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How to Choose a Winning Science Fair Project Idea

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Science fairs are a traditional part of many high school science programs. At some schools, they attract a handful of dedicated science students who seek to highlight their individual scientific pursuits. At other schools, they are a required part of the curriculum and become a rite of passage for all students. Whatever the case may be at your school, if you are considering entering a project in the science fair, you will need to think carefully about your subject matter before committing to a project. Many science fairs are won and lost before any experiments begin at all simply based on the project you choose.

Keep reading to find our top tips for choosing a winning science fair project!

1. Consider what areas of science or scientific questions pique your interest.

You will generally find that it is easiest to pursue a topic that interests you, so why not start there? Think about broad subject areas such as biology or physics. Then narrow in on specific subject matter, like how plants adapt to pollution or how fuel efficiency is measured. Bounce your ideas off your science teacher to further fine tune them.

If you are struggling for inspiration, it may help to review a list of projects from previous science fairs. This may seem unoriginal, but reviewing project titles from past years might prompt some new research questions. For example, almost every year there seems to be a science fair project testing the effects of road salt on plant growth. This project on its own may seem tired after you’ve read about it on several science fair project listings, but if you spend some time thinking about it, you could come up with your own related questions to explore. Perhaps you might wonder how other pollutants affect plant growth and how those effects trickle down to future generations of plants. Or maybe you want to develop a road salt alternative that melts ice with fewer adverse effects on plants. Using a list of past science fair projects could get you thinking about how to push existing research to another level. 

You will often find that as you push your thinking further and further, your interests lead you to a more specialized branch of science. For example, if you were originally interested in physics in general, but you have more specific questions about fuel efficiency, you will find that your interest actually lies in the field of thermodynamics. Don’t let the name scare you off; your primary goal of this project should be to learn more about an area of science that interests you. Winning might be a secondary goal, but if you base all of your choices on the the prospect of winning, you will be cheating yourself out of a more meaningful experience.     

2. Research your subject area

Once you have chosen a specific subject area, start researching it. You should become familiar with fundamental, key studies and current research in the field. Take special notes of any studies that you find particularly interesting.

If you aren’t sure where to begin your research, check with the librarian at your high school or local library. Many times, current research articles are available through online research libraries, accessible with memberships supplied by your school or library.

Make sure to keep comprehensive notes of any studies that are particularly important to your field. This includes original findings, updated experimental techniques, or new theories. You should become an expert in your field before you can make an informed decision about your specific science fair project.

3. Find a mentor

This goes hand in hand with becoming an expert in your field and is a key step that is often overlooked by many high school science fair participants. Most students who reach the highest levels of science fair competitions (like the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, the Google Science Fair, and the Regeneron Science Talent Search) have had mentor scientists to guide their research along the way.

Though finding a mentor can be a challenge, it is a necessary step towards your success. Being local to your mentor is an advantage, but with current technology, it is possible to communicate easily even if you cannot meet face to face with your mentor. This makes it easier than ever before to find someone who is willing to help you out.

To find a scientist interested in mentoring you, start by thinking about any local industry leaders or research scientists who might be involved with your subject matter. If you are interested in fuel efficiency, you might research local alternative energy experts. You can also check the staff at local universities. If you have participated in a summer research program, definitely start there, or consider participating in a summer research program in the future.

Past science fair judges can also be valuable mentors. These are people who have already shown an interest in encouraging young scientists, and they may be more than willing to spend some time helping you as you plan your project.

Finally, your science teacher may be able to point you towards scientists who have been mentors in the past. If you are unable to someone local or with whom you have a direct connection, you could also contact scientists who have written articles in the field that interests you.

Before you contact a potential mentor, become familiar with their work and put some thought into informed questions you might ask them. Make it clear that you have chosen to reach out to them because you admire their work and are eager to learn more. At the same time, though, be careful not to seem overly needy; you do not want them to get the sense that you are asking for a comprehensive overview of everything they’ve ever done, nor do you want them thinking that you’ll be a high maintenance student who requires lots of hand-holding. Instead focus on a few specific questions and indicate that you are looking for a mentor who can help guide your research during your upcoming science fair project.

Initially, it is best to send out 5-8 mentor queries at a time. If none of those mentors are available to help you, move on by sending another 5-8 emails until you find someone who has the time and availability to help you. Make sure to thank each person for their time, particularly if he or she offers to be your mentor but you choose someone else instead. Remember that you might need help in the future, or from someone else, so you want to make a positive lasting impression, even if you choose to use a different mentor. These relationships could lead to other opportunities later on, and you might even choose one of these people to write a college recommendation for you.    

4. Decide on a final project with the help of your mentor

During your early conversations with your mentor, keep the focus on your interests and where they intersect with your mentor’s line of study. If you already have a project in mind, ask your mentor to give you some feedback on it. If you are less certain, ask if there are any opportunities to become involved in the research that your mentor is currently doing. Local scientists may even invite you to use their labs, which is obviously an invaluable resource to have at your fingertips.

As you perfect your final idea, keep in mind that in order to win the science fair, you will need to contribute something new to your field. It could be a unique finding, a better way of doing something, or additional research on an existing problem. Whatever the case may be, you’ll need to be familiar with the latest research in your field to fully expand on it, and you will need to be able to clearly express what unique contribution your project lends to its field.

5. Great! You chose a winning science fair project! Now what?

After all this work, it may seem that choosing your science fair project must be the hardest part. In some ways that may be true, but choosing your project is only the beginning. You will need to design an experiment to test your theory or build a prototype of your engineering concept. You’ll need to control all outside variables and write comprehensive notes to document your progress. You’ll need to produce a polished scientific report, a visually stunning display, and a fine-tuned presentation of your findings for the judges, all before science fair day.

There’s no doubt that a science fair demands a lot of work from its participants, particularly if you are hoping to receive an award. At first glance, it may seem overwhelming or even not worth the hassle. But if you choose your topic wisely, basing it on your own interests, and you reinforce your efforts by working with a mentor who shares those same interests and is invested in seeing you succeed, you will likely find that the momentum carries forward. You may even find that you’re hungry to pursue your research even further in the future.

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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.