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Whether the words "science fair" fill you with excitement or dread, it's an experience most parents will endure at some point during their child's school career. Yes, the prospect of a science fair project can be daunting. But with smart planning and the right resources, the whole experience can be manageable, enjoyable—even fun!—for parents and students alike. Think of it as a learning opportunity for the entire family, including younger siblings who can watch, absorb, and come up with hypotheses and ideas of their own.

For those phobic about all things scientific, keep an open mind: You'll likely find today's approach to science education much more interesting than when you were a kid. With an emphasis on hands-on investigations, field work, and doing science like a “real scientist,” school science is more relevant, creative than ever.

Your child will be learning about the scientific method, and a whole lot more. The science fair experience builds many important skills: self-discipline, time management, project management, and written, verbal and visual communication skills, to name a few. The importance of patience and precision comes into play nearly ever step of the way. Whether this plays to your child's strengths or presents challenges, it is immensely valuable.

Advance planning is key for all involved. Get a handle on the scope of the entire process right from the start. That way you'll be able to anticipate the workload and figure out how it will fit within the context of your student's schedule of school work and extracurricular activities. (Not to mention your own schedule!)

The better prepared you are as a parent, the more time your child will have to tinker, investigate, measure, observe, make mistakes, try new things, and get the most out of the process.

What is the parent's role?

The parent's role is not exactly hands-on, but not exactly hands-off either. Think of yourself as chief facilitator. Your place is in the back seat, hands folded (make that clasped!) in your lap, with the student at the wheel (except, of course, for those trips to the craft store and transporting delicate 3-D models and tri-fold display boards).

Based on your available time, you may end up wearing several hats: lab assistant, personal shopper, deadline cop. Be there for moral support, to help gather supplies, keep an eye on the calendar, monitor progress, and to make sure things don't (unintentionally) explode, catch on fire, or slip through the cracks.

Regardless of your level of expertise in science, consider volunteering to help in the classroom or at the science fair itself. Teachers usually welcome extra help, as well as students whose parents may not have as much time to help as they'd like.

Towards the end of the process, build in time to listen to your child rehearse the oral presentation. Be a kind audience member, give gentle reminders and a bit of constructive criticism, and ask helpful questions. Do some role playing and add some humor if your child doesn't respond well to the exercise.

On the day of the science fair, your job is to keep things calm and cool, and to remind your child to relax and enjoy the event. If a competition is involved, consider doing something special back at home that evening. Back a special cake, or have a sibling make a hand-made ribbon or trophy to honor their hard work, regardless of where they placed.

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How do I help my student come up with a project idea?

Choosing a topic is a difficult task, as the possibilities can seem endless. Parents can help with subtle suggestions and reality checks, but students should ultimately come up with their own idea based on their own personal interests - one they'll be motivated to stick with over the 6-week period.

You can set students up for an interest in science by providing opportunities to learn about exciting technological advances as well as practical, everyday applications of science all around them. Watch a television science program together. Propose a trip to a science museum or go to the museum's on-line web site. Discuss a science news article from the newspaper or a magazine. A trip to the science section of your local library can help to spark ideas or to fine-tune existing ones.

For those who are scientifically inclined, try to resist the urge to propose ideas of your own. Instead, use your knowledge of how scientists come up with their own questions to get your child to think about what they would like to learn and what kind of investigation they'd like to conduct. Remember that children don't have the same background and experiences as adults. Something that seems to be common knowledge to you will be new to them and worth exploring and learning on their own. Science projects should be about experiencing the process of science.

Some science fairs include inventions and problem solving. If your student is interested in that angle of science and engineering, discuss things around them that may be frustrating and that could be improved by changing them. Watch some of the television programs on engineering and inventing. Look at inventions in museums. Even social engineering is fair game – could they, for example, think of how to get people throw away less and recycle more? What change would they make and how would they measure that change?

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Project Ideas 101

Educate yourself upfront, before you begin any brainstorming. In order to advise on the feasibility of a project idea, you need to understand the basic framework and requirements of the entire process. It's one thing to come with an enthusiastic idea, quite another to come up with an workable, testable project.

Visit Getting Started. Click here to find everything you need to know to help your child come up with a winning idea.

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Types of Science Fair Projects

Science Fair projects can get very confusing. There are basically three types.

The science report: students have an interest in learning something that is already known. What are galaxies? How are coral reefs endangered? How does a laser work? These projects are interesting, but it must be noted that they do not actually allow students to practice science. Students do learn a lot about what other scientists have done, but the student doesn't actually conduct an investigation or create anything (other than a nice display). Students may make models and they may even repeat some data they have found, but it's still a science report.

The experimental investigation: this is where students ask “testable” questions and roll up their sleeves and practice science. The science fair is a unique opportunity for them to experience the whole science process. Students ask a testable question, identify simple variables, research the background on the question, propose a hypothesis, conduct the investigation, collect data, and draw a conclusion. Even when the project is simple and an adult might know the answer, the student benefits from practicing the science process and finding out for him or herself.

The invention: some students like to see their results put to practical use. They see a local problem, such as a backpack that is too heavy and propose a solution. What makes it scientific is that the change they propose is measured and recorded in some way. The student comes away with proof that the solution worked or it didn't work.

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How much time will we need?

Now this is an area where students can definitely use a parent's help. Together you should build a realistic timeline for completing the project. It's okay to tweak it slightly here and there along the way, as long as a solid framework is in place and the final deadlines are in full view. Most investigations and inventions take a considerable amount of time to prepare, complete, analyze, and document. Anticipate errors, spillages, roadblocks, revisions, and occasional student meltdowns.

A critical point is the decision about the investigation or invention. How much time will it take to set up and collect all the data? Make sure the topic, question, or idea fits within the time frame. Don't forget to subtract the time it will take to put the display together and prepare – usually a couple of weeks.

Keep tabs on major deadlines and mini deadlines, using a wall calendar in your kitchen or other high-traffic area. Keep extra supplies on hand for all stages of the procedure and presentation. Help kids anticipate what they'll need and when they'll need it, which in turn may help prevent parent meltdowns. (“You need what? Where are we going to buy double-sided tape at 10 p.m.??”)

View sample below. Be sure to check with your science fair leader for exact deadlines for your own particular fair.

Parent Tip:

Start with the end in mind: Usually, it will take about two weeks to prepare the presentation. So the investigation phase, including collecting all the data, has to be done before then.

  • Mark your calendar for the date that the presentation displays must be delivered to the school (usually one or two days before the science fair).
  • Back it up two weeks. That's when the data collection has to be completed. Mark the date.
  • Back that up the amount of time it will take to buy or obtain materials, set up the investigations and complete collecting the data, 3 – 4 weeks depending on the project. Mark that date.
  • Back that up a week for topic choice and background research. Mark the date and get started!
Sample Timeline for Science Fair Project
Activity Time BSF (before the science fair)
Decide on topic and develop question or solution 6 weeks
Background research on topic 6 weeks
Determine materials and purchase them 5 weeks
Set up project and begin to collect data 5 - 4 weeks (depending on project)
Shop for project display supplies 3 weeks
Prepare project display 2 weeks
Prepare oral presentation 1 week
Deliver presentation display to school 1 day
Science Fair Day 0

Timeline for Completing a Science Fair Project (PDF)

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How do I help with the project?

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

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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.

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What are they major sticking points for students?

From experience, we know that students get tripped up on certain areas more than others. Remember that students, especially adolescents, like to try to work things out on their own before they ask you for help. Unfortunately, they often let too much time pass before they ask. So you, as the adult, have the unenviable task of making sure they stay on track while allowing them the freedom of choice and the opportunity to make honest mistakes.

The following points in the process are good ones to monitor and help out if and when you are needed:

Narrowing the topic and developing a question or problem statement

Most students can tell you their favorite topics. But they have trouble coming up with an idea for an investigation or a solution to a problem that has a measureable outcome. They may not think of some of their favorite things to do as science. You can help them see that there is a science investigation in just about everything.

Like sports? There is a lot of science involved making a good basketball, or the best bat, or streamlining a body or a car for racing. Experiment to find out! Invent something better!

Like cooking? Cooking is all about chemistry and good cooks know that just changing one thing in a recipe can affect the food's texture or flavor. Experiment to find out! Come up with your own recipe!

Like the outdoors? One change in the environment can affect hundreds of species. You can conduct small investigations to find out how big things change.

Science really is all around us.

In the end, students need to end up with an idea that is specific, testable, measurable, and doable. Shoot for a reasonable level of difficulty. This doesn't have to be rocket science, but it should be challenging enough to keep them intrigued and teach them things they didn't know before.

Science Fair Central has a topic chooser section that will help your young scientist see some examples of investigations and inventions, with details on testable questions, problem statements and more. Help them apply the elements you find in these examples

Timeframe

Remember this: These things always take more time than you think. Work with your young scientist to make a realistic schedule. Science is never completely predictable, which is what makes it so much fun! Build in enough time for mishaps and revisions in the design, for careful observation and recording of data, and for the professional-looking presentation of scientific findings.

Science Fair Central has a sample timeline you can review:

Setting up a controlled experiment OR designing and building an invention

Whether the student opts to conduct an experimental investigation or solve a problem scientifically, this part usually takes more time that anyone thought it would. Often, experiments should be repeated to ensure accuracy. And some time is needed at the start to tinker and try different things with the materials. But in the end the task is to test the hypothesis or prove that the solution works. To do this accurately students need to keep track of the thing that they change, the things that stay the same, and what happens as a result of the one change. It is critical for students to understand how to set up a fair test and to identify the variables before the experiment begins. Also available on Science Fair Central are some examples of science projects, both investigations and inventions that you can use to help see what a whole project looks like.

Materials

Two different sets of materials are needed: The first is what is needed to do the investigation or invention. The second is what is needed for the project presentation.

Have your student make a list of everything they could possibly need for both the procedure and the presentation. If you think they MIGHT need it, it should be put on the list. If they think they might not need it, but aren't sure, put it on the list anyway. The point is to anticipate needs up front, so what is needed for the science project is there precisely when needed. A research scientist doesn't want to run out to the store to in frantic search of test tubes; a graphic designer (hopefully) does not run out of materials in the middle of a project.

Safety

Check the rules and regulations of the science fair. Know that most science fairs do not allow animals of any kind to be brought in to the fair. Even if you safely investigated an animal, others could be allergic to it. Some do not allow animal investigations at all, except for observing animals in the wild. Science Fair Central's advice: take lots of pictures!

If the project requires electrical power, make sure all electrical devices pass safety codes (do this well before the day of the fair!). As for conducting experiments at home, be sure to have a first-aid kit and fire extinguisher on hand. Based on the procedure, special equipment may be needed, such as eye wash, safety goggles, and an apron. Most safety equipment can be obtained at a local hardware store. Warn the student to only use chemicals, heating implements, or flames when a parent is present in the home.

Displays

The visual display is the first thing the judges see at the science fair and the best chance to make a good first impression. Lines should be straight (use a ruler or T-square and cut with a paper cutter rather than scissors); columns of text should be aligned and evenly spaced; graphics and paper should be affixed with double-sided tape (gluing often results in wrinkled paper). The display should tell the story of your project in a very clear, yet compelling way. It should pique the interest of judges and passers-by, draw them in, and quickly convey the most important information in a logical way. For suggestions on creating a winning display, visit Science Fair Presentations section.

Judging Criteria

It's a very smart idea to look at sample judging criteria before you even begin designing your project. Yes, they can look intimidating, but they can be a useful tool for making sure your project covers all requirements. Use it as a mental checklist for base requirements—and then as a challenge to exceed expectations!

What should the final project look like?

The final project is the culmination of the entire process and comprises several parts. The main feature is a large display board that tells the whole life story of the student's project, detailing exactly how scientific methodology was used at each stage. This is propped up on a table, where students display accompanying material (which may or may not be required at your particular fair, so check the guidelines). These might include: a journal of detailed notes and sketches, a photo album documenting procedures and materials, and a sample of background research material. Some young scientists also include hand-made models pertaining to their topic. If your child opted to do an invention rather than an investigation, and the invention is transportable, the invention itself will be center stage in front of the display. Pictures of a non-transportable invention are good, too.

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Displays

Although there's a bit of room for creativity, the display board format is fairly formulaic. On one hand, this makes things easy because there's no need to reinvent the wheel. On the other hand, those with an artistic spirit may find it limiting. Together you can look at sample layouts to see standard grid formats and sequence of categories. Stress that effective communication is the key, and that accomplishing this within tight parameters is actually a highly creative skill. Check out some books on graphic design from the library and learn about basic design principles and graphic elements. In the end, if your child is itchy for something more edgy, suggest they splash out and make the project title as eye-catching and exciting as possible. For suggestions on creating a winning display, visit Science Fair Presentations section.

Judging Criteria

Check out the sample judging criteria at Science Fair Central, and you'll have the distinct advantage of knowing what the judges are looking for upfront. Show these to your child in the beginning of the process, not the end, to keep them mindful of the serious objectives while performing their procedures and analysis and preparing their formal presentations.

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Science Fair Shopping List

Although you may have a child who's super responsible and proactive at every step, it's a smart idea to check out the shopping checklist yourself. Do this sooner rather than later, and you may save gas money as well as your sanity! If you are unable to afford items for the procedure or display, don't hesitate to talk to your child's teacher. Some schools keep a supply of recycled items on hand or can offer helpful advice.

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What else can I do to help?

Being there for unconditional support is the most important thing you can do by far. Ease the tension inherent in all judging situations by focusing on your child's accomplishment, not on the competition. And to relieve some of the intense focus on your child, consider volunteering to help all children at the science fair—in the classroom beforehand and at the fair itself.

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Where do I get supplies?

Supplies for your child's experiment really depend on the particular project. Some rely on everyday items easily found around the house and others require scientific tools, supplies and bits from prepackaged science kits. Product selection will vary from retailer to retailer.

  • Walmart
  • Michael's
  • Jo-Ann
  • AC Moore
  • Staples
  • Meijer
  • Amazon
  • Kroger

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