Science Fair Projects: A Guide for Students (and Parents)

The purpose of this post is to list simple steps to create a Science Fair Project. 

So, you decided to do a science fair project?  

Whether it is required or not, completing the project can be a great experience.   

Let’s start with the obvious.  

Why do a Science Fair Project?  

What are the benefits?

Science Fair projects offer the opportunity to learn: 
  •       the Scientific Method,
  •          presentation skills,
  •          research techniques,
  •          elevator speeches,
  •          real world applications,
  •          persuasive writing,
  •          time management,
  •          project management,
  •          how to work as a team,
  •          how to interview an expert,
  •          and how to artistically and graphically present material visually.

Many adults use these skills everyday in our careers.  A Science Fair Project is the perfect time to start practicing job qualifications that will help you in high school, college and beyond. 

As the mom of 4 kids ranging from grade school to high school, a former scientist, current coach for robotics/sports teams and occasionally a judge for science fairs at the middle school and high school level, I have spent a lot of time thinking about, observing and researching what makes a great science fair project.  My goals for this post are to inspire innovation by listing easy to follow steps, so more energy can be spent on the creative, innovative and technological parts of the project.  In short, make the basics easy so the focus can be on fun!

Disclaimer:  every school, science or STEM fair and teacher are unique and different.  The most important guideline is to follow the directions for your unique class, school and fair.  

What is the Scientific Method?

The Scientific Method is a list of steps that help scientists learn about the world around them.

Step 1:  What question do you want to answer or problem do you want to solve?

Step 2: Research information, products and past studies about your question or problem.

Step 3: Form a hypothesis (predict what will happen!)

Step 4: Test your hypothesis by doing an experiment or creating a design.

Step 5: Analyze your results and form a conclusion.

For an Experiment: Analyze the data from the experiment to draw a conclusion.

For a Design: How well did the Design do at solving the problem and what revisions could you make to make it even better. 

Step 6: Share the results through visual aids (diagrams, charts, videos, photos, tables etc.) & presentations. 

Step 1: Start with an idea, question or problem.

Ideas for projects can come from anywhere!  You should choose something you are truly passionate about and willing to spend the extra time to learn more about.  Do not choose a project because you already have the equipment or a parent works in that field or it is the first one you saw in a book of science fair projects.  See below for a list of places to search for inspiration.  Keep in mind that science is the study of the world around us and a way for humans to make our lives and the world even better.

Project inspiration points include:

  •          trips to museums or zoos,
  •          library book on science,
  •          subject in school,
  •          problem in our everyday lives,
  •          a news, magazine or online article,
  •          YouTube video,
  •          a favorite product that could be better,
  •          issue in the local community, or
  •         technology behind a favorite extracurricular or hobby.

Again, the most important part of choosing a project is that you as the student are excited to learn more about it.  Make sure to clear the concept of the project with your teacher.  Early in the process is the best time to change the scope and subject.  And teachers have seen so many projects over the years they will know from experience which ones will or will not work. 

Determine what type of Science Fair Project you are doing:  Experiment or Design.
Most fairs will allow you to choose one or the other.  

An experimental project answers a question: “Which brand of fertilizer grows the tallest Tomato plants”.  

A design project involves creating a unique creation that solves a problem: “A tablet and phone charging stand that does not take up shelf space”.   

Both involve using the scientific method to create, test and explain the results. 

Step 2: Research! Research!  Research
Science Fair Projects include a paper, normally in a 3-ring binder or other fair specific format.  The Paper should include a section on research for the topic.  Students should use as many sources as possible and list them in a section of citations/sources. 

Sources of research on a topic include:

  •         online web search,
  •          books,
  •          magazines,
  •          YouTube,
  •          Experts that work in the field (family and friends),
  •          Newspapers, etc.
A varied list and large quantity of research sources will lead to a better project.  Work with your child to come up with a list of questions for about the project, so they have somewhere to start.

Examples: Do they need to understand more about computer coding?  How are traffic patterns are affected by rush hour? What happens when we eat too much sugar?  What makes a building withstand a hurricane?  Why does it cost so much to send something into space?  What chemical is in sunscreen that makes one work better than another? What elements on the periodic table make steel so strong?

Like a bright and persistent 4-year-old, keep asking… Why? Why? Why? Until they have at least 10-25 questions to research.  They should choose the questions that seem most likely to help with their project and start researching.  

Keep copies of articles and their findings in a binder along with the URL, and all the information required for their list of sources.  A large section of your research should include definitions and equations.  

Include a glossary of terms as well as any equations or diagrams to explain a scientific concept/definition that is essential to understanding your project, for example:  the equation for E=MC2, the water cycle, parts of a flower, definition of hydrogen, who Gregor Mendel is, a list of the questions and answers from your interview with a medical doctor, physicist or environmental scientist, etc.

If you come across additional information during the project, add it to this section. 

Step 3: using your research, create a Hypothesis 

Predict the outcome of the design or experiment.

A hypothesis is a supposition or explanation (theory) that is provisionally accepted in order to interpret certain events or phenomena.  And to provide guidance for further investigation.  It may be proved correct or wrong.
Or simply put, a Hypothesis is what you think will happen or predict will happen during your experiment or with your design.  

Examples:  the plant that is grown in pure sunlight will not do as well as one grown with additional UV light, the larger wheels on my LEGO racer will allow it to go farther over rough terrain, kids that eat large quantities of candy before a math test will do better… My kids are still trying to prove that last one.  So far results are inconclusive…

Step 4: Test your hypothesis. 
Creating an experiment involves 3 major decisions:  

List the variables (what will be changed) and control (what will not be changed) during the test, list the materials needed to do the experiment and finally, list the step by step procedure needed to do the experiment. 

A variable is any factor that can be controlled, changed or measured in an experiment

A control is a sample that remains the same through the experiment. 

Materials include everything needed to complete the experiment.  If you use your phone to time how long it takes for salt to dissolve, then list your phone as a material.  If you use sunlight in your kitchen to grow a plant, list the sunlight.  For materials it is extremely important to list exactly how much you are using in the metric measurements (meters, liters, seconds in the sunlight etc.) and for unique items, list where you obtained the materials (a school science supply company in North Carolina, my aunt’s metal fabrication factory). 

When creating your procedure, be careful to include all steps needed to prepare the experiment, when you put on any safety equipment, what you used to measure the data (ruler or visual observation), how you recorded the data (video camera or pencil and paper).  That may be something as simple as using a graduated cylinder to measure 5 mL of water to waiting until the copper tubing reached room temperature before attaching it to a battery. 

Design an experiment that will answer your question or create a prototype that will solve the problem. 

Step 5: Analyze your results and form a conclusion.

In this step, look at the data you collected.  Compare the data to what you thought would happen in your hypothesis.  

Is it the same or different than what you expected? Why?  
What new information have you learned from doing the experiment or creating the design? 

Create a conclusion about your results.  

Examples:  Paying more for a brand name toothpaste does not clean your teeth better.  The cell phone holder that has flexible grips is a better design for storing on a variety of desks and tables.

Step 6: Share the results through visual aids: diagrams, charts, graphs, videos, photos, tables.

Elevator Speech for Experts and other interested parties
Prepare an elevator speech.  

An elevator speech is a convincing speech that lasts the length of an elevator ride typically 1-2 minutes.  This speech should focus on what your science fair project is, why you did it and what you learned.  It may also end with you explaining what you would do next to further your research.  

When preparing this speech, try to make it clear and easy enough for a third grader to understand.  Don’t use words that you don’t understand.  IF you do need to use a technical term, make sure you give a brief definition.  After all, the judge or interested listener may have been out sick the day that was covered in high school.  

If necessary, use index cards to keep you on track and focused.  But more importantly be aware of your audience and be prepared for questions during your speech.  The more excited you are about your project, the more excited they will be too!

Project Presentation for Judges and Fans
The judges’ presentation is a little more formal than your elevator speech.  Expect to go step by step through your experiment, carefully walking the judges across your science fair board like a well-trained tour guide.  

Don’t leave any major heading out and feel free to share short anecdotal stories, like we almost finished the first set of experiments when my dog knocked over the test tubes and we were forced to start over.  Science is messy and not normally a direct path.  By keeping your “story” interesting, you will not only keep the judges interested, but also show how you are learning to be a true scientist, which besides having fun is the true purpose of a science fair project. 

Point to your visual aids, photos and charts and tables as you speak to emphasize each part of your presentation. 

Project Report
Your project report should be neatly created as a word document.  Include spacing and headings that are bolded and if you can, use tabs to separate the different parts if using a 3-ring binder.  

Again, defer to the rules, directions and guidelines of the science fair YOU are participating in for the best list of what to include in your report.

Most project reports will contain the following headings:
  •          Project Summary (Abstract)Purpose: question or problem
  •          Hypothesis
  •          List of Materials
  •          Variables to be tested
  •          Procedure Step by Step in detail
  •          Data collected 
    • (included photos, raw data labeled with proper measurement, multiple versions of the design project prototype with drawings and models)
  •          Results and Conclusions
  •          How you would make the project better or develop further
  •          List of Resources for Research (Citations, Experts)
  •          Acknowledgements: Thank all the people that helped with the project (start with your teachers and parents…)
  •          Safety checklist and list of possible safety hazards

Project Tri-fold Exhibit Board

Back when I was a kid, they didn’t have convenient tri-fold displays at my local office supply store.  I remember having to use duct tape and construction foam from the hardware store to create my own.  

Lucky for parents now, you can easily obtain a trifold board – often in a fun solid color- from almost any big box or office store with sticky backed, repositionable letters conveniently sold alongside it.  Go bold!  Pick Black and use neon lettering… pick yellow and choose holographic letters… the choices are endless. 


Tips for your Science Fair Board

  • Read through the directions and requirement for your specific school science fair
  •  Create a checklist for your specific science fair so you do not forget a required part on the board
  • Make your title easy to read from 10 feet away
  • Use proper Grammar and spelling
  •  Print out or use pre-cut letters so they are easy to read
  • Use colorful backings on the different parts to make them stand out
  •  Organize the board to guide the reader through your project logically
  • Do not hand write anything on the board.  Public libraries and schools will normally let you print out pages for free or a low cost per page.  Titles printed out large and cut to fit on the board will be much easier to read than words drawn by hand.  Ask your teacher at school if you or they can print them out for you if you don’t have a working printer at home.
  • All text should be at least 16 point         
  • Be neat.  Artistic creativity is great but a clean and clear board that is easy to read is much better. 

Sections and headings to include on your tri-fold Science Fair Board:
  • Title of Project
  • Student name
  • Purpose of Project
  • Research
  • Hypothesis
  • List of Materials
  • Procedure or Method
  • Data with Photos/Diagrams
  • Conclusion/Results
  • Future Research or Improvements
  • Acknowledgements and List of Resources (Bibliography) 
  • (This is a great place to say thank you to the parents that let you store petri dishes in the fridge, drove miles to pick up an extra tri-fold or library book and patiently listened to you practice your talk for the 54th time in a row.)

In Conclusion…Participating in a Science Fair can be one of the most important and fun parts of your academic life as the many aspects of doing a project help teach actual real-life skills that you will use as an adult.  

A good elevator speech can help you gain a promotion or raise.  The ability to create a good board will make using graphics or social media software a breeze.  The skills needed to organize a project will help with project management for a large company.  The writing needed to clearly explain in your report, or the speech will be necessary for basic business communication. 

My number one tip for science fair projects is to have fun!  Science is messy, unpredictable, complicated and fascinating!  Sometimes the greatest gains in technology come from the most unexpected experiments or designs.  

Good luck from @4chances2parent!  See you at the science fair!

Additional Resources:  See the below list of resources that helped me write this post and for more information

A big thank you to all of my science teachers for helping me learn and love science!

Heather is a mom to 4 awesome kids.  She loves reading children’s books in silly voices, visiting museums & libraries, singing along with the car radio, seeing kid-placed glitter & stickers on other parents, & tiring out her kids by spending time with them outdoors. 

Find me on Twitter @4chances2parent 

And Instagram 4chances2parent.  

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