Interested in science? Science fair is a great way to pursue your interest in science. It can help you figure out if you’re interested in a career in research. It’s also a good activity for your college application, especially if you win awards. I should know! I placed 3rd in my state science fair and won an award from NASA #sciencenerd #brushingdirtoffmyshoulders.
What exactly is science fair? How do you compete and win? In this guide, I’ll explain exactly what you need to do to develop winning high school science fair projects and why you should consider participating in this challenging but fun extracurricular.
What Is Science Fair?
Science Fair is a competition at which students (in grades 6-12) present the results of a scientific experiment that they conducted. The experiment must fall into one of the following categories (this may vary slightly depending on the state you live in):
- Animal Biology
- Animal Physiology
- Behavioral / Social Science
- Biochemistry / Molecular Biology
- Earth/Space Sciences
- Engineering Applications
- Engineering Research
- Environmental Management
- Mathematics & Computer Science
- Plant Biology
- Plant Physiology
There are two levels of science fair competition, middle school (grades 6-8) and high school (grades 9-12). I’m going to focus on high school science fair competitions, but much of my advice holds true for middle school science fair competitions as well.
Some high schools conduct an in-school science fair then advance their winners to the county or regional science fair. This varies by state. Some states have regional science fairs (where several counties are grouped into one competition) while other states have individual county science fairs. Some such as California have a mix of regional and county science fairs.
The winners of the county or regional science fair then advance on to the state science fair. Each state hosts their own science fair and selects winners.
Who Can Compete in High School Science Fair?
Any high school student with a project idea that fits into one of the above categories can compete in science fairs! However, each high school is only allowed a specific number of entries into the regional or county science fair. This may vary slightly from region to region. The maximum number of entries per school into the Regional Science Fair is usually around 13.
Most high schools host a school-wide science fair to decide who they’ll send to the Regional Science Fair. Small schools may just send all interested students (without hosting a school-wide science fair) if they have less than 13 projects to send.
How Do You Sign Up for Science Fair?
Talk to your guidance counselor about how to sign up to compete in science fair. Usually, one of the science teachers at your high school will be in charge of science fair for your school. Ask your guidance counselor who that person is, then check with that person to learn what you need to do to sign up. You’ll likely need to have a good idea of what your project will be when you sign up!
You should sign up as soon as you can. If you’re a Freshman, sign up as soon as you start school. If you’re a Sophomore, Junior, or Senior, you also should sign up at the start of the school year, or sign up at the end of the previous school year to compete the following year.
Deadlines will vary from school to school and region to region. The important thing is to sign up as soon as you decide you want to compete in the science fair; depending on your project idea, you might need special approval before you can sign up or start your experiment.
How to Develop High School Science Fair Projects
When brainstorming science fair project ideas, I recommend starting with the science fair competition categories (see above). Are any of the areas of particular interest to you? Is there a burning question you had in one of your science classes that you’d like to try and answer?
Was there a recent scientific discovery that you found interesting? What was interesting about it? Is there something else you’d like to test that’s related to that discovery?
Is there a problem you have, or you see in the world? Do you have an idea of how to fix it? For example, I’d always been interested in how oil spills were cleaned up. I knew bacteria and fungi were sometimes used to clean up oil spills, and I wanted to know which was faster at cleaning up oil spills. That ultimately was the topic of my science fair project.
If all of this is drawing a blank, I recommend reading some articles on Science Daily to see if you find anything interesting. Why is it interesting? Do you want to know something more?
Once you have your basic project concept, read each of the three considerations below to make sure it's a top-notch idea.
Consideration #1: Is it a Good Science Fair Project Idea?
What makes a good science fair project idea? I'm defining "good" in this context as a project that will grab the attention of judges and give you a better chance of winning awards. A good science fair project idea will meet the following qualifications:
Be unique. Try to come up with an original concept. How do you test the originality of your concept? Do a Google search for your potential idea. If you come up with 5 or more exact matches for your idea, consider picking a different one. If you come up with less than 5 matches, you might have a good project idea!
Be applicable in some way. Try to come up with a project that will be useful to the world. For example, the results of my project (whether bacteria or fungi cleaned up oil faster) would help in the event of future oil spills. Someone could use the results of my experiment and clean up an oil spill more efficiently.
Projects don't need to change the world, but it is helpful if the results of the experiment mean something. As another example, let's look at an award-winning project from 2015. For this project, the student took chicken breasts and sutured them together in 3 different ways. The student then ran a test to see which of the 3 sutures held together longest under heavy weight. The results of this experiment apply to the field of medicine. A surgeon may choose to use the suture technique that held together the longest in lieu of the other suture techniques.
What's an example of a non-applicable project? In my middle school science class, we conducted an experiment to see if ketchup or mustard would run down an incline faster. This experiment really had no application to the real world.
Consideration #2: Is the Project Idea Feasible?
After doing this preliminary round of brainstorming, start to think about feasibility. Can you realistically conduct this experiment with the resources you have at your disposal and in the given time frame (likely a month or two - depending on how early you start)?
Next, create a basic schedule so you stay on track. I recommend that you conduct your experiment and finish it at least 2 weeks before the science fair. You need time to organize the data, write up the results, get the board made, etc. (I’ll discuss this more in-depth below.)
For resources, do you have access to a lab through your high school? If you don’t, consider reaching out to local community college professors or to local scientists to see if someone would be willing to be your mentor for your science fair project and let you use their facilities. The mentor would be there to oversee your use of their facilities. It’s doubtful a lab would let you use their facilities without a supervisor.
For example, for my project, I needed an incubator that neither my school nor I had. Luckily, my uncle worked at the local community college and was able to get me access to a mentor and the incubator at the lab.
Also, make sure that whatever project you choose you can complete within your given time frame. For example, don’t plan to measure how bird population size changes over 5 years after the introduction of a predator species. This is a terrible idea for 2 reasons. One, you don’t have 5 years to conduct an experiment to present at the science fair. Two, you definitely wouldn’t be allowed to introduce a predator into the wild.
Some project ideas will require a much larger time commitment that others. Take this into consideration when picking your project. How much time do you have in your schedule to dedicate to science fair?
Some projects might only take a single day or weekend. For example, if your experiment was determining which acidic fruit could conduct the most electricity, you could do it in a day. All you would need to do is buy the fruit and buy an electrical conductivity meter. Stick the meter in the fruit and write down the results.
Others require you to do something every day for several weeks or months. For example, if your experiment was determining whether fungi or bacteria is better at cleaning up an oil spill, you’ll need a lot more time and advanced planning. You’ll need to monitor your Petri dishes on a daily basis for several weeks to track the progress.
Consideration #3: Does Your Project Follow Science Fair Rules?
My next point is about feasibility. What experiments are you allowed to do for science fair? Most states have rules regarding the types of science fair experiments students can conduct.
Beyond having to fit your experiment into one of their categories (as I mentioned above), you have to obey certain rules about the use of animals, humans, animal tissue, human tissue, hazardous materials, and/or microbes in your experiment. The use of these things is not prohibited (I used microbes in my experiment). However, you need to get approval in certain cases.
These rules will vary by state, so find your state’s and county’s science fair rules by searching Google for “[State Name] Science Fair Rules” or “[County Name] County Science Fair Rules.”
If one of the potential experiment ideas that you brainstormed passes each of the considerations mentioned (i.e. you have the resources to complete the experiment in the time allowed without breaking any rules), then you should next try to nail down more specific components of the experiment.
How to Go From an Idea to Reality
Once you've come up with a good science fair project idea that's feasible and doesn't break any rules, how do you take it from an idea to reality?
Start by trying to phrase the idea as a question. All experiments should answer a question. What is the question you're trying to answer? For my experiment (on bacteria and fungi cleaning up oil spills), my question was "do bacteria or fungi clean up oil spills faster?"
Once you have your question, try to figure out what your independent variable, dependent variable, and control should be for your experiment. The independent variable is what you change in the experiment, and the dependent variable is what changes as a result of the change you made. For my experiment, the independent variable is whether bacteria or fungi is used. The dependent variable is how much oil was cleaned up. The control is what you use as the standard of comparison for your other samples. It ensures the reliability of your test by showing nothing else was affecting the results. For example, in my experiment, the control was simply oil in a Petri dish with nothing else. If oil had dissipated from that control Petri dish, I would know there was something else affecting the cleanup of oil.
After figuring out your variables, try to figure out how you will measure the results. This can often be the trickiest part of planning your experiment. For my experiment, I checked the Petri dishes once per week for 2 months. At each visit, I put the Petri dishes on a grid and counted the number of grids that didn't have oil in them. This was not a perfect measurement, but I didn't have any better tools at my disposal.
If you're having trouble coming up with the question, variables, or measurement for your project idea, consider talking to your science teacher(s). They will likely have advice on what question, variables, and measurements to use. These teachers have seen many years worth of science fair projects and will know if your project is feasible and can give you advice on how to best execute the project. You can also research similar projects online with a simple Google search. See how those experiments were conducted and if you could do something similar.
Once you come up with your idea, you need to get it approved by your science fair coordinator before starting the experiment. Your science fair coordinator is likely one of the science teachers at your school. Ask your science teacher or your counselor who the science fair coordinator is. The coordinator will know if you need to submit paperwork before starting your project or if you can get started without further paperwork.
How to Present Your Science Fair Project
At the science fair, you'll be expected to have a board that presents the results of your experiment and a packet that is basically a printed version of your board.
On the day of the science fair, you'll spend most of the time standing next to your board waiting for a judge to approach you. The judges are typically volunteers with a science background (former science teachers or scientists). You will present your entire experiment to the judges, and then they will typically ask you a few questions about your experiment (I'll discuss this more in-depth below).
You'll likely go through this process more than once. At some science fairs, you present to each judge individually (most fairs have at least 3 judges per category). Also, some science fairs have additional judges from companies that give out supplemental awards. For example, at my state science fair, NASA sent their own judge that, separate from the state judges, heard presentations and asked questions. You might also be asked about your experiment by parents and fellow science fair competitors.
What Should You Include on Your Science Fair Board?
I've included an example of a science fair board below to demonstrate how your board should look. The actual topic of this board is a little too juvenile for a high school science fair (it was probably presented at a middle school science fair), but the visual presentation of the board is the same as you'd expect at the high school level.
Before we dive into the content of the board, you should make sure the board is visually appealing. Make sure it isn't too cluttered. Make sure to include some pictures or graphics (I'll discuss this more below). Your board's appearance will be the first impression people have of your experiment, so make sure it's a good first impression.
At the top of your board, you should have the title of the experiment. It can be something clever like the one in the picture (the experiment was trying to find out if shampoo helped carnations hold color dye better) or it can be more basic (i.e. Does Shampoo Help Carnations Hold Dye?). The front page of your presentation packet should be a cover page with your experiment name and your name.
In the following section, I list what you should include in both your board and in your packet. Examples (using the carnation experiment) are highlighted in blue:
Problem (or Experimental Question): What was the question you were trying to answer with your experiment?
Does shampoo help carnations hold color dye better than acetone?
Hypothesis: What did you think the answer to that question is?
I think shampoo will help carnations hold color dye better than acetone.
Materials: What did you use to conduct your experiment?
24 carnations, Dove brand shampoo, red color dye, acetone, a measuring cup, etc.
Variable: What was the independent variable, dependent variable, control? As I said before, the independent variable is what you change. The dependent variable is what changes because of it.
The independent variable is whether acetone or shampoo was used. The dependent variable is the color of the carnations.
Procedure: What steps did you follow to conduct the experiment (be as detailed as possible).
1. Place 2 carnations into a vase with 2 ml of shampoo, 2 ml of red dye, and 2 ml of water.
2. Place another 2 carnations into a separate vase with 2 ml of acetone, 2 ml of red dye, and 2 ml of water.
Data/Graphs: What data did you collect? Can you present it as a table or graph? (If you can, you should.)
After two days, the carnations in the shampoo mixture were pink, and the carnations in the acetone mixture were red.
Conclusion: What were the results of the experiment?
I found that the carnations absorbed the dye better with acetone than with shampoo. The carnations in the acetone mixture turned a deep red while the carnations in the shampoo mixture only became a light pink.
As I said above, when presenting your experiment, you’ll be asked questions about your experiment. How can you best prepare for these questions?
Most importantly, know your project details inside and out. Know how your project results apply to the real world. For example, if your experiment is which fruit has the most conductivity, you could discuss how viable an option fruit is as a source of alternative energy (even if it’s not). Even if your experiment would not be realistic in the real world, it is great to show that your knowledge of science goes beyond your project.
Brainstorm what questions you might be asked. Some examples include: How did you come up with the idea for your experiment? What did you use as your control? What do your results tell you?
Then, try to answer all of the questions you’ve brainstormed. Write your answers down. Perfect them. This way you’ll be prepared to eloquently answer the questions you’re asked.
What Are the Benefits of Participating in Science Fair?
Competing in science fair has many benefits. Through science fair, you'll get to meet like-minded students who are interested in science. If you get to go on to county/regional/state competitions, you'll make science-interested friends from other schools as well!
Science fair is a great opportunity to test out whether you’d like to pursue a career in scientific research. It's great to try and find your passion in high school so you don't waste time and money during college trying to figure out what you want to major in. By doing science fair, hopefully, you'll find out if science is a subject you want to continue studying or not.
If you compete in science fair, you can potentially be recognized for your scientific ability by receiving awards from your school, county, region, state, or other science fair sponsors (such as NASA). If you win an award, it looks great on your college application. Colleges love to see students who were recognized for their talents! Additionally, science fair is a free experience that won’t cost you anything other than time and maybe a little money for supplies for your experiment. I highly recommend competing in science fair if you’re interested!
There are a couple of cons to competing in science fair. Science fair can be extremely time-consuming. If you're worried about not having enough time, I recommend doing a more manageable project (an experiment that can be completed in a shorter time frame). Science fair projects do not need to take a lot of time. Just because an experiment doesn't require a lot of time doesn't make it any less sophisticated than other more time-consuming projects.
Also, some students find science fair boring if they don't care that much about science. I still think it's valuable to try science fair once if you have any interest in science. If you find science fair boring then, at least, you figured out science is probably not your desired career path, and you can move on to exploring your other interests.
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