IJAS Region 4
The Science Fair Process

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The Science Fair Process

This document is an abridged version of a document prepared by Matthew Hagaman for a workshop in April 2013. For a more detailed version, you can always visit his web site at http://mthagaman.com/?scifair.

Step 1: Complete your Calendar
If you want your students to participate in regional or state competition (and you should), you will want to become a member of the Illinois Junior Academy of Science (IJAS) before December. This form is available under IJAS Resources on the left.

If students are completing experiments at home, you might begin the science fair process in early to mid-November with the research paper, materials, and procedures finished shortly before winter break. This allows you to review research papers over the beak, and lets students worry only about carrying out their procedure over winter break.

The following steps includes an approximate number of class days for each activity to be completed, totalling 33 in this example.

Step 2: Review the Scientific Method (1 day)
Since the science fair is really all about the scientific method, it is a good idea to give students a laboratory experiment to conduct just before getting into science fair season. One such lab, which uses two different colors of water, a sample of sodium polyacrylate (a superabsorber), a sample of the superabsorber mixed with powdered graphite (for color), and salt. The materials are cheap and the lab is fun – see the activity entitled Absorption Lab.

Step 3: Introduction & Choosing a Project (1 day)
There are all sorts of books and web sites that provide lists of science experiments, but often students want to repeat projects they have seen done before rather than pick something original. (There are also a surprising number of projects out there that don't actually involve using the scientific method.) A big part of this problem is a result of students' narrow concept of science. In order to help students recognize the different (and fascinating) divisions of science they can explore in their projects, encourage students to consider the different areas of science: many students will not remember that areas like aerospace exist unless you remind them!

As you begin, give students an overview of the whole science fair process, as well as a timeline when they should have different tasks completed. Students should have a good background of the process before they pick a topic, that way they will pick a high-interest project.

Get parents involved early as well -- involve them in the Project Proposal stage and make sure they understand the timeline. The teacher's approval should require the project to be an experiment based on the scientific method, be appropriate to the student's level, and include a variety of independent variables (usually 3-5 – brands, types, distances, etc.). Students must be able to answer "Yes" to all of the questions on the project proposal. If students' experiments will involve people or expensive materials, I forewarn them of trial requirements – somewhere around 5 trials if humans are not involved and 20 or more trials if they are.

There are some restrictions regarding human experiments / microorganisms / etc. (see the IJAS Policies & Procedures on the menu to the left).

Research / Bibliography (5 days)
When beginning research, students may need help brainstorming topics related to their project. Good topics include science concepts, background information related to the experiment's variables, or the equipment they will be using. Encourage them to look for the results of similar experiments as well.

When students have a list of topics, set them loose in the library to find books first. Many students start with their science book or encyclopedias, moving on to web-based resources after gaining background knowledge.

Train students to complete a Resource Log for each and every resource they find, starting with the questions at the top which help them determine if the source is a good one or not. Students may take notes (along with page numbers, etc.) on the back side of the resource log.

Microsoft Word 2007 and later include some great features to help students enter bibliographic information into the computer in APA format (as required by the IJAS), or there are a number of web sites that will help get things in the proper order with correct punctuation.
The OWL (Purdue University Online Writing Lab) also has great resources for formatting to answer questions or check work.

Research / Write (8 days)
There is no regional or state requirement regarding paper length, but 4 pages is a good minimum at a 14pt font. If this is your students' first taste writing a research paper, be sure to cover plagiarism before they begin writing.

Variables & Hypotheses (1 day)
Students complete the Variables and Hypotheses Worksheet in one class period. We go over the example I print on the back of students' forms as well as several extra examples (which I don't print), then I ask students to bring their completed forms up to me for review. I check to ensure their variables are correct, that they have not neglected any obvious controlled variables (because they invariably do), and that they have a reasonable number of options for their independent variable (usually 3-5). I collect these hand-written pages and pass them back out for students to type during binder assembly.

Materials & Procedures (3 days)
The materials list and procedures are perhaps the greatest learning opportunity throughout the science fair process, and it is important for students to be specific and thorough every step of the way. Students need to predict problems and make their materials and procedure idiot-proof.

Be sure to leave enough time for revisions and more revisions – you should agree with students on every step of their experiment before they take their printed materials and procedures home over break. Individual conferences can be invaluable at this stage.

Safety Sheets (1 day or less)
Along with the materials and procedures, the IJAS require students to complete a safety sheet (available under IJAS Resources to the left). Students should think about as many hazards and precautions as they can. Just like the procedure, safety sheets should show that the project is specific enough to be idiot-proof.

Research / Write / Revise (3 days)
The revision stage is a great time to work with students on developing a good introduction. Here are a few tips to hook your reader right as they begin:

  • What is your point? What do you want your reader to take away from your paper? Try and begin or end your introduction with a strong sentence which tells your reader what you want them to learn.
    • Example: "Despite their low price to the consumer, however, the paper towels make millions for their manufacturers at no small cost to the Earth."
  • Consider beginning with a short story or anecdote.
    • Example: "A twenty-one year-old named Chloe Leach collapsed and died at a nightclub in East York, England after drinking several cans of the popular energy drink, Red Bull, in September of 2009. (Fox, 2009)"
  • Preview each of your paper's sections, either in the form of a list or preferably by presenting a series of facts.
    • Example: "In order to understand the impact of energy drinks on the average user, it is important to study the history of energy drinks, how energy drinks work, the ingredients of energy drinks, and the side effects of energy drinks."
    • Example: "Peanuts are grown for many purposes and used in many ways. Some people eat peanuts for the health benefits – even the salt can be healthy. In fact, the taste buds that detect salt came from a time when salt was a vital but hard-to-find nutrient (Murry, 2005). Today, salt content is just one reason why peanuts are one of the world's favorite snacks to eat.".

Data / Graphs (3 days)
Start with data entry. Hopefully some consideration to data format was given during the procedure stage, but this is sometimes the most confusing element for students -- representing non-number data in numerical form is often a new experience. This is a hard section to complete as a class, because so many graphs must be individualized.

Graphing offers some great opportunities to teach when different types of graphs are appropriate (pie charts, for example, show the ratio of part to whole), how to calculate statistics in a spreadsheet (such as average, median, mode, and standard deviation if applicable), and how to properly label graphs so their contents are clear.

Written Conclusions & Abstract (2 days)
Analysis and conclusions call for students to write out their results in words, considering causes and effects for the data and the next steps if the experiment were to be repeated or expanded upon.

The abstract is typed on the IJAS form (IJAS Resources to the left) and has a limit of 200 words, which provides a challenge for many students. It is a great exercise, however, in concise scientific writing.

Presentation Board (1 day)
Students should start by making a 2-page banner (usually page size 22×8.5), using words and / or artwork to create a title. Afterwards, students assemble all of the required materials (abstract, safety sheet, materials, procedures, data tables, graphs, conclusions) onto a tri-fold board.

Boards can be purchased at low prices in bulk (one good provider is A+ School Science Boards (http://schoolscienceboards.com/), or students can find their own boards at office stores or general merchandise stores like WalMart. Most have at leas white on hand for $4.50-7.50.

In-Class Presentations (? Days)
It is a good idea to give students an opportunity to practice their verbal presentation in front of a group, one one way to do this is to do it as a whole class: this gives them practice with an audience they are used to and gives them the opportunity to see other students' presentations (which includes a valuable element of self-critique). Encourage students to approach the verbal portion as a story or a conversation rather than mere presentation of facts.

The School Science Fair
The school science fair is the place for students to show off their work to their peers, teachers, and community members. School judging varies considerably, but one way to do so is to ask teachers to evaluate the subjective aspects of a project while handling objective portions yourself. Verbal presentations can be judged by teachers as well, or it is a great opportunity to get high school or college students into the school to judge. Regardless, be sure to invite students from lower grades as well as parents and community members to the school fair. Presenting to non-peer groups (especially adults) is a great experience for students to have.

Regional Fair
As long as you are a member of the IJAS, you will get a letter from your regional chair in January or February asking about the projects you plan to bring. It does cost to bring a project (in Region 4 it costs $8 per project), but that is a low cost for an incredible opportunity.

At the regional fair, you will be asked to stay away from your students and let them take ownership of the day. You may or may not be asked to judge projects from other schools, but either way, it is well worth your time to look at projects from other schools – there are always incredible projects and some ideas to improve your own program.