How to Write a Convincing Science Fair Research Proposal
For students interested in the STEM fields, there are many extracurriculars to choose from. You might join the Math or Science Olympiad team, you could join the Computer Science Club, or you could even volunteer as a naturalist at a local conservation area.
If you are interested in scientific research, you might pursue the opportunity to secure a research assistant position or shadow various scientific researchers. But if you truly want to take the helm and guide your own research, your path may lead you to participating in the science fair.
The science fair is a traditional component of many high school science programs, with participation ranging widely from school to school and science fair to science fair. At some schools, the science fair might be a rite of passage expected of every student. At others, it attracts a handful of dedicated science die-hards.
Regardless, most science fairs feature presentations by students who have completed experiments, demonstrated scientific principles, or undertaken an engineering challenge. Participants are judged by a panel of experts who score each presentation according to a rubric. Traditionally, awards are presented for the top-scoring projects.
There are many science fairs beyond school-sponsored fairs, too. Regional, state, national, and even international fairs are open to students who qualify through their schools and work their way up through the science fair circuit. Others, like the Regeneron Science Talent Search, are open through an intensive application process.
If you are considering entering a project in the science fair, you will need to think carefully about your subject matter, your experimental design, and the relevance of your work before committing to a project. Many science fairs will even require that you complete a formal research proposal to demonstrate the level of thinking you’ve put into your experiment before beginning it.
In this post, we will outline the purpose of a research proposal for the science fair, the common elements of such a proposal, and how you can go about writing a comprehensive research proposal that is sure to impress.
What is the Purpose of a Research Proposal?
A research proposal has three primary purposes. The first purpose is to explain what you intend to do. This is essentially what you will do in your experiment or project, summarized into a basic overview.
The second function of a research proposal is to explain how you intend to accomplish this. You will give a brief summary of the methods and techniques that you intend to employ, and list the materials that you will need to do so.
The final point of a research proposal is to explain why this project should be done. Here, you will discuss the important or relevance of this study. Basically, in this portion of your proposal you’ll answer the question, “so what?”
Now that you know the aim of a research proposal, you can begin to prepare to write one.
Step-By-Step Guide to Creating a Research Proposal
1. Narrow down the subject area.
Before you go into your project in any sort of depth, you’ll need a fairly good idea of what your project’s focus will be. In order to narrow this down, you should consider a few different angles.
First, ask yourself what you’re interested in. You will be more likely to feel engaged and passionate about a project that is genuinely interesting to you, so take some time to carefully consider the areas of science that you find the most fascinating. Even if they don’t seem particularly well-suited to a science fair project at first, you never know what you might be able to come up with through some collaboration with mentors or through some background research. Keep a running list of areas of science that sincerely fascinate you.
Next, consider any specialized labs or equipment to which you might have access. Does your best friend’s mother work in a lab with highly specialized tools? Does your school have a state-of-the-art wind tunnel or fully equipped greenhouse? These are all possible resources you can utilize if you want your project to truly stand out. Of course, it’s completely possible to choose a project that shines on its own without any specialized equipment, but if you’re looking for every boost you might get, having access to specialized technology can be a great advantage to make your project truly unique.
Finally, consider if you know a teacher or other professional who might be willing to mentor you. You can also seek out a mentor specifically if you can’t think of anyone obvious. Having a mentor in your field will provide you with invaluable insight into practice and past research in the field.
In the ideal world, you would find a project that maximizes all of your resources, including your interests, access to equipment, and an enthusiastic mentor. Don’t worry if you can’t secure all three, though. Plenty of science fair participants go on to do quite well relying on only their own dogged determination and commitment to their subject matter.
2. Decide How Your Experiment Will Be Done
If you have a mentor, teacher, or adviser willing to consult with you, schedule a time to sit down with them and discuss what you’d like to do. If you can’t find someone more experienced than you, even discussing your ideas with a trusted classmate, parent, or older sibling is a good idea. Sometimes the outside perspective will help to fine-tune your design or identify areas for improvement.
You should also begin some research at this stage to learn how similar projects have been conducted in the past. Use the results and limitations from these experiments to help guide your own experimental design.
As you do so, keep in mind any limiting factors. Remember to consider what equipment you have at your disposal, the time commitment you’re able to make, and the materials that you’ll need to acquire.
In addition, be sure to check the rules of the specific science fairs you’ll be attending. Some have strict regulations 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. Make sure to check which rules govern the fair in which you’re participating and how they might impact your ideas before you put any more thought into your project.
3. Background Research
Your background research should be fairly comprehensive at this point and will be the single largest component of your research proposal. You should focus on your research on relevant past studies that inform your work either by identifying areas for future research or by identifying limiting factors in their own research. You should also research past experiments that support or attempt to disprove your working theory.
Finally, your research should clearly show why the project is relevant. What is important about it? What does it add to the field? Why should we care? Make sure that you can communicate the scientific value of the project you’re proposing.
4. Write Your Proposal
Once you’ve chosen a project, decided how you’ll undertake it, and done the relevant background research, you are finally able to begin drafting your research proposal. Check with your school or science fair to see if there is a specific format or form that you’re required to adhere to. If not, and you are producing a general research proposal, follow this format:
This should be a one-paragraph description of the project, your hypothesis, and the goals of your experiment. Here, you provide a brief overview of your project for anyone who is skimming your work.
This is the bulk of your proposal. In your literature review, you present what is currently known about your project’s focus and summarize relevant research that has been done in the field. You will discuss previous discoveries in your field, including how they were made and what they lend to your current work.
You will also show what is interesting and ground-breaking about your research idea. In this section you will need to summarize why your project is relevant, what makes it important, and how the field or current base of knowledge could change or be improved due to your project’s results.
As you write your literature review, you’ll need to be sure that you’re using high-quality, accurate sources. It’s best to rely on scholarly journal articles or reference books. Be wary of using the Internet, as many sources are unverified. If you are using online resources, be sure to verify their source. Published, peer-reviewed scholarly articles are best.
It’s also important to include proper citations for every source cited. You’ll need to list all your sources in the appropriate format in your bibliography along with citing them in the text of your proposal when you quote directly or reference specific data. If you aren’t sure how to cite properly, check out the Scientific Style and Format page.
This is the working theory that you are testing and what you expect the results will be, based off what you have learned through your background research.
Materials and Methods:
In this section you’ll provide a precise, in depth description of how you plan to test your hypothesis and what tools or materials you’ll need to do so. Summarize your experimental design, specifically referring to how you will control and replicate the experiment. Also list the equipment and materials that you will need for undertaking your experiment.
Here, you will reiterate how your proposed research will advance knowledge in the scientific field and outline any potential longterm impact that your work could have on theory or practice within the field.
List all sources used in appropriate format. Refer to the Scientific Style and Format page if you aren’t sure how to do so.
What Happens After I Submit a Research Proposal?
After you submit the research proposal, it will be reviewed by your teacher or a science fair administrator or adviser. It will be approved, rejected, or returned for revisions based on its feasibility, value to the scientific field, and adherence to the science fair rules and regulations.
While larger, more selective science fairs will have to select only a limited number of candidates based on the merits of their research proposals, it is fairly uncommon for a science fair research proposal to get completely denied at the school level. Usually, in these cases, your proposal will be returned to you with requests for edits or further clarification. You have most likely consulted with your teacher or adviser throughout the process of developing your proposal, so nothing should come as a complete surprise when you receive feedback.
If your proposal is rejected and you don’t receive constructive feedback, don’t be shy about respectfully requesting some feedback to help you shape a better, more effective proposal in the future.
If your proposal is returned for revisions, you should feel encouraged. While you still have some work to do, this is generally a sign that with a few tweaks, your proposal will be accepted. Meet with a teacher, mentor, or adviser to review the revisions requested and address each thoroughly before returning the proposal for another round of review.
If your proposal is accepted, congratulations! It’s time to get to work. While your proposal itself was probably a time-consuming endeavor, your research will ultimately be easier for having taken the time and care to craft a precise proposal. Your research will be more focused and likely a smoother process due to all your careful planning, and you will be able to use large chunks of your written work in your final scientific report.
Don’t be intimidated if you’re getting ready to write a science fair research proposal. It can be a long process to fine-tune your project and focus your proposed research, but the work that you put in now ultimately makes your job easier in the long run.
Looking for help navigating the road to college as a high school student? Download our free guide for 9th graders and our free guide for 10th graders. Our guides go in-depth about subjects ranging from academics, choosing courses, standardized tests, extracurricular activities, and much more!
For more information about the science fair and opportunities for students interested in the STEM fields, see these valuable CollegeVine posts:
- How to Spend Your Summer As a Prospective Math Major (And Why Math is a Great Career Path)
- A Guide to STEM Scholarships
- Summer Activities for the Future BS/MD Applicant
- Ultimate Guide to the AP Research Course and Assessment
- How to Choose a Project for Your AP Research Course
- How to Get a Research Assistant Position in High School
- An Introduction to the AP Capstone Diploma
- How to Choose a Winning Science Fair Project Idea
- How to Plan and Implement an Independent Study in High School
- A Beginner’s Guide to the Science Fair
- Guide to National Youth Science Camp
Want more tips on improving your academic profile?
We'll send valuable information to help you strengthen your profile and get ready for college admissions.