What Is a Science Fair, Anyway?
A science fair is an event in which students present independent research projects. They are required to produce new data to answer a question, which is considered a higher-level skill than merely summarizing knowledge gathered by someone else. A panel of judges reviews the projects, interviews the students about their work, and provides evaluations. The independent judging process sets these projects apart from many of the other assignments that students do in school.
Unlike many school assignments, science projects can be taken as far as students’ abilities and the rules allow.
Students may enter their projects in fairs held by their own schools or by small groups of local schools. Those whose projects perform strongly are invited to enter district fairs; the winners there move on to statewide fairs. At the high school level, the top finishers in each state compete in the international fair, sponsored by Intel. Your child’s science teacher or district science coordinator should have information about local science fairs.
Science projects are appropriate for students from the upper elementary grades through high school; gifted children as young as nine should be capable of conducting them. For judging purposes, competitions usually are divided by grade level. In some states, younger students may not be eligible to compete beyond the district level. Check with local organizers to find out what age or grade requirements may apply in your area.
A Great Opportunity for the Gifted Child
Science fair projects offer gifted students
- an extended time frame. Because science projects may be the longest assignments that students have ever done, they help develop sound time management skills.
- an introduction to a scientific discipline. These projects give students a firsthand view of what it might be like to work in a particular field of science.
- a high ceiling. Unlike many school assignments, science projects can be taken as far as students’ abilities and the rules allow. At higher levels of competition, many projects are nearly indistinguishable from research conducted by professionals.
- individualized feedback from judges who are usually professionals in science, medicine, and academe.
- a new opportunity every year. Since science fairs are held annually, students may expand on work begun during a previous year or pursue new areas of interest.
- the chance to compare their work with that of other students. In this way they can both interact with those who have similar interests and learn how they might improve their own efforts.
Tips for Projects
The following tips can help your child have a successful experience:
- Allow enough time. Science fair projects call for a large time commitment outside the classroom and are almost impossible to do well at the last minute. Spread them over several months to ensure a well-reasoned, high-quality result. Parental assistance with scheduling and time management is key.
- Develop the title first. A good title will guide the student into the next steps of the design process and also convey the nature of the project clearly to the judges. An informative title like “The Effect of Sunlight Exposure on Vitamin C Content in Bottled Apple Juice” allows both participant and reader to envision the project.
- Make sure that the idea is really research. A research project requires the student to answer a question by making repeated measurements and collecting new information about some variable. Demonstrations that merely illustrate something already well understood produce no new knowledge.
- Approach projects involving humans or vertebrate animals with caution. Such projects require additional paperwork and supervision and therefore extra time.
- Avoid cookie-cutter projects. Judges tire of seeing them because, again, they tend to produce no new knowledge. Although plenty of books and online sites list project ideas, they generally are not original. Students who find that they must use these sources should develop a clever twist to make the project their own.
- Keep organized records. A lab notebook, for instance, enables students to document every thought or action related to the project. Directions for keeping an orderly lab notebook are found in most introductory science fair materials but often are ignored by students. Be sure to follow these guidelines carefully.
- Attend to good graphic design. The project display board should clearly convey the basics of the project to the viewer. Make the title legible, the graphs and photos stand out, and the captions concise. Above all, use correct grammar and spelling. The display board is the first (and sometimes the last) impression the judges and others will have of the work, so make it a good one.
—Michael S. Matthews, PhD
Michael S. Matthews is assistant professor in the Gifted Education Program at the University of South Florida in Tampa. In addition to science learning, his research interests include creativity, underachievement, and cultural and linguistic diversity.
- Encouraging Your Child’s Science Talent, by Michael Matthews, Prufrock, 2006
- How to Develop Children as Researchers: A Step-by-Step Guide to Teaching the Research Process, by Mary Kellett, Paul Chapman Publishing, 2005
- WOWBugs: New Life for Life Science, by Robert W. Matthews, Lynda R. Flage, Eric J. Pyle, and Thomas R. Koballa Jr., Riverview Press, 1996