For many parents, there’s nothing more challenging than helping their kids with a school science fair project. Knowing that the project will make a big impact on your child’s grade—and that the deadline is fast approaching—can lead to a stressful situation. But with careful planning, good resources, and the answers below, you can help ensure that the science fair project is a positive learning experience.
Q: How can a parent help a student narrow down the possibilities and choose a science project topic?
A: Always keep in mind your limitations and use them to your advantage. Talk to your student about what you have time for and what supplies you already have or could easily obtain. These limitations can help students pick a realistic project that is less stressful to carry out.
Also, try to find connections between your student’s science fair project and his or her other interests. Pick a topic that allows students to learn something new they can apply in a sport, to a hobby, or to everyday life.
Q: Are science projects all supposed to be experiments? Or can they just be learning and presenting something about science?
A: Your answer may depend on the guidelines of your child’s school. And keep in mind that the requirements for an elementary school science far project may be quite different from those for a high school science fair project! In general, science fair projects fall into one of three main categories: research, experimental, or demonstration of how nature works.
In a research project, students compare and contrast data from studies already conducted in order to answer a question they have developed. For example, if a student is interested in what species can survive in outer space, he or she could collect several studies on this topic and use the evidence presented in them to develop an answer to the question.
An experiment is what most people think of when they think of science fair projects. In this approach, students follow the steps of the scientific method in order to design an experiment that provides answers to a question that interests them.
Students can demonstrate how nature works by building models. Models can be built by hand or on a computer and are more engaging when they are interactive. When visitors (or judges) visit a science fair project, concepts are instantly more relatable if they can push a button or move some part of the model and observe the results.
Q: Where can we look for science fair project ideas? How can we research what’s already been done?
A: We all know that the internet is a wonderful resource, but not all sites are appropriate for children, so be prepared to provide supervision appropriate to your child’s age. It also can be challenging to narrow down your options. Try being very specific with the keywords you use, such as “science fair projects for 8th grade” or “middle school science fair projects.” Course-related searches, such as “biology science fair project” or “chemistry science fair projects,” may also assist in narrowing your results.
To get you started, here are some reliable recommended online resources that offer project suggestions, advice for parents, and sources of publicly available data.
|Steve Spangler Science Fair Experiments||www.stevespanglerscience.com||K–12||Elementary school science fair project ideas
Middle school science fair project ideas
High school science fair project ideas
|Jet Propulsion Laboratory: How to Do a Science Fair Project?||www.jpl.nasa.gov||K–12, parents||Article|
|Public Broadcasting Service (PBS): How to Help Children with Science Projects without Doing It for Them||www.pbs.org||Parents||Article|
|Science Buddies||www.sciencebuddies.org||K–12||Elementary school science fair project ideas
Middle school science fair project ideas
High school science fair project ideas
|U.S. government publicly available data||www.data.gov||6–12||Research / data source|
|Animals in Curriculum-Based Ecosystem Studies (ACES)||www.signalsofspring.net/aces||K–12||Research / data source|
|National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)||www.noaa.gov||6–12||Research / data source|
|National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)||www.nasa.gov||6–12||Research / data source|
Q: How do you know if a topic is really a good one?
A: A good topic should have two main qualities: it should be related to a student’s interests, and it should aim to answer a new question, or share new data.
Finding a topic that is “new” can be kind of tricky to achieve, as students tend to be drawn to similar ideas and themes. One thing to remember is that your student’s project can be related to a common topic/question but designed to provide new insights. This can be achieved by designing an experiment that makes unique comparisons by collecting two related data sets or by comparing their data to related publicly available data. For example, a student interested in studying rainfall could make this topic more engaging by measuring the amount of rainfall and comparing it to cloud cover or to historic averages for an area.
Q: Is it necessary for a science project to be unique or different from those of the other students in my child’s class? If so, how different does it need to be?
A: Whether or not students can submit similar projects may depend on the guidelines set up by individual schools. Be sure to check in with your student’s teachers about this before your child decides on a science fair topic. Many students have similar interests, and different years seem to have their own trends. If students are permitted to submit similar projects, it might be a good idea to have your student check in with the others working with the same topic. This group can decide to proceed in one of two ways in order to support each other’s findings.
Each student could pick a slightly different approach to the science fair project topic and share their results. Students could reference each other’s findings in their own projects to support their specific topic. Another approach would be to have all students work on the same topic and follow the same procedure. The more trials a study has, the more reliable are the results. Students could combine their results in order to increase their number of trials and use each other’s data in their own projects. Both of these processes realistically model how scientists work together to make important discoveries.
Q: What if the student tries an experiment and it fails? What do we do then? How can the student complete the project? Do we have to find another project? Will the student fail?
A: The practice of science in the real world is full of unknowns and unexpected results. If the results of your student’s science fair project do not turn out as expected, the project did not fail! The goal of a science fair project is to give students the opportunity to apply the scientific process to a topic of their choice. Learning that a hypothesis was incorrect is still learning something new. Students can use the conclusion part of their project to explain why their hypothesis was incorrect and what they have learned about the topic.
If a science fair project fails to the point that no data is able to be collected, there is still hope! Try changing the procedure in order to increase your chances of producing useable data. Your student’s teacher may be able to help you develop your new approach. If you find yourself short on time, change the procedure so that what you study does not require as much time. It is better to try to stick to a similar topic rather than completely change it. Students can explain what happened during their first attempt, how they changed their approach, and how their data changed as a result. This process is a more realistic model of how science works than getting everything “right” on the first try.
Q: What kind of supplies will parents need to supply for science projects?
A: The supplies needed will vary depending on the nature of the science fair project selected. However, every great science fair project should include a clear display of the work conducted and a clear display of the results. Typically, a trifold poster board is a reliable way to accomplish this. You may want to encourage your student to write up his or her findings, as well as create charts and graphs, on a computer and print them out for better legibility. Have lots of colored paper on hand to make borders around the different components on the poster in order to draw clear divisions and make them stand out.
In addition to the presentation, parents should take inventory of the items they might already have around the house. Many components needed for experiments and models can be built with common household items. If you run into a specialized piece of equipment your student needs, conduct an online search to see if there are alternatives to it or if there is a way to build something similar with everyday items.
Q: How can a parent get a student interested and motivated to do a good job on a science project, especially if that student is not normally interested in science?
A: If students are not that interested in science, take notice of topics that they are interested in and use those topics to your advantage. If your students like music, encourage them to design a study around how music affects mood or how sound travels. If they are interested in dance or sports, encourage them to build a working model of a specific muscle group or to conduct a study in aerodynamics of the human body.
Another suggestion for students who are more socially motivated is to design a project around surveying other people. This approach lends itself to a wide variety of topics while allowing students to be more socially active in their approach. For example, students can collect other people’s reaction times when catching an object in different situations, or simply ask others questions about their preferences regarding a specific topic. Survey projects are a great way to engage students interested in the humanities as well as other topics not typically thought of as related to science.
Remember, the most important part of a science fair project is that students learn something useful. Guide students to pick a topic that will lead to a deeper understanding of something they already have an interest in. This will keep students engaged and ultimately result in a better science fair project—and a better learning experience!
What are some of the most successful ways you have engaged your student in exploring science? Share your brightest ideas in the comments.