinegar volcano. You may also see engineering projects that involve designing or improving a device or material, like a new cup holder for a bike. By the high school level, though, these kinds of projects are no longer appropriate.


Science fair projects by students older than middle-school age should focus on true engineering or scientific experimentation.


Engineering projects should be in-depth evaluations of an existing device, material, or technology. They should thoroughly examine the ways in which the existing product falls short or becomes impractical in specific situations. Your work on an engineering project should result in the creation of a working prototype that addresses these shortcomings. You should produce an alternative model that is feasible in terms of production, cost, and ease of use. Successful engineering projects have included prototypes for new, portable water filtration systems or affordable, functional prosthetic limbs. Before you proceed with an engineering project, check with your science teacher or the fair’s organizers to make sure that this is an acceptable choice. Some science fairs might strictly accept experiments only.        


If you do not choose an engineering project, you will need to choose a scientific experiment. This is by far the most common type of project at the high school level and if you are familiar with the procedure for completing and writing up lab experiments in your science classes, you will be familiar with the process for completing a science fair experiment.


There are two primary differences between a class lab experiment and a science fair experiment. First, your science fair project is self-chosen rather than assigned. When you complete a lab for class, you are usually assigned a specific experiment to complete. In the science fair, you will need to come up with your own. Second, unlike a lab experiment in which the entire class usually replicates a single experiment, an experiment for the science fair is completed by only you, or you and a partner if partners are allowed. 


Before you begin brainstorming your specific project, make sure you have a lab notebook to keep track of all your work.


This could be a simple composition book or a duplicate style lab notebook. In any case, as soon as you get it, you should number all of the pages in it, leaving two blanks at the beginning to be labeled “Table of Contents”. This may seem tedious, but you will be grateful that you did so when you can easily add sections to your table of contents and find relevant research quickly.


You should use this notebook to keep a permanent record of all the work you do on your science fair project. It should contain initial brainstorming, notes from background research, and drafts of material lists and experimental designs. Even if you get halfway through your background research and choose a new topic, continue to use the same notebook. You never know when your previous brainstorming or research will come in handy. 


Once you have decided which type of project to pursue and you’ve set up a lab notebook, your work will begin in earnest. Below, find 9 key steps to a successful first science fair.


1. Know the Rules

Every science fair has rules outlining who is eligible to participate and what kind of projects may be entered. These rules are always available ahead of time, so be sure to check them early on and make sure that any work you do adheres to them. Some of the rules are designed to keep you safe, like limiting the ways in which potentially hazardous chemicals can be used. Other rules are designed to keep the environment safe, like placing restrictions on how you dispose of foreign substances or non-native species. There are also ethical rules that govern the use of human participants or vertebrate animals in your studies.


Any science fair associated with Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair is governed by their rules, available on their website here. Make sure to check which rules govern your school’s fair and how they might impact your ideas before you put any more thought into your project.   


2. Brainstorming and Background Research

You can start brainstorming for project ideas as soon as you’ve read the fair’s rules and decided whether to do an engineering project or a science experiment project. Keep a running list of possible projects based on your interests in the sciences and any scientific questions you may have. Also think about what specialized lab equipment you might have access to, and who you could ask to be your mentor. A mentor is not a necessity to participate in the science fair, but most competitors who go on to be successful at the state and national level have a mentor who has helped to shape their thinking and provide feedback through the testing process. For more information, about finding a mentor and choosing a topic, check out the CollegeVine “Guide to Choosing a Winning Science Fair Project”. 


The first real step in working on your specific science fair project comes in the form of background research. You should aim to become an expert in your field. You should be familiar with groundbreaking studies and with current work that is being done to increase understanding. Make sure to keep notes and a working citations list in your notebook. 


3. Experimental Design or Prototype Design

It is only after extensive background research that you will be able to come up with an experimental or prototype design for your project.


If you’re doing an experiment, just as in a lab experiment, you will need to create a controlled study, accounting for all variables. You will need to make the test as “fair” as possible to isolate the variable you’re testing.


For example, if you’re comparing the effectiveness of three different kinds of fertilizers on pea plants, make sure that you have a fourth group that is the control group, grown without any fertilizer. Also ensure that all other variables are exactly the same; the plants need to receive exactly the same amount of light, water, and soil in order to compare growth across fertilizer groups.


If you’re doing an engineering project, you will need to create a specific design for your prototype, considering things like materials, cost, and function. It will often take more than one design before you come up with something that’s likely to work. Often, you will go back and forth between the prototype design and the prototype testing phase many times before you find a design that meets all of your criteria for success.


4. Data Collection or Prototype Testing

While you’re experimenting, take consistent, accurate measurements and input them straight into your lab notebook.


If you’re building a prototype, you will probably need to make several different models, comparing their function, cost, and ease of production before you can argue which is best.


For both types of projects, take lots of photographs. These will serve to document your work and will become valuable visual aids for your science fair display.


5. Evaluate your Data or Prototype

Once you have gathered your data or tested your prototype, you will need to evaluate it.


When interpreting data, be careful not to let your hypothesis influence your interpretation. If you are capable of running a statistical analysis to confirm the validity of your findings, definitely do so. This means using standard deviation to determine if your results are statistically significant. Running such an analysis is often above the skill set expected at the high school level, but if you know how to do so, you can definitely set yourself apart. If you cannot run a statistical analysis, instead think about ways in which you could further test your project’s findings.


If you’ve built a prototype, try to be its toughest critic. Come up with ideas for making it more streamlined, more cost-effective, more portable, or more visually appealing. Judges will appreciate your efforts to improve on your design, even if it’s already successful. 


6. Write a Scientific Report

Your report will contain all the same elements of a lab report. These include the following sections:

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Materials and Methods
  • Results
  • Discussion
  • Citations


Your report should be written in the passive voice, just as you would write a lab. In fact, it sometimes helps to think of it as a very long, in-depth lab report like you would write for class. Have a friend, teacher, or mentor proofread your paper and write at least two drafts of it. 


7. Create a Visual Display

When your paper is complete, you can work on your display. Your display should include a summary of your work in a visually appealing manner. You will need to have each section of your paper clearly labeled and available for reading. You should also include photos, graphs, diagrams, or any other visual aids that will develop your audience’s understanding. Usually, a regular poster board is not enough space to display a project like this, and often your display will need to be self-standing. A trifold display board similar to this can be found online or at your local office supply store.


If you have any hands-on elements that you’re able to bring, you should definitely do so. Your prototype itself is an ideal prop for showing off your hard work.


8. Practice Your Presentation

Just because you’ve finished your paper and put together your display, that doesn’t mean that your work is done. You’ll need to practice your presentation in much the same way that you would practice for an interview. Stand in front of a mirror and summarize your findings. Try to anticipate what questions a judge might have.  The most common questions from a science fair judge are “What would you do differently next time?” and “What would you do next?” 


9. On the night of the science fair . . .    

Dress for success. First impressions matter so make sure to wear something that would be appropriate for a professional event. This means at minimum a collared shirt and tie, or blouse and skirt or slacks. When the judges arrive (usually one at a time) greet them with a confident smile and a firm handshake. Introduce yourself and your project, and ask if they would like to have a look at your work or if they’d like you to introduce the project first. It’s easy to be nervous but try to relax and take the opportunity to learn as much as you can from them.


Your first science fair can seem intimidating if you don’t know where to start, but with a step-by-step approach to choosing your project, conducting your work, and preparing for the fair, you will find that each task on its own is completely manageable. A science fair is a great way to build experience in presenting information to independent judges, and an even better way to practice the skills that research scientists and engineers use on a daily basis. You might even form a lasting relationship with your mentor or fellow presenters. If you’re considering participating in the science fair, your aim should be to learn more about a topic that you’re interested in and to gain experience in conducting research and presenting your work. Though it’s always nice to win, there are many advantages to participating even if you come home without a blue ribbon.


If you are interested in engineering and want to pursue it further, check out CollegeVine’s article, “How to Spend Your Summer as an Aspiring Engineer”.  Or, if you’re interested in pursuing the sciences in college but haven’t yet taken many advanced science classes, read our guide on How the Classes You Take Affect Your Chances at Admissions. 


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Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.