Category Archives: Science Fair Secrets

Students, parents and teachers share their winning science fair project ideas, stories and awards.

Not Everyone Hates The Science Fair!

Science Fairs get a lot of bad press these days, and I don’t like it. Honestly? I think the only bad science fair is a science fair that a child is FORCED to enter every year.

You heard me. The science fair should be 100% voluntary, most of the time.   Maybe it would be better if fifth grade, for example, was a mandatory year, and all others were voluntary.

I fully understand that this stance will not make me very popular with a few science teachers, but as I am a science teacher and a parent, I have a right to my own opinion, which is based on personal experience as are all opinions.

Don’t get me wrong – I am a HUGE fan of science fairs. My own children looked forward to it every year, from K-8, and even while a few other kids were kicking and screaming and whining and claiming it wasn’t FAIR, the fact is, it was absolutely fair. The fair was fair.

This picture went viral recently, all over the internet.

Please click the link and read Ms. Messina's article at the Huffington Post about how and why she created this poster!
Please click the link and read Ms. Messina’s article at the Huffington Post about how and why she created this poster!

This poster was created by Susan Messina, who is not at all against science fairs – just the ones that force kids who aren’t interested to participate, too. Her article over at the Huffington Post is very interesting and informative, and will give you the background into why she decided to make the poster.

Ms. Messina suggests that if the science project is required, then it could be a family project which would allow students and parents to work together collaboratively. I disagree, unless the assignment is for a group project. I think any assigned project should be an individual thing.  Families may, and should, provide encouragement and help with supplies, and the occasional suggestion, but mostly, parents and siblings need to stand back and let the student create. However, if the assignment IS for a group project, then the science fair is the perfect chance for the entire family to learn together!  Otherwise, let the student create the project and show his/her family the creation, complete with hypothesis and experiment and results.  It’s good practice for the judges!

Parents who shamelessly do the science project themselves ruin it for all the families who do it RIGHT.

Years ago, my son was the only one in his kindergarten class to submit an entry to the science fair at his school.  He was obsessed with sea creatures at this time, and with pirates.  His project kind of reflects both interests.  Please don’t call CPS on me; he’s a grown man now.

Andy's diorama.  He had just turned 5.
Andy’s diorama. He had just turned 5.

Now, a diorama is NOT a science project, but for a kindergarten student who had had no instruction and who insisted on entering the science fair even though his teacher and the fair judges weren’t sure if a five-year-old qualified, I think it’s pretty good.  When the judges looked closely, I saw their expressions change and they convened for a chat.  Can you figure out why?

He'd read that pirates sometimes disposed of prisoners this way.
He’d read that pirates sometimes disposed of prisoners this way.

He told the judges that he wanted the bottom of the sea to look interesting.

He wanted to illustrate what happened if a pirate went swimming in infested waters.
He wanted to illustrate what happened if a pirate went swimming in infested waters.

His favorite stuffed toy was a big red octopus we got for him at Epcot.  He wanted to include Big Red in his diorama in such a way that people would remember him.

The octopus is my favorite part of Andy's diorama.
The octopus is my favorite part of Andy’s diorama.

And, he loved tubeworms.  He tried to draw a coral reef but he didn’t think pirates would dispose of a prisoner via the cement shoe route near a coral reef.  “Too many onlookers.”  He may have been only five years old, but even then he was looking ahead.

tube worms

Remember now, that a diorama is NOT a science experiment.  Do not encourage your kids to try to enter a diorama or demonstration or poster as a science project.  My little son, when asked, was able to explain the science behind why cement shoes would certainly sink a naughty pirate to the bottom of the sea, and how a foolish pirate who went swimming in shark-infested waters would certainly become the first course for a shark’s supper,  He did admit that his soft huggie octopus would probably never try to strangle a pirate, but that he’d included that scenario for effect.

But for a very young child who is only just beginning to learn about the world outside his own home, whatever strikes and holds his/her interest is something well worth encouraging.  Just be there to ask questions and be sincerely interested when your child gives you a lengthy explanation.  Take him/her to the library and look at picture books.

Do experiments in your home.  My son tied gravel to his Batman action figure’s feet to see how many it would take to sink the Dark Knight to the bottom of a pail of water.  He got out his postcard of tubeworms from Marineland to make sure he was drawing and coloring them correctly.

As he grew older, his science fair entries were actual experiments, and in seven years, he earned six blue ribbons.  His final entry, in 8th grade, was about how air pollution is destroying the world’s statues and buildings.  He took eight huge pieces of sidewalk chalk and carved them into statues, mounted them here and there on a paper-mache mountain, and sprayed them with vinegar several times a day, to represent pollution.  Every night he took a picture.

Our buildings and statues are definitely being worn down by pollution.

He wanted to use hydrochloric acid instead of vinegar, but we said “no.”

We did have some locked in the garage cabinet, though.

Doesn’t everybody?

 

Jane GoodwinJane Goodwin is a professor of expository writing at Ivy Tech Community College, a hands-on science teacher for College for Kids, a professional speaker and writer, and a social media liaison  for Steve Spangler Science.  She wanted to be a ballerina and an astronaut, but gravity got the better of her.

The Fresh Prince of Science Fair

“The Fresh Prince of Science Fair”
(To the tune of Will Smith’s “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air”)

Screen Shot 2014-07-18 at 12.17.05 PM

Now these are some lyrics all about when
My board got judged with a pad and a pen.
If you have a few seconds, just hang right there,
I’ll tell you how I got a blue ribbon in the last science fair.

In back of the library, past the stairs,
that’s where my school has our science fairs.
Hypotheses, procedures, results, and conclusions
about weird topics like germs and pollution.

...and bowl cuts...
…and bowl cuts…

But a couple of kids didn’t do what they’re told,
forgot to test their guess with any variables.
All those kids got an “F” and then I got scared,
but I remembered all I learned and that I came prepared.

Poster board feelin’ fresh when the judges came near.
They were quickly impressed and said, “It’s looking so clear.
If there were a science band you’d be sitting first chair,
but for now here’s a ribbon. Good job, at this fair!”

I got back to my house about 3 or 3:30
and I yelled to my mama, “It’s cool to be nerdy!”
She smiled at me and had some ice cream to share.
Life is good, as the Prince of the Fair.

ice-cream
Time to invent a time machine.

© DJ Souza for Steve Spangler Science

A Behind the Scenes Look at Science Fair Judging

By Blog Editor Susan Wells

A few weeks ago, I was asked to be a judge at a local middle school’s 8th grade science fair. I was so excited to volunteer to take on title of Science Fair Judge for the first time.

I had no idea what to really expect or how to perform my judging duties as I drove to the school that morning.

This science fair consisted of honor science students’ projects. The two science teachers picked the top 20 projects out of their classes for the judges to interview, but the gym was full of project boards.

Before we began, I really enjoyed wandering around and looking at all of the projects. There were so many creative and unique ideas and all of the kids did a great job. I was glad we didn’t have to narrow the field based on the boards. That was a tough decision.

Judges were given sample questions, a few instructions and were then broken into groups of three to interview students about their projects.

As we waited on the floor of the gym, I was nervous. I didn’t want to appear like I didn’t know what I was doing, but I also didn’t want to intimidate the students and grill them. I wondered if the kids could smell the fear on me, these were middle school students afterall.

Our first student came down and we began asking him questions. The poor boy was so nervous and jittery that it was hard to really follow his complicated project on bone densities. I could tell he had done a lot of research and a lot of work. I wanted to ask him to start over and explain it to me, as I was obviously not as smart as he and wasn’t following. But I didn’t want to make him more nervous, so I just listened and tried to put an intelligent, but kind look on my face. I wanted to hug him and tell him if he knew me, he’d know I was nothing to be nervous about.

I thought about what I was like when I was in 8th grade and wasn’t sure I’d be able to stand up to the pressure of talking to three adults while they grilled me about my project.

The first interview was tough, because we didn’t have anything to compare it to. All of the judges had little or no science fair judging experience, so we were all finding our way through.

We spent the next few hours taking turns interviewing students as they came down. Some were more nervous than others and some were more informed and prepared than others. I began getting a stronger sense of understanding what truly made a good project and scientist.

The actual topic of the project had very little to do with the success of a student. Here is what defined a science fair contender, some are obvious:

  • Clarity – Thoroughly researched and well thought out projects with a strong understanding of the scope, vocabulary and background
  • Complete understanding and use of independent and dependent variables
  • Scientific Thought – Hypothesis tested in investigation and research led to valid hypothesis
  • Controlled Data – Consistent experiment environment
  • Presentation – Clear and concise project boards
  • Thoroughness and Skill – Possible sources of error and understanding what they needed to do differently next time
  • Strong public speaking skills
  • Creativity and originality

During lunch, the judges came together and chose the top seven students and their projects that we believed fully met all of the criteria listed above. Those seven students had to come back that afternoon and re-interview with all eight judges. I never would have made it.

After we completed our final round of interviews, we chose the top three who were honored in a ceremony that night and won a gift card to Barnes and Noble. Not a bad prize after all that work and pressure.

The winner was unanimously chosen by all eight judges. She had stunning presentation skills, understood her project inside and out and didn’t miss a thing. Her project involved testing how dog food is broken down in the stomach and which one is best to feed your dog. She simulated a dog stomach with lemon juice and water and let dog food pieces dissolve for a set time to see which one worked the best. We had to ask her definitions for some of the terms she used, because some of it went over our heads. She knew exactly how she would do the experiment better next time – use a balloon to better simulate a stomach with motion and digesting. Wow. Nothing like being blown over by an eighth grader.

Looking for a great science fair experiment, here are the top seven projects that won –

  1. Which dog food is the most nutritious?
  2. The 5 Second Rule with Cucumbers – Can food pick up germs after hitting the floor for 5 seconds, 1 minute, 1 hour?
  3. Which ski jacket keeps you warmest in cold weather?
  4. Which green material keeps your house coolest in summer? Using bird houses and wheat grass.
  5. Music to My Feet – the effect of positive music on energy burned while exercising.
  6. Phantom pain – can you correctly identify touch sensations when you can’t see it?
  7. Bacteria Growth – does soap or hand sanitizer work better to kill germs?
Congratulations to all of the students on your hard work and effort. I hope to be asked back again next year when I’ll be a seasoned judge with a year of experience behind me.

 

 

Science Fair 911 – What If My Results Are Wrong?

By Blog Editor Susan Wells

We take a lot of calls during science fair season and throughout the year from students and their parents for help on projects. One question we receive more than most is a concern when the results of the project didn’t support the hypothesis or have the intended outcome.

Let’s start with the hypothesis. What is a hypothesis?

After you do research on your topic and choose your independent variables, you make an educated guess as to what you think the outcome of the experiment will be. A hypothesis is usually an “I think” statement.

For example, if your project involves testing surfaces in your home for the source of the most bacteria, you will come up with a hypothesis that one will contain the most bacteria.

A sample hypothesis for this experiment could be – “I am testing the bacteria levels on the home phone, the TV remote, bathroom sink faucet and door handle. I think the door handle will have the most bacteria. ”

Conduct your experiment and test the bacteria levels swabbing each surface using a Bacteria Growing Kit. Wait about a week and check your cultures.

What if the door handle sample had a lot of bacteria, but the TV remote had twice the amount?

The experiment did not support your hypothesis.

First, don’t panic.

And don’t be tempted to switch the lids to show your hypothesis to be true. Your results aren’t wrong and your hypothesis isn’t wrong. There isn’t a wrong or right in science experimentation.

Keep in mind that your hypothesis was an educated guess. Your project was to conduct a scientific experiment and find results. The results are what is most important. Being right or proving your hypothesis is not.

What if your friend also conducted the same experiment at their home and found their phone contained the most bacteria?  Or you followed an experiment you found online and did not get the same results?

Again, don’t panic. Your results are your results.

Instead of thinking in right or wrong terms, you think more in supported vs. unsupported. Your results supported your hypothesis or your hypothesis was unsupported by your results.

Science  is about finding an answer through experimentation. A hypothesis will help give you a direction, but this is a situation where having the “right” answer isn’t important.

What if every scientist was more concerned about being right vs. true scientific discovery? What if scientists switched the lids on their Petri dishes so they could match past results? Science would no longer be rooted in facts and would instead be based on feeling. We would not have the knowledge and understanding about our world that we do, thanks to scientific research and discovery.

So own your results, whether they prove your hypothesis correct or refute it. The most important thing about science is not getting it “right,” but making a discovery through experimentation. Just make sure in your conclusion section, you explain how your hypothesis was refuted and why you think that is the case.

Science Fair 911 – Tips for Teachers

By Guest Blogger Debbie Leibold 

So, you’re about to assign science fair projects to your students… now what? No need to worry, the Spangler Science team has some tips to make the science fair fun, interesting, and educational for your students (and easier for you)!

  • First and foremost, if you are excited about the science fair, your students are sure to share your enthusiasm. Making science an integral part of your classroom throughout the year will help ignite students’ interest during science fair season.
  • Consider modeling a science fair experiment for the class.  By doing so, your students will see firsthand how to come up with a hypothesis, create some tests to see the effect of a variable, and learn the difference between a demonstration and an experiment.  If your class science fair project was going on around the same time that your students were working on their own projects at home, the gathering of data, making charts and graphs, and developing conclusions that you do as a class would be great practice for your students as they work on their individual projects.  As we all know, practice makes perfect in any sport, musical instrument, job, etc., so why not practice a science fair project before you actually ask kids to do one on their own?
  • Be sure to create a timeline for science fair projects and effectively follow that timeline to completion. Most projects are assigned months in advance of the actual due date, so remember to keep students on pace to complete their projects within the timeline.
  • Effective communication with parents will certainly help ensure timely completion of projects and quality work from your students. Be sure to send a letter home with your students when you begin the science fair process and follow up with parents on the progress of their children’s projects along the way.  It might be helpful to include a description of the difference between a science demonstration and an actual science fair project and the importance of a variable.  Many parents have little to no science background and are truly afraid of the science fair.  The more you can help them understand the process and the components of a good science fair project, the better the final projects will be.
  • Follow up with your students as they work on their individual science fair projects. Make sure their topic is narrow or specific enough, that they have a question they can answer by running some tests, that they have a variable (meaning their experiment is not just a demonstration), and that they have a way to gather data and document their results. A little feedback early on in the process will make for more engaging and higher quality experiments and a more successful science fair.

Creating a grading/ judging rubric will ensure that every project is assessed equally and on the same criteria. Your rubric should address areas such as:

  • Creativity of question
  • Effectiveness of experiment to prove/disprove hypothesis
  • Clarity of presentation
  • Depth of research
  • Appropriate use of scientific method

You might also consider adding a checklist for the science fair display board. This checklist helps your students remember all the sections they need to include in their experiment and will help you as the teacher make sure the scientific method has been followed. The display board checklist should include the following:

  • 
Question–
What are you trying to find out?
  • Hypothesis–
What do you predict will happen?
  • List of Materials–
What supplies did you use in your experiment?
  • 
Procedures–
What steps did you take to run your tests?
  • 
Data–
What photos, charts, and/or graphs did you include to show your results?
  • 
Observations/Discoveries–
What actually happened? Explain your results.
  • 
Conclusion–
”So What?” What did you learn? Was your hypothesis correct?

All projects should also include the following:

  • Standardized testing conditions (as much as possible)
  • A control—something that stays the same in your experiment
  • At least one variable—something that changes in your experiment
  • Multiple tests to show comparisons between the control and the variable
  • Technology integration—Excel spreadsheet, chart, graph, Power Point presentation, internet research, blog, etc.

Once you’ve created a rubric and a checklist, share it with your students and their parents as they begin their science fair projects.  Don’t wait to give it to them until the end.  Having the requirements in front of them at the start will ensure that the final projects do what they are supposed to do!

At Steve Spangler Science, we know that all schools and science fairs have different requirements and, as students get older, the requirements change and get much more elaborate.  The science fair information on our site is meant to be a starting point and a source of ideas.  Adapt our format and our suggestions to what works for you and your science fair.

You know your students’ strengths and weaknesses as well as their interests and passions. If you are able to help your students find a project that is meaningful for them and then provide the scientific support they need to complete the project, your students will be excited about the science fair and, more importantly, excited to share their discoveries with others.