Tag Archives: Science Fair

How is a Science Fair Judged and Tips for Science Fair Success

Dr, Maille Lyons, The Science Fair Coach

How is a Science Fair Judged?
It might surprise you to learn that there are no rules on how a science fair must be judged.  In an ideal situation, all science fair judges would review all of the projects, and then interview all of the students, and then come to an agreement on the ranking of the overall best projects.  This, however, is generally not going to happen because of time constraints and limits on the number of judges available.  The next best option is to have groups of judges assigned to natural groupings of projects.  For example, some judges would only judge 5th grade projects while others would only judge 6th grade projects.  Alternatively, some judges would only judge biology projects, while others would only judge physics projects.  In both cases, all judges evaluate all projects in their group and come to a consensus regarding the rankings for that type of project.  Realistically, it is more common that each judge evaluates a randomly assigned group of projects, looking to identify the best 2 or 3 projects from their grouping.  Then other judges, or head judges, evaluate the identified projects against each other.  In larger fairs, sometimes the judges identify many great projects, and then discuss each one to narrow the list down to the top number of spots for awards.

For students, it is less important to know how the judging will be coordinated and more important to know if the judging takes place with or without an interview.  Some fairs interview all students, whereas other fairs only interview students whose projects have been identified as potential winners, and then others have no interview at all.  In all cases, the science fair project backboard must be able to communicate the project details without the student there to explain them.  The best way to check if your project board gets that job done, is to ask an adult that is not familiar with your project (e.g. neighbor, friend’s parent, other teacher, coach, etc.) to read your board and figure out what you did.

Tips for success
Generally, judges are nice people, but it only takes one “mean” judge to ruin a student’s science fair experience. Overall, try not to read too much into body language. Scientists, as a group, are not known for their social skills.  For example, sometimes a judge decides the project is really good, but they need to move on to evaluate all the projects they have been assigned, so they abruptly end the interview and go to the next project. Other times, the judge has decided the project is not in the top tier of projects, comments the student did an excellent job presenting it, because they are just trying to be nice, and then moves on.  Preparation is the key to increasing you chances of an enjoyable and successful experience.

Here are 5 tips for the science fair judging interview:

  • Greet your judge – stand up, look at them, shake their hand, and say “It is nice to meet you, my name is…”  If you are particularly shy, this will be hard for you, so you will need to practice it many times.
  • Be able to summarize your project in 2 minutes or less, but also have a longer, more detailed presentation ready in the event that the judge does not have any immediate questions or time constraints.
  • Think of your presentation as telling the judge a story, highlighting the creative or unexpected aspects. If you encountered any problems along the way that you had to solve, describe that process. Judges love the problem solving aspects because it shows you did some thinking as opposed to just following directions from a project website or book.
  • Understand why your project is important, or exciting, or new.  Scientists start every science paper by putting their new work into the context of what we already know. Balance your knowledge with enthusiasm.
  • Dress neatly. While it is possible to win while wearing in ripped jeans and lose while wearing dress clothes, the impression you leave on each judge is critical in determining if they will advocate for your project in the judging room. Your appearance will factor into that impression, even if it is ever so slight. Therefore, find the least dressing thing that you will not fidget in and put it on for a few hours.


About Dr. Maille Lyons
My name is Maille, which is Gaelic and pronounced “Molly”. I won my first science fair in 6th grade at Joseph Case Junior High School in Swansea, Massachusetts. My project was called “The effect of acid rain on house plants”. As luck would have it my science teacher (Mr. Fonseca) was also my soccer coach. I loved doing projects and did a science fair project every year (required or not) up through my senior year. I enjoyed it so much, that I eventually pursued a career in science and now get to do the grown-up equivalent of science fair projects almost every day. Today I am environmental microbiologist specializing in aquatic bacteria (which means I can only respond to posts at night and on week-ends). I have a Bachelor of Science Degree in Biology from the University of Massachusetts (UMD), a Master’s Degree in Biology from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), a post-graduate certification in Epidemiology and Biostatistics from Drexel, and a Ph.D. in Oceanography from the University of Connecticut (UCONN). 

Dr. Lyons shares science fair tips, tricks and advice on her blog, Science Fair Coach

Science Fair 911 – Demonstrations vs. Experiments

By Blog Editor Susan Wells

When I was growing up, my school did not do a science fair. I had never been to a science fair until my oldest was in kindergarten. All I knew was it had something to do with baking soda volcanoes.

Fast forward several years, and I now organize the science fair and encourage kids to get involved. Through Steve Spangler Science, I also help parents, teachers and students with their projects. Science fair and volcanoes may go hand in hand, but the ever popular demonstration is not actually a science fair project.

A science fair project asks a “what if” question, which leads to a variable and eventually finding an answer or at the very least, a big discovery. A science demonstration, like our volcano, is used to illustrate a science concept.

Another extremely popular demonstration is quickly taking over the volcano as a classic science fair project – dropping Mentos into Diet Coke. This is also a demonstration.

But can you take a demonstration and turn it into a science fair project? Absolutely. All you need to do is C3 it. The three C’s stand for Change, Create and Compare. Find an idea or an experiment that you are interested in, change something, create a new experiment and then compare your results. If your project contains the three C’s, it is a science fair project.

Let’s take the three C’s and apply them to the Mentos and Diet Coke demonstration. We know Diet Coke works well with Mentos to produce a soda geyser, but what about other sodas? Do you get the same reaction with root beer? Or what about regular Coke? In this project, we are going to ask the question, “What if I change the type of soda?”

We now have our first C – Change. The type of soda will change. That will be our variable. The variable is something that changes in the experiment.

Now, we can move on to our second C – Create. Our experiment will test different types of soda with Mentos. Let’s pick root beer, Sprite and regular Coke. We will also have a bottle of Diet Coke as our control. A control is where the variable does not change. We know Diet Coke works and we are testing the other sodas against it. Nothing else in the experiment will change. We will use the same size of soda, same number of Mentos, same temperature, etc.

The last C – Compare. As you run your experiment and test the different sodas, note the dependent variable – how high each soda shoots in the air. Which one went the highest? The lowest? How do they each compare to the control’s height?

Dropping the Mentos into the Diet Coke and shooting soda all over the science fair is not a project. Applying the three C’s to the demonstration to make a discovery IS a science fair project.

You can apply the three C’s to any demonstration to turn it into a project, including the volcanoes. Start with finding one variable to change and you are on your way.

For more science fair project ideas, choosing a topic, tips and more please visit our Science Fair section on SteveSpanglerScience.com.


Science Fair 911 – Choose a Topic & Project Ideas

By Guest Blogger Debbie Leibold 

Sometimes the hardest part of the entire science fair is figuring out what you want to do for your project. I know from personal experience with my own sons that it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking you have to do something amazing in order to make the project worthwhile. My sons’ best projects have revolved around their interests and were really quite basic, but used the scientific method to answer a question. A few years back, my older son (a competitive golfer) wanted to know if a warm or a cold golf ball traveled farther so he ran some tests to find an answer. My younger son created the Helmet Crash-The Melon Test experiment as a response to a lot of information on the news about ski accidents and people not wearing helmets. These were not complicated questions, but they were ideas that interested my kids.

In trying to come up with your own idea, ask yourself a basic question:  What are you interested in?  Brainstorm a list of topics in a notebook or journal.  Your ideas don’t have to be worthy of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.  They can be as simple as the sport you like to play or the food you like to eat.  Think about how you might be able to turn one of those topics into a project.

Many science fair topics are based on broad areas of science. Consider finding a narrow topic in one of these areas:

  • Physical Science
  • Engineering
  • Life Science
  • Behavioral and Social Science
  • Earth and Environmental Science
  • Math and Computer Science

Use your resources—ask your friends, family, teachers, and experts in the field to help you narrow down your area of interest and create a question that you can answer by using the scientific method. Remember, if you choose a topic that is too broad, you may never finish your experiment! Find one specific area of interest and become an expert.

Whatever you do, don’t just take someone else’s idea and copy it.  That is not what real scientists do!  Real scientists look at ideas and put new twists on them.  They think about what they might have done differently and then run tests to see what happens if they make some changes.  They try something new to come up with their own discovery.

What do you want to find out?  When writing your question, consider the following:

  • Is it do-able?  Can I answer the question?
  • Would I be able to document my answer?
  • How would I find my answer?
  • What materials would be needed and how much would they cost?
  • Do I have enough time to find the answer before the science fair?
  • Is there any part that would be unsafe or dangerous?
  • Will I need adult supervision?
  • Is this too basic or too complicated of a question for someone my age?
  • Most importantly, is my question interesting and original?

If you want some other project ideas, check out the science fair section on www.SteveSpanglerScience.com. We have lots of sample projects for you to review, but also some great information about the scientific method, variables, display boards, and other helpful tips for creating your best science fair project ever!

Be sure to check back here on the blog at www.SteveSpanglerScience.com/blog every Monday for more helpful hints about science fair.

Science Fair 911 – Don't Sweat the Science Fair We Are Here to Help

By Blog Editor Susan Wells

It’s January and it’s Science Fair season. The keywords, “science fair projects,” “easy science fair ideas,” and “science fair help” are some of the top searched terms on Google in the month of January as students and their parents get online to look for help on their science fair projects.

Participating in the school science fair is a fantastic opportunity to learn about the scientific method, ask new questions, discover new science facts, conduct experiments and gain a new understanding of how science works. It also builds self confidence and public speaking skills.

My favorite part of the science fair is the bright smiles and prideful faces of the students who participate. In my daughter’s school, participating in the science fair is strictly extra-curricular. I am always so proud of each and every student who dedicates the time and energy to enriching their education. This will be the third year I am organizing our science fair.

Science fair isn’t about demonstrating a science experiment, it is taking a journey through the scientific method and self discovery. Sure, it is a lot of work and may cause some students (and their parents) to break out in a sweat with the mere mention of it. When it is done correctly, safely and allowed proper time, the science fair is very rewarding.

The science fair is a perfect opportunity to explore your own questions and make your own discoveries. It is an opportunity to step outside the books and the classroom and personally enrich your education.

Steve Spangler Science is here for students, their parents and teachers during the science fair season. We have an entire experiment library to browse through to find the perfect experiment to turn into the perfect science fair project. Debbie Leibold, our in-house science fair expert and mom of two along with myself, a science fair veteran, will provide helpful advice and step-by-step directions from how to choose the science fair project that is right for you, to tips for parents, students and teachers, how to turn a science demonstration into an experiment, how to create your science fair board and more over the next eight weeks.

Visit our blog at SteveSpanglerScience.com/blog every Monday beginning January 9th through February 20th for an article to help you survive science fair season.

Here are the topics and links to the posts to help you survive science fair season: 

Science Fair Boot Camp – An Intense Training Program That's Changing the Science Fair Experience

Our blog editor (and my favorite contributor), Susan Wells, recently wrote an article about kindergarteners being banned from science fairs. Susan does a great job of reporting on science happenings that truly stike a nerve. In response to many of your comments, Susan asked if I would share an overview of a long-term research project that I’m working on with students, parents and teachers at one of our elementary school partners, Laura Ingalls Wilder Elementary in Littleton, Colorado. Grab a new cup of coffee and take a look…

Science Fair Boot Camp

Tri Fold

Think about a real Boot Camp . . . intense training for a condensed period of time.  The leader motivates, teaches, directs, trains, and models the behaviors or actions desired for the young recruits.  Those young recruits learn discipline, critical thinking, planning, strategy, and organization.  They also learn from their mistakes and work together to find solutions.  Boot Camp is preparation for the “real deal.”

Now think about how this Boot Camp metaphor might be applied to science and elementary school “recruits.”  At Wilder Elementary School in Littleton, Colorado, we started a Science Fair Boot Camp training program five years ago. Every year, every student in the school performs a science experiment in class, modeled by the teacher. We are mid-way through a seven year program and are seeing signs of great progress in our students and teachers.

In the Science Fair Boot Camp, the teacher models scientific thinking and the proper way to conduct a science experiment for his/her students.  The program is based on the idea of “teachers do it first.”  Over the years, scientific inquiry has generally not been modeled for kids.  We know that many elementary school teachers do not have a science background, and the thought of conducting experiments and modeling “good scientific inquiry” is out of their comfort zone.  It doesn’t have to be scary.  This program provides engaging, hands-on, simple activities that kids love and teachers can model even if they haven’t had much science themselves.

TeacherWe have found at Wilder that the teachers are growing as much as the kids.  Despite some initial hesitancy, the staff is on board and excited about Boot Camp.  What’s coming out of this program is stronger kids, but also stronger teachers.  We’re focusing on teaching our staff how to teach science—they have to learn it themselves first and know it well enough to be able to explain it clearly to others.  Many teachers learn best by teaching.  Look back on the first time you taught something and how bad it may have been.  Then consider how much you’ve improved over time as you’ve gotten more comfortable with the material and “tweaked” your classroom activities.  That’s what is happening at Wilder.  Our teachers are much better teachers of science because of the last couple of years of “tweaking” and improving what they do in this Boot Camp program.

The first key to engaging students in doing real science is to understand the difference between a science demonstration and a hands-on science experiment.  Demonstrations are usually performed by the teacher and are typically used to illustrate a science concept.  Science experiments, on the other hand, give participants the opportunity to pose their own “what if . . .?” questions.  This inevitably leads to controlling a variable—changing some aspect of the procedure or the materials used to perform the experiment.   If no variable exists, then you don’t have an experiment; instead, you are merely demonstrating something.  It might be a very interesting or entertaining demonstration, but without a variable you can’t test anything.

That’s where this Boot Camp program starts.  The teachers at each grade level design a true science experiment that they model for their students.  Then the students run their own science experiment with the guidance and support of the teacher.  They learn the importance of a variable, standardized testing conditions, and the scientific method.  They learn to ask their “Big Question.”  They create a hypothesis or “I Think Statement.”  They run tests, collect and interpret data, make “Big Discoveries,” and ultimately try to formulate some conclusions.

The process we’re trying to drive home starting in 3rd grade is the idea of a discovery.  A discovery can be anything and it doesn’t have to be right or wrong, but you can’t lie.  At no point are you ever allowed to go back and touch your hypothesis or your prediction about what you think you might discover.  A hypothesis is just a guess.  It’s what you think.  The hypothesis isn’t the grade.  You don’t win if you say, “Hey, I guessed it right!”  I think you lose.  If you say it’s going to float every time and it does (see 1st grade chapter), then you didn’t push yourself in the first place or try anything unusual.  Every kid will say that a bowling ball is going to sink and when it floats, only then do they make a discovery.  With the discovery comes another experiment.   The scientist asks more questions, collects more data, compares it to the previous data, and sees what other questions arise.  Along the way he or she makes lots of little discoveries and then finally draws some conclusions.

My ultimate goal is that when students get to 5th grade they understand the difference between discovery and conclusion.  I like to compare it to watching an episode of CSI—the discovery happens about forty minutes into the show.  There are little discoveries along the way, but the “big discoveries” occur close to the end of the show, and in the last thirty seconds we get the conclusion.  The discovery leads you to all the things you did or thought that were wrong.  When you get to the conclusion, you tie it all together.  Your conclusion isn’t what you set out with at the beginning.  There’s always a little twist or turn.  Those twists and turns are what make the show interesting and, in a science experiment, are what keep the scientist exploring new ideas.

I like to use the acronym CCCOM to illustrate good scientific thinking.  Count, compare, classify, observe, and measure.  We should focus on this approach with all we do in science.  If the science we’re teaching doesn’t have at least several of these ideas, perhaps we should reconsider taking the time to teach it or at least adjust the method by which we are teaching it.  If a kid can’t count, compare, classify, observe, and measure, how can he or she make good decisions when he or she goes to buy a first car?  How can a kid ever know if something he or she sees on the Internet is true?  These are life skills we’re talking about.  You have to have a little skeptic in you to be able to notice when something doesn’t feel right and to know that you should ask questions or do a little research.

This Boot Camp program guides kids through this process.  It encourages kids to explore their ideas.  Test them out.  Were you correct?  What did you discover?   What would you do differently next time?  What else did this make you wonder about?  Did you write the conclusion in the last thirty seconds?  When you get to the 5th grade level, if you’re picking the right experiment, you are asking more questions than you could ever answer.  There are so many variables that there is no way you could get through them all.  Some teachers fall into the mold of: “Please submit your project by such and such a date and we will analyze it to see if this is a viable project.”  Why do we do that to kids?  We should be encouraging them to explore their ideas and natural sense of wonder while also teaching them the skills of scientific inquiry.

We need to be flexible and run in the direction our discoveries take us.  Teaching science is like jazz.  I know where I’m going to start and I know where I’m going to finish.  I just don’t know where I’m going to go in between. Every night I play it just a little bit different.  Every time I teach science it’s going to be a little bit different.  Every year you do the Boot Camp it will be slightly different.  Students will make different discoveries and want to take the experiment in different directions.  Allow them to do that even if it means taking a few extra days.  Kids learn that their ideas matter when they are given the time to ask questions and are encouraged to pursue the answers to those questions.  Boot Camp models critical thinking skills and, hopefully, prepares kids to explore ideas independently.  Even if the students never choose to do a science fair experiment on their own, they will leave Wilder Elementary having completed six real science projects.

If we’re going to effect change and we’re going to model something new, it has to be hard and you have to have resistance.  If you don’t, you’re just like the first grader who was always right in his sink/float predictions.   Getting started with the Boot Camp program isn’t easy.  Many teachers will be uncomfortable with changing they way they’ve been teaching science and with taking themselves outside of their box.   We found that to be true at Wilder, but if your school has a “Pied Piper” to lead the charge and motivate the staff to try something new, we think you’ll be very glad you put forth the effort.  The kids are ready and want to participate in hands-on, engaging science activities much more than they want to learn science out of a textbook.  The parents are excited to hear their kids talking about science at the dinner table and recounting the awesome discoveries they’re making under the guidance of their wonderful teacher.

To be successful, however, the staff has to be on the same page.  Every class in each grade level needs to do the same project and needs to share what is working and what isn’t.  Each grade level needs to hear from the others what is going on in their classrooms, what successes they are having, how the kids’ thinking is changing, and what they need help with.  Frequent feedback amongst the staff helps teachers know what is coming and helps them anticipate how they might want to change or extend their experiment based on what kids at younger grades have experienced.  By 5th grade, the students are ready to go and the teachers have a chance to hit a home run.  Give them the support they need and let them go.

My hypothesis is that over a period of time we will see an advancement not only in the kids, but also in the teachers and the parents.  We just completed year five of our seven year pilot program at Wilder Elementary.  I believe we are really going to see evidence of great advancement at year seven when we interview the middle school science teachers.  Hopefully they will have seen growth in student background knowledge and independent thinking.  We are seeing the proof that our program is working already.  The teachers are experiencing “aha” moments and the kids are growing leaps and bounds in their scientific self-confidence and background knowledge.   Parents are much more comfortable with the voluntary spring Science Fair because their kids already know what to do.  They aren’t the ones teaching science and trying to figure out what to do and how to do it when their child says they want to do the Science Fair.

Please take what Wilder has done and adjust it for what works for you and your students.  You don’t have to re-invent the wheel.  Learn from the teachers at Wilder as they share their projects and progress.  Now, slow down and allow kids to wonder, discover, and explore.