Science Fair Judging and Example Project

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, while also giving examples of interesting, age-appropriate science fair projects.  Educational prompts and questions encourage the learner and the teacher to apply the knowledge and skills learned to future occasions. An example of judging sheets and a science fair project are provided for use by the student, parent, teacher, or judge.

Let Me Tell You a Story:

Before retiring, my husband and I worked in science and education-focused fields that attracted the attention of many schools, school districts, and educators for a number of purposes; one of those purposes was to judge student work at science fairs, elementary through high school levels.  One of the most interesting, silly, yet puzzling, science fair projects involved my husband as the judge. A 5th grade student had been tasked with competing in the schoolwide science fair; winners would be entered into the districtwide science fair.  In fact, this boy was selected by his school to enter the districtwide science fair, representing the entire 5th grade at his school; his project being judged as the top among all of the other 5th grade competitors.  As my husband began the judging process, interviewing the student and studying the student’s work, this is the story that it told:

The student was watching the Super Bowl (football game) and noticed that many of the TV commercials were focused on beer.  As he was, at that time, contemplating which topic he would pursue for his science fair project, he was inspired to test whether drinking beer made a person more athletic.  So, he proceeded to design an experiment in order to test his proposed hypothesis that, “Drinking beer makes one more athletic.”

He selected two Green Lynx spiders that would represent potential athletes and put them into individual glass jars.  Then he caught two flies, one for each spider. He dipped one fly into some beer and put it into the jar with one spider.  He placed the second fly, without dipping it into beer) into the second spider’s jar. The next morning, he looked at his two spiders.  The spider who had received the fly that had been dipped into beer was alive, whereas the other spider had perished. He concluded that, in fact, beer did make one more athletic!  

Whereas, I applaud the boy’s creativity, (and I do find the story quite humorous) I am unsure of how this science fair project rose to the top of his grade level and placed him in a districtwide competition.  (My husband was equally bewildered.) Some of the steps necessary for a strong science fair project were determined, such as the choosing of a topic, the development of a question and hypothesis, and a completed materials list.  However, the more rigorous aspects of (a) thinking through the concept, (b) researching the topic, (c) creating and implementing an experiment that was effective in determining a science-based outcome, (d) performing multiple trials, and so forth were lacking at best.  [On top of the list of issues would be that a spider is not an accurate representative of a human being.]

However, we should be able to learn from failed projects.  If you were the parent, teacher, or judge of the science fair project described above, what questions would you have asked the boy about his project and procedures?  As someone giving guidance to upper elementary-aged students, you might want to use this silly project as an opportunity for them to learn.

  • Have the students determine, then discuss which questions they would ask the boy about his project.  
  • What type of research could have been done before proceeding with this project?
  • Ask the students, if they were going to design a science fair project that utilized spiders, what would it be?  What would they want to discover?
  • If they were going to design a science fair project about athletes or athletics, what would it be?   What would they want to discover?
  • Of course, I would not recommend that they design a science fair project that utilizes beer, but perhaps they might be interested in designing a project that was focused on sodas or coffee-based drinks.  What would that project be? What would they want to discover?

Below is a format for thinking through the development of a science fair project.

Choose the Topic:  ______________________________________________

What’s Your Question?:  _________________________________________

Your Hypothesis?:_______________________________________________

Research Performed:_____________________________________________

Materials Needed: _______________________________________________

Step-by-step Procedure: __________________________________________

Data Collection: __________________________________________________

Results of Data and Conclusion: _____________________________________

Acknowledgements (Who Helped): __________________________________

Bibliography (List books and articles used during research): ______________

Suggested forms for judges to use during science fair judging are shown below.

Judging Sheet for Written Reports

Title Page …………………………………………………………………………………. (5 points)

  • Is it present
  • Is the student’s name listed?

Purpose ………………………………………………………………………………….. (15 points)

  • Is there a question?
  • Can the answer to the question be measured?
  • Is a hypothesis mentioned?
  • Is the hypothesis clear; does it tell what the student is trying to prove?
  • Does the question and hypothesis pertain to the experiment conducted?

Research ……………………………………………………………………………….. (15 points)

  • Does the research pertain to the topic?
  • Is the research complete and thorough?
  • Is this section written in the student’s own words?

Materials ………………………………………………………………………………….(10 points)

  • Are all materials listed?
  • Are specific details given?

Procedure ………………………………………………………………………………..(10 points)

  • Are all steps listed in chronological order?
  • Could the experiment be replicated from reading the procedure?

Results ……………………………………………………………………………………(20 points)

  • Does the collected data represent what was done in the project?
  • Did the student choose the best form of recording their data?
  • Did the student logically gather pertinent information?
  • Are charts and/or graphs included; was the data displayed in more than one manner?

Conclusion ……………………………………………………………………………..(20 points)

  • Does it answer the purpose?
  • Does it adequately explain the results?
  • Does it tie the entire report and experiment together?

Bibliography ……………………………………………………………………………(5 points)

  • Is it sufficient in terms of the scope of the project?

Science Fair Judging Criteria

Student’s name: _____________________________________________________

Grade level: __________ Judge’s initials: __________________

Knowledge of Topic / Explanation of Project through the Display ………….. 40 points

  • Apparent that student understands the topic
  • Project chosen is an experiment with measurable data
  • Explanation of the project is clear and contains:

1.  The Question

2.  Hypothesis (relating to the Question)

3.  Research information relating to the topic

4.  Materials list (detailed and complete)

5.  Description of procedure (step-by-step)

6.  Data collection and display of data

7.  Conclusion

Evidence of Problem Solving through Experimentation ……………………….. 40 points

  • Appropriate experimental design; was it controlled?
  • Was the experiment performed more than once?
  • Was the data collected, recorded and displayed in an orderly manner?
  • Was enough data collected to support the conclusion?
  • Was the data interpreted accurately?

Accuracy of Details …………………………………………………………………………..10 points

  • Correct grammar, spelling, and vocabulary
  • Correct math computation and graphing

Written Report ………………………………………………………………………………. 10 points

  • Neat, legible, complete

Total points __________

Science Fair Project ~ Chromatography

(Previous judging sheets can be used to determine the effectiveness of this project.)

Purpose; Question:  Which colors make up the color “brown?”

Hypothesis:   _________________________________________________

                          (Have the students propose their hypothesis above.)

How to make a dropper out of a drinking straw for use during this project:

Take a full-length straw and bend over the top one-third (straight straws are preferred; if you have flexible straws, cut off the flexible part).  Keep the bent part of the straw squeezed closed, along with the length of straw, as you submerge the open end of the straw into a cup of water. Once the tip of the straw is submerged, slightly relax your fingers, so the submerged section of the straw fills with water.  Pull the entire length of straw out of the water, then squeeze the bent section to create uniform drops of water. Have everyone practice this activity before starting this project.

Research:

Observations of Drops of Water

In order to look closer at one drop of water and the shape it forms, hand out Styrofoam plates onto which the child/students will drop one drop of water.  You can have the child/students make an oral and pictorial observation of the drop.

Make a second drop of water, then straighten the straw and use it to blow the two drops of water together.  Again observe and describe what happens. You can have the child/students draw pictures and verbalize this process.

Mixing of Primary Colors

Using food dye, make three cupsful of lightly colored water: one red, one blue and one yellow.  Use a set of drinking straws as droppers to transfer one drop of red water to a Styrofoam plate.  Repeat with one drop of yellow water. Then straighten the straw to blow the two drops together; notice the color mixing.  Have the child/students combine other primary colors (red + blue, then blue + yellow) to form other secondary colors. Have them draw a sequence of pictures (storyboard) and verbalize this process, including which primary colors make up which secondary colors.

Then have them combine all three secondary colors of water (orange, purple and green) together and discuss the resulting color.

Separation of Colors

Since we can combine colors, ask if we can separate colors.  Then introduce the process of chromatography using strips of coffee filter paper.  Carefully hold the edge of a strip of the filter paper in a puddle of mixed food dyes.  Notice that the liquid will travel into the filter paper, forming somewhat of a rainbow of colors.  The process of chromatography results in a separation of the different colors of pigments.

Different types of matter can be combined; colors can be mixed to make new colors.  Inks and dyes consist of molecules of coloring substances (pigments) that are dissolved in a liquid base.  When you write with a colored marker, the liquid part dries and the color is left behind. In this activity, when the water creeps through the filter paper, it contacts the dried color/pigment.  The coloring molecule (pigment) in the ink is loosened (dissolved) and travels across the filter paper. Different colors get carried along faster and farther than others because some molecules are bigger and heavier than others.

This color separation process is called “chromatography.”  Chromatography means color writing. Chemists use the process to test a liquid mixture, such as a drug or dye, to find out what substances are in the mixture.  If chromatography is performed on a variety of water-based (washable) brown markers, we should be able to see what colors make up the color brown.  

Materials:

  • Strips of filter papers (1” wide lengths of white coffee filter paper)
  • Brown markers (set of 4 different brand brown markers; labeled #1, #2, #3, #4)
  • Drinking straws
  • Clear tape
  • Pencils
  • Clear plastic cups
  • Water
  • Paper towels

Procedure (step-by-step):

In this science project, four different brands of brown markers are used to show what pigments manufacturers use to create the color “brown” in their markers.

  1. Give each child/student one strip of filter paper.
  2. Use one colored marker only to draw a line across the filter paper strip about 1/3 of the way up the strip. Each child/student in a team of four can use a different numbered marker.  Or an individual child can receive 4 strips of filter paper to test each of the four colors of brown individually.
  3. Using a pencil, have the child/students label the number of brown marker he/she/they are testing at the top of the strip of filter paper.
  4. Lower the bottom edge of the filter paper into a cup of water, making sure that the marker line drawn on the strip is not submerged into the water.
  5. Watch as the water creeps up the filter paper, creating the chromatogram.
  6. It is important to pull the filter paper out of the water before the water creeps to the very top of the strip.  Set the strip on a paper towel to allow it to dry.
  7. Notice and discuss not only the colors that make up each color of brown, but also the color variation/pattern of the chromatogram of each brand of marker.

Results; Data Collection:

Have the child/students name and record the colors and describe the variations and patterns that they see on their filter papers by brand, then determine whether they were correct in their hypothesis while forming their conclusion below. Remember, the point of the project is not to be correct in their hypothesis, but rather to learn science thinking skills, processes, and procedures.

Conclusion:

Ask: What can you conclude from this project?  What colors make up the color “brown?” What does this science fair project lead you to want to study next?  What will be the next big question?

As an extension, this same experiment can be performed using green, orange, purple, or black markers.  Some ideas for the next big question could be:

  • “Which colors make up the color “black?” or
  • “Do the chromatograms of different brands of green markers look identical to each other?”

Other chromatography-related experiments can be performed with colorful candies, such as M&Ms or Skittles, such as:

  • “Which colors make up the color “brown” in an M&M candy cover?”
  • “Is the chromatogram of green Skittles identical to the chromatogram of green M&Ms?”

Have the children suggest other Questions/Problem Statements.

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