Here are some insights to the middle school science fair experience from my own experiences. For more detailed information beyond these tips, and for examples from my own award winning projects, see the Guide to Middle School Science Fairs Workbook available for purchase. See the products page for a full list of the Science Fair Girl products and services.
While you’re trying to pick a topic for your project, remember one rule:
Don’t try to cure cancer; that’s not what the judges are looking for. Have fun; pick a project that interests you. If you like the subject, you will have fun doing the project. If you can’t think of anything, just make a list of your activities and interests. Next circle your top ten, and write a question or something you’ve always wondered about the activity next to it. Lastly, rank these top ten, with 1 being your favorite and 10 being your least favorite idea.
You need to keep a record of what you do on your project. You can use a composition notebook, or any kind of notebook where you cannot remove or add pages will work. Keeping an electronic log on your computer and later printing it out is not acceptable. It is important to follow the scientific method in order. Your logbook is supposed to be a step by step record of how you performed your experiment. If you have a logbook that could be easily rearranged, judges may doubt you followed the correct order. When you start your notebook, leave a page or two for a “Table of Contents.” You need to number and date each page. Also leave a couple lines on the bottom of each page for your advisor to sign. If you finish an entry and still have at least half a page left, start on a fresh page for your next entry. Always use pen and NEVER use white-out, cross out mistakes with a single line.
You should write in your journal at least twice a week. Write everything that has to do with your project in your journal: brainstorming notes, research notes, experiment ideas, design sketches, data, conclusions, and progress updates. You can tape in your research off the internet, but draw a thin zig-zag line across one edge so that it is clear that this was not later added. Once you are done with your project, but before the fair, go back and put a simple x through the blank sections.
Use different types of sources for your research: books, internet, magazines, and interviews. If you open a book but don’t really use it in your project, you can use it as a source. Don’t use completely off-topic sources though. While you read, take notes in your logbook. Also, when you begin reading a source, open your logbook to the last page and write down the source information. You should ask your teacher how he or she wants you to do this. Also, be careful with sources off the internet. If you’re not completely sure that the source you have is a knowledgeable one, ask your parent or teacher.
OK. You have a topic; now what do you do with it? Design an experiment of course. Experiments, like topics, should be kept simple. There are two parts to an experiment: the controls and the variables.
A control is the part of the experiment that stays the same. If your experiment involves testing the best way to store milk, a control would be taking all your milk from the same bottle of milk which was bought the day the experiment began and also make sure the same amount of milk is used in each trial. Controls help you determine exactly what is affecting your results.
Variables are the parts of the experiment you change to test specific conditions and that are responsible for the results. Variables help you make comparisons and find what has the biggest effect on the results. Using the same milk example, a variable may be to use three types of milk or three brands of milk to see which holds up better. You should have between 3 and 4 variables.
The experiment itself should be simple and repeatable. It is most important that the experiment be repeatable. Also, remember that judges like lots and lots of data, so design an experiment with lots of repetitions. You can’t run an experiment once and use that data; run the experiment 20-50 times and take an average (the sum of the experimental data divided by the number of trials).
A hypothesis is an educated guess you make about the results of your Hypothesis. You should have completed some research, and have designed your experiment before you create your hypothesis question. Make sure you have an explanation for why you feel your hypothesis is correct—this is a popular question for judges.
It’s OK if your hypothesis turns out to be wrong! So don’t try to cheat by writing your hypothesis after you’ve done your experiment. Write your hypothesis before you take down any data. If your hypothesis is wrong, it is a good idea to figure out why. Run an extra test, or do some more research to figure out where you went wrong and what really happened.
Before you run your experiment, think about what variables you are going to measure and set up a data chart. Let’s use the milk example again. Below is a possible data chart. Always record your data in your logbook.
|Trial Number||Brand of Milk||Storage Method||Days Before it Went sour|
|1||Hood||Closed container in the refrigerator||7|
So now you have a page of data, time to analyze it. First take each group of data and write down three figures for each: mean, range, and mode.
These figures will help you analyze your data. The next thing that will help is to make a few graphs. There are a bunch of different types of graphs; I find that the best for analyzing data are bar graphs. A bar graph allows you to view the data from all your variables at the same time so you can compare them.
To display data for multiple categories or to get a good “big picture” graph you can use a multiple bar graph.
You might want to make a frequency graph. This is a graph
that plots the data against the number of times it appears in the
complete data set. This will give you a visual idea of how
accurate your data is. The graphs should look somewhat like an
upside down U. There should be one data point that appears the
most, and the data points around that point should be almost as
frequent. This is called a bell curve.
The report should include the following sections:
Purpose Statement or Question: a short paragraph should begin your paper which states why you’re completing this project. It should also contain your official Purpose Statement or Question (depending on the type of project you have). Ex. Which brand of milk takes the longest to sour?
Brief Explanation of Experiment: a short paragraph telling the reader what you are testing for and how. Just provide a summary, don’t get too technical.
Hypothesis Statement: What do you think your results are going to be? Tell your reader here, and why you think these will be the results.
Procedure: Write a step by step account of how you preformed the experiment so that another person can repeat the experiment. This can either be written as a list of instructions or as a narrative written like a story in the past tense. Ask your teacher which he/she prefers. Be sure to include a list of the materials you used.
Analysis of Data: Talk about the trends in the data. Going back to the milk experiment, did one brand of milk do better all around? Is one brand better in the refrigerator but not as good when left on the counter? If some of your data is questionable or if there is a strange trend in one set of data talk about it here and try to explain it.
Conclusion: Was your hypothesis correct or not? If not, why not?
Remember that everyone who reads your report may not be familiar with your subject, so if you use technical terms be sure to define them clearly.
When creating a display, there are a few things to remember:
See the examples of display boards and display set-ups in the photo gallery.
The speech is a very important part of the judging process. You need to check with you teacher or your State’s Science Fair website for the exact length of speech necessary. Everyone has a different style; some like to just start talking and not have any plan for the course of their talk, others have a general outline and work their way from point to point, and still others plan word for word what they are going to say. Index cards help some people and get in the way for others. You need to find the style that works best for you. If you’re the type who likes to write your speech word for word, make sure you leave an extra minute or go 30 seconds over depending on whether you speed up or slow down when you are nervous. Also leave room for questions from the judge — we all hate questions, but it's part of the judging process. Whatever your style, you need to cover those same main sections of your project and you need to PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE. It doesn’t matter if you’re in front of your mirror, your parents, or your dog, but practice talking about your project so that you don’t get nervous when it's time for the real deal.
When it’s time to give the speech make sure you make eye contact with the judge. Don’t look at your feet, and don’t read straight from your index cards. Use your board and display items; point to things, that’s what they are there for! Don’t be afraid to smile. This is your project and you spent a lot of time on it; be proud of it, but be respectful of the judges. Treat the judges as you would a teacher, but don’t assume that they are experts on your topic. When the judge asks you questions; it’s OK not to know the answer. Don’t lie, and don’t try to fudge your way through an answer. Just admit that you don’t know the answer. The judges aren’t trying to stump you, they are trying to see what you know about your subject. If you have an idea about the answer but aren’t sure, tell the judge your not sure but you think the answer is such-a-such because you know this-and-that about your subject. And lastly: HAVE FUN.