What Science Fair Project Should I Do?

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 develop an effective question and testable hypothesis.  Educational prompts and questions encourage the learner and the teacher to apply the knowledge and skills learned to future occasions.

Choosing a Topic:

  • It is important to choose a topic that is interesting to you.
  • An effective topic is one that creates an opportunity for experimentation.
  • The topic must not be too general.

Example of an effective topic:  “Which brand of popcorn results in the most popped kernels?”  This is an effective topic because the topic is very specific and you can find the answer by doing experiments.

Example of an ineffective topic:  “Bridges.”  This topic is too broad…too general.  Choose a smaller, more specific topic, such as, “Which bridge designs can support the most weight?”

Example of an ineffective topic: “Which color of bow looks the best with black hair?”  This topic is too subjective and depended on individuals’ preference.  Choose a topic that is objective, such as, “Which color of hair bow is most worn most often in Miss Simpson’s class?”

Ask your child/students to show you their answer to whether a topic is effective or ineffective as a science fair project:

  1. Which of the popular brands of raisin bran has the most raisins?
  2. Which is the best fertilizer for a lawn?
  3. In which liquids will an ice cube float?
  4. Which metals will rust?
  5. How does the color of an object affect how warm it gets in the sunshine?
  6. Which anti-itch cream works the best for mosquito bites?

[Questions 1 & 5 are effective, measurable topics.  Questions 3 & 4 are measureable topics, but might need to be modified to state more specifics, such as, “Of water, oil, corn syrup, and rubbing alcohol, in which will an ice cube float?” or “ Of tin, aluminum, iron, lead, and brass, which will rust?”  Questions 2 & 6 are ineffective, because determining the “best” of something is subjective. However, these ineffective topics can sometimes be made to be more specific for use as a science fair project, as described below.]

What is an Effective Question?

  • An effective question explains what you want to learn from your science project.
  • To answer your question, you should have to measure something.

Have your child or students decide which of the following (‘a’ or ‘b’) are effective questions, in other words, questions that are objective, specific, and can be answered by the process of measuring:

1.   a)  Which paper towel is best?

b)  Which paper towel absorbs the most water?

2. a)  How much of an apple is water?

b)  Does an apple contain water?

3. a)  Does fertilizer make bean plants grow taller?

b)  How do bean plants grow?

4. a)  Does aspirin keep cut flowers fresher for a longer period of time?

b)  Is aspirin good for cut flowers?

Have your child or students rephrase or rewrite the following questions, so that in order to answer the question, you would have to perform some measurements:

1. What is the best kind of soap?

2. Is an orange juicy?

3. Will a magnet pick up rusty nails?

Let Me Tell You a Story:

My oldest son lives in Alaska, so I have had the opportunity to visit during all seasons of the year.  Alaska is a beautiful state whether you visit in the middle of winter surrounded by snow and entertained by ice fishing or in the warmer and sunnier months hiking up mountains and boating across lake after lake. It is always amazing!  However, the warmer, sunnier months can also bring mosquitoes, sometimes jokingly called Alaska’s state bird. One visit was especially ripe with mosquitoes, during which time, I spent trying to discourage the number of bites I was attracting.  At that time, I felt like I was conducting a science experiment with myself as the sole participant: which mosquito repellant would prove to be the most effective? However, after having been stung multiple times before physical and chemical deterrents helped out, the itching of having received bites became my new top priority.

I went to the store and purchased three of the top brands of anti-itch creams and again thought of myself as a participant in a science experiment which could be transformed into a science fair project, if I added a greater number of participants than just myself.  My science fair topic: Which anti-itch cream works the best to alleviate or eliminate the itchiness caused by mosquito bites in most people? I followed many of the rules and guidelines for conducting a science fair project, including (1) performing research (by applying the creams onto my skin and by researching the purposes of the various ingredients in each of the anti-itch creams), (2) application of the information learned (not to mention the application of the anti-itch creams), (3) remembering the project’s control and variables, (4) interpretation of the results, etc., (5) all the while thinking that if I had a larger participant base, this would be a great science fair project!   

By the way, if you also live in or visit an area where pesky mosquitoes or other biting insects live, the information on anti-itch creams that I used below may give you a jump-start on helping your child or students conduct a similar science fair project.

  • Bactine is an antiseptic, first-aid treatment produced by Bayer.  An antiseptic prevents the growth of diseases. This liquid is applied to the skin and has active ingredients benzalkonium chloride (the antiseptic) and lidocaine, an anaesthetic (a pain reliever).  
  • Benadryl antihistamine cream that also protects your skin (zinc acetate). The active ingredient is Diphenhydramine HCI.  A histamine is a compound that is released by cells in response to injury and in allergic and inflammatory reactions, causing contraction of smooth muscle and dilation of capillaries.  The antihistamine reduces these effects.
  • Cortizone anti-itch cream contains Hydrocortisone 1% as its active ingredient, a corticosteroid.  Corticosteroids are medicines used for reducing inflammation, swelling, and redness. This cream also contains aloe to help heal the wound and bring down swelling.

As I used the different creams, I only used a particular cream on specific parts of my body so I could determine which cream was the most effective for me.  In other words, I used Bactine on my right arm and left leg, Benadryl on my left arm and head/face, and Cortizone on my right leg, neck, and back. (Yes, that does seem like a lot of bites.)  I also applied each cream the same number of times each day. At the end of this experiment, I was able to determine which cream worked best for me and that cream is on my medicine shelf.

Summing Up:

If I was able to conduct this same experiment on a number of insect-bitten participants, I would have asked myself to consider the answers to the questions below to incorporate into a science fair project:

  • Could the above experiment be written to include all steps of the “Scientific Method?”  [Research, Hypothesis, Materials list, Step-by-step procedure, Data collection, Display of data, and Interpretation of results]
  • Did the applications of these various anti-itch creams follow a logical scientific process?
  • What data collection (measurement) was performed?
  • What was the conclusion as to which anti-itch cream worked better?  
  • When was the research on the ingredients of the creams done: before, during or after the experiment?  Would the timing of that particular research affect the outcome of this project?
  • Was there high personal interest in completing this experiment/science fair project?  

Ask yourself:

Do you have a personal experience that could be turned into a science fair project or experiment?

Before you go, hop over to one of these other great articles from the many Mom Advice Line contributors:

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