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What Are the 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


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.


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.


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.


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!