Elementary Science Fair Projects: Design Process

This article outlines some ideas, techniques, formatting, and processes involved in designing, developing, and completing an elementary school science fair project.  The following is intended for use by parents and teachers of elementary school children.

During this guided experience, children will learn various science-thinking skills, including how to design an experiment (step-by-step) and how to organize data, while also giving examples of interesting science fair projects.  Educational prompts and questions encourage the learner and the teacher to apply the knowledge and skills learned to future occasions.

Designing an Experiment:

The procedure of a science fair project is the step-by-step process involved in how the experiment is to be/was performed.  The set of directions for the procedure needs to be:

  • Complete and detailed, not missing any steps or necessary materials
  • Accurate, using exact measurements; showing how data will be organized  
  • Written in the specific order that the activities will proceed

Try It Out: Step-by-step

In order to show how important a detailed, accurate, step-by-step procedure is, try this activity with your child or students.  Start with a clean surface and a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter and/or a jar of jam and a table knife. Explain that you are going to have the child/students give you directions which you will follow precisely on how to make four sandwiches.  Ask the child/first student how to begin this sandwich-making process and follow his/her directions literally.  For example, if you are told to put the peanut butter on the bread, but not told to take out pieces of bread or to unscrew the jar lid, etc, then put the unopened jar of peanut butter physically on top of the loaf of bread.  The child/students will quickly tell you that you are wrong. Act surprised and ask for a new instruction.

Encourage the child/students to think through what needs to be done first, then next, and to give you specific step-by-step, detailed instructions.  After all of the sandwiches are assembled, cut them into quarters and serve them to the child/students/yourself. [Note: the number of sandwiches will vary depending on the number of participants in this activity.]  Reinforce the importance of detailed instructions and step-by-step procedures when conducting science experiments and in other aspects of life, such as in playing games, in cleaning one’s room, in washing the family dog, in planting a garden, and so forth. In every case, you want to make sure that you are moving through the activities with focus on teaching growth mindset.

Gathering and Listing Materials:

If working on a formal science fair project, one should write the procedure for the scientific investigation.  This formal explanation must also include a list of the materials needed to conduct the experiment. The materials do not need to be expensive; they may even be common items found around your house.

Lists of materials should be detailed and tell the type, exact size, and the quantity of the materials that will be needed.  For example, instead of saying “a jar,” the materials list should say “2 liter wide-mouthed, glass jar.”

If you would like, use the following lesson plan based on turbidity and its effect on water.  Turbidity is a measure of the degree to which water loses its transparency due to the presence of suspended particles, such as soil.  The more total suspended solids in the water, the murkier it appears and the higher the turbidity. Turbidity is considered as a good measure of the quality of water.

Elementary Science Fair Project ~ Turbidity and Temperature

Topic: Turbidity results from suspended solids in the water.

Question: How does turbidity affect the water’s temperature?

Hypothesis: The greater amount of soil that is mixed into water, the higher the water’s temperature will become, due to heat from the Sun.

Research:  Scientists agree that the murkier the water, the higher the water temperature will be.  As an initial research project, go outdoors to test and compare the temperature of clear water against the temperature of soil, using two identical scientific thermometers: one to measure clear water in a clear plastic cup and the other to measure the soil next to the water cup.  [Record the difference in temperature.] You will find that the water is cooler than the soil. In fact, you just need to walk along the beach to discover that water is cooler on your feet than walking in the sand.

Why?  Water is a slow conductor of heat, therefore it needs to gain more energy than the sand or dry land in order for its temperature to increase.  The Sun can provide this energy. Soil is a good conductor of heat and therefore, it gains and loses its heat much faster than water.  By adding soil to water, you should be able to increase the mixture’s conduction of heat, thereby increasing the water’s temperature.

Materials Needed (per class or per team of students):

  • 10-oz clear plastic cups (3)
  • 1 cup of soil or mulch
  • 1 tablespoon
  • 1 thermometer
  • 1 quart of tap water
  • Paper towels for clean-up

Step-by-step Procedure:

  1. Fill three 10-oz cups 2∕3 full of water and set them in the sunlight, leaving Cup 1 clear.
  2. Stir in one tablespoon of mulch or soil into Cup 2.
  3. Stir in two tablespoons of mulch or soil into Cup 3.
  4. At the start of the experiment, record the temperature of water in each of the three cups.
  5. Then record the temperature of water in each of the cups for each 15 minutes thereafter until the temperature stabilizes.
  6. Ask yourself: Initially, did you think there would be a difference in the temperature of water over time?  Did you think that the clear water would be cooler or warmer than the water to which soil was added? What was the temperature change over time in each of the three cups of water?
  7. If possible, compare the results of your data with others.  Is your data consistent with others?
  8. Discuss your conclusion: What is the relationship of turbidity to temperature?

Ask yourself:

How might natural water, such as in a lake or river, become more turbid (murkier)?  What may be some of the harmful results of increased turbidity and a change in temperature?  Which types of animals may be affected by murky water? How would murky water affect these animals?  Does this project interest you in learning more/discovering the answers to these or other questions?