Developing a Science Fair Project

The following example provides an overview for the requirements of developing a science fair project. Use this example or revise it to meet the needs of your students. For other examples see Science Fair Tips on discoveryschool.com where Janice VanCleave is the Science Fair expert!

Project Overview
Before you start your project, acknowledge that you are preparing an entry for a contest that has rules. One preliminary rule is that your science fair project must represent the work that you do this year. This means that if your project is a continuation of a previous year's project, you must test the variable in a new way or test a new variable.

There are other science fair project rules that must be followed. Your science fair director is the source of a list of all the rules for your fair.

A science fair project is an investigation that uses the scientific method as a tool to discover the answer to some scientific problem. The following information contains a basic outline for using the scientific method in developing a science fair project. While this sample project is about the Moon, the procedure can be used to assist you in designing a project about any topic.

"Tinkering" research when you don't know what topic to choose, is the first type of research to be done. Begin by reading different printed science publications, asking questions of knowledgeable people, and checking out information on the Web. You can also performing exploratory investigations about topics that interest you, such as those found in Janice VanCleave science experiment books. From your research, decide on a topic that you want to discover more information about. For our sample, we'll pick the Moon as our project topic.

Project research, when you have a topic but aren't yet sure what kind of problem you can solve, is the next kind of research to be done. If your topic is the moon, you would find out as much as possible about this celestial body such as its rates of rotation (turning of a body about its axes -- imaginary line through the center of a body) and revolution (one turn of a body about its orbit -- a curved path about another body). Search astronomy books, periodicals, and the web for information. As you research, write down inquiry questions, such as these:

  • How do lunar rotation and revolution rates compare? (Lunar is a term that pertains to the Moon.)
  • How does Earth's rotation affect lunar motion?

When you're finished writing down questions, select one that most interests you and proceed to the next step.

Project Problem
When you have selected an inquiry question that most interests you, determine whether it can be your science fair question by asking yourself these questions:

  • Is it about animals? If the answer is yes, you will need to check with your teacher about the rules for working with animals.
  • Does it compare products? If the answer is yes, check with your teacher to make sure product comparison is an acceptable project. While some local fairs have a special section for product comparisons, others may not allow them.
  • Can you state a hypothesis for the question? If the answer is no, then reword the question or select another one.
  • Can the question be answered experimentally with measurable results?
  • How do the two sample inquiry questions rate as project questions?
    1. "How do lunar rotation and revolution rates compare?" can be determined by reading, but you also could experiment and confirm this for yourself.
    2. " How does Earth's rotation affect the motion of the Moon?" can also be determined by reading. If you reword the questions as "How does Earth's rotation affect the position of lunar surface features during the Moon's apparent daily motion?" you have a question whose answer you could discover for yourself experimentally. This could be done by observing and measuring any angular changes in the position of the points of a crescent-shaped moon each day as it moves from the eastern to the western horizon.

While the hypothesis is a single statement, it is the key to a successful project. The project experiment will be designed to test the hypothesis. So, be sure to propose a hypothesis that is testable with measurable results. For the sample project question on the effect of Earth's rotation on the position of lunar surface features during the Moon's apparent motion across the sky, an example of a null hypothesis might be, "Earth's rotation has no effect on the position of lunar surface features."

A research hypothesis might be, "If Earth rotates toward the east, then there will be an apparent clockwise rotation of the position of lunar features each day." This is based on the fact that since Earth rotates, the Moon is viewed by observers of Earth from a different direction during the rotation.

Project Experiment
Can you think of a way to test your hypothesis experimentally with measurable results? If the answer is no, then you need to go back to the previous step and reword your hypothesis or select another one.

At this stage the project experiment needs to be only a basic design in your mind. A possible experiment for the sample moon problem might be to observe and photograph a crescent Moon at different times to determine whether there is any rotational change in the lunar features during the Moon's apparent movement from the eastern to the western horizon. This can be done by comparing photographs and the position of the pointed ends of the crescent moon at different times. The control will be the position of the Moon when it is at its zenith (highest point) in the sky. Compare the position of the pointed ends of the crescent moons in the photographs taken during an observation of eight or more hours between moonrise and moonset to determine if any rotational change has occurred. Think about the experiment and ask yourself the following questions. If the answer to any of these questions is no, you need to redesign the experiment.

  • Does the experiment have measurable results (results that can be measured with an instrument like a ruler, scale, stopwatch, or other type of scale, such as angular measurements using your hands as the measuring tool)? For the sample experiment, you could take angular measurements of the position of the crescent points to a line perpendicular to Earth in order to determine whether it appears to rotate.
  • Does the experiment have an independent variable? For the sample experiment, the length of time of observations is the independent variable.
  • Does the experiment have a dependent variable? For the sample experiment, the dependent variable is the angle of the crescent moon.
  • Does the experiment have a control? For the sample experiment, the control could be the angle of the crescent moon at its zenith position. The observations recorded before and after this position could be compared to this.
  • Does the experiment have constant factors? For the sample experiment, the constant factors include the location of the observer and the type of measuring tool used to make the angular measurements.

Get Started!
Once you have a general plan for testing your hypothesis experimentally and recording the data, then you can design the experiment step-by-step and get started. You should be prepared to perform the experiment four or more times, so you have at least four sets of data. In the sample Moon experiment, you could make observations on four consecutive nights or select four nonsequential nights during a month. For some experiments in which time is a factor, such as one requiring the growing of plants, four or more identical sets of plants could be started at the same time. For all experiments, you should record all the results in your project journal, dating and recording the time of each entry.

Data from your experiment and what you do with it are the main way that a judge evaluates your experiment. Judges like to see charts (data or other information in the form of tables, graphs, or lists) of the measured results. If data are displayed clearly, then judges are likely to conclude that the student understands how to properly develop a science fair project.