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Helping Your Student With the Project

Being there for unconditional support is the most important thing you can do by far, but your child may need help in other ways.

Once the student has chosen a topic, narrowed it down to a testable question, and had it approved by the teacher, it's time to begin planning and designing the procedure (often referred to as the experiment). Some students are able to do this entirely on their own, but many benefit from a parent's help. Here's how you can assist with the procedure stage:

Designing a procedure takes time. Suggest that you jump-start the process together by brainstorming and taking notes. You can get the brainstorming rolling by throwing out questions, but it should quickly turn into a back-and-forth process, with the student doing the note-taking and sketching.

Once the plan for the procedure is finalized, you can make a shopping list together (see our Shopping Checklist for ideas).

Schedule a day when you both have plenty of time to devote to the experiment itself. This part requires focus and precision, but it should also be fun, not stressful. Set aside enough time to repeat the procedure several times. This is the time to get excited about science—to get messy, make mistakes, try new things, take off on tangents if it sparks new ideas.

Remind your child to take careful notes and record all data and observations along the way. You can help by taking photographs of every step, so that your child's hands can be free for hands-on science.

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Process of Investigation

The terms “investigation” and “experiment” are sometimes used interchangeably. We define investigation as a science fair project that uses scientific methods (which includes an experiment) to carry out an investigation.

Here's an explanation with more detail:

During an investigation, the student starts out with a question based on a scientific problem; develops a hypothesis (or educated guess) as to the answer; designs and performs an experiment to test the hypothesis; documents and analyzes the results; and draws a conclusion.

The key to a good investigation is what is called a “testable question.” Often, students may want to ask broad questions, such as “How is a galaxy formed?” This is an excellent science question, but it's not an investigation question. To find out about galaxy formation, the student reads about research that others have done and reports on it. In a science investigation, the student asks a question that can be answered by doing the science, collecting data, and making sense of the data.

The table below shows how testable questions could be addressed in an investigation. Any of the variables could be chosen as the changed or “independent” variable.

Easier level (recommended for elementary)
Testable Question What is changed? What stays the same? Data collected
What amount of water is best to grow tomatoes? Amount of water (.5L, 1L, 2L) Soil, amount of light, type of plant, temperature, location Height of each plant over time
What type of paper makes the best paper airplane? Type of paper Design of plane, size of paper, thrust, air currents Distance plane travels using the same amount of thrust
Does the sun heat salt water and fresh water at the same rate? Salinity of the water (grams of salt per liter) Container, starting temperature Temperature over time (1 hour)
What is the best insulator to keep ice from melting? Type of insulation in a container Amount of ice, starting temperature Time for ice to completely melt
Complex level (recommended for middle school)
Middle School Level Testable Questions What is changed? (Independent Variable) What stays the same? (Controlled Variables) Data collected (Dependent Variables)
Which combination of lubricants will work best on a wheel?* Individual lubricants and combinations of lubricants Wheel size, axel type, thrust to start the wheel, Distance wheel will spin for each combination of lubricants
Which detergent removes stains the best? Type of detergent, type of stain Type of cloth, physical process of stain removal Stain fading over time for combinations of detergents and stains

Process of Invention (solving a real world problem)

Some students may opt to do an invention rather than an investigation for their project. What does this mean, exactly? The word “invention” connotes everything from mad scientists with wacky contraptions to such revolutionary advances as the invention of the airplane, telephone and Internet. For the purposes of school science fairs, inventions can be fairly simple. However, they must follow certain criteria to be deemed official.

The invention must serve a purpose and solve a real problem. The change or solution must be measureable – in other words, we have to be able to prove that the change made a difference. It must be completely original (meaning no one else has made the same thing before). It can also be something that improves an object previously invented by someone else or takes it in a completely different direction. An invention can also be a model of something that would work better in real life.

Thinking up invention ideas can be a fun exercise for the whole family. Look in the kitchen or the garage, visit a hardware or home improvement store. Look for simple devices that solve a problem (like “chip clips,” designed to prevent potato chips from going stale) or poorly designed products that drive you crazy. Keep the problem that the invention solves within the student's reach. Or suggest using a model. Improving the local bridge may not be possible, but using a model to show how it could be improved is.

Just as with an investigation, the student must outline and document every step along the way. Remind your child that the process is just as important as the final product—which means mistakes and problems should be treated as valuable steps (rather than sources of frustration) and documented along with other notes and sketches in a record-keeping journal.