The back-to-school lists include binders, paper, pens, pencils, glue sticks, folders, tissues, crayons, calculator, a new backpack. Let’s add a science fair project to the list because back-to-school means papers and projects.

According to 12th grade advanced placement biology teacher and college adjunct instructor Katherine East, the purpose of a science fair is “to become familiar with the scientific method process, experimentation experience, tap into one’s curiosity, formality of science and display, testing results multiple times and learning that just because your results didn’t turn out how you expected doesn’t mean you are wrong.”
Too often, students forget that science fairs are actually about science. Simply painting a few Styrofoam balls to make a solar system, making a table-top volcano or even building a robot are not science fair projects. Science fairs are not what they used to be 20 years ago either. We are in a computer and world wide web world, and “the technology available now gives projects the potential to be more advanced,” East says.

The scientific method consists of five steps to test a theory for a project.
~ make an observation,
~ propose a hypothesis (educated guess on the outcome
of the experiment),
~ design and perform an experiment to test the
~ review the outcome of the experiment,
~ decide if it proves or disproves the stated hypothesis.
Addendum: if needed, propose and test a new

Two pieces of advice from Michael Collver, a New River Valley high school teacher who supervises high school projects and has judged at all levels, are (1) Make sure a student has a hypothesis that can be articulated in a “If I __________, then I expect ____________ to occur because of ______________; and (2) Have each participant find an adult mentor who can help with designing the experiment. An expert in the field will not only share expertise but also enthusiasm for the topic – the later perhaps being the more important.

That may seem like a lot of work, but it should be parallel with what students are already learning and doing in science class. Science fairs are not about exploding volcanoes, but offer a more challenging and educational approach to projects like testing mouthwash effect, pollution on plant growth or acid rain on fish or earthworms, to name a few. The project consists of an experiment that the student is judged on and an academic paper where he or she explains the process and results of the experiment.

Generally, science fairs are in the spring, but that does not mean that a student should wait until January to begin. Good science fair topics can be planned at the beginning of the school year, and the student can talk to his or her teacher about approved projects, especially if it involves any type of live animal. On the up side, science fairs do not limit anyone based on academic levels. Whether the student is in a general, college bound, Advanced Placement, Dual Credit or International Baccalaureate science class, all are welcome and encouraged to participate.

No matter what a student chooses, “love your project,” states Katherine Davis, chemistry teacher at Blacksburg High School. “ If it is not something that excites the student, it’s going to be hard to follow through and make it the best project possible. Secondly, be sure that each participant is familiar with the rules and requirements for the science fair. Many organizations for a high school will request that specific forms be completed or certain requirements met prior to beginning any experimentation. Many fairs will not accept projects if experiments began prior to meeting these requirements.”

The science fair project may not end at school. If a student advances in a top position, he or she has the opportunity to compete at district, region and statewide competitive levels. Science fairs have some nice rewards for winners ~ certificates, medals, trophies, even scholarship money. To win, the student needs to choose a topic that grabs the attention of the judges, and makes other competitors and observers think. Students will do well not to choose a topic that can easily be Googled for results. Guide your child to identify and experiment on something that will draw the observer and judge into the project and make them want watch the results of the experiment to see whether the hypothesis was proven or not.

Science fairs can be fun, academically stimulating and challenging. Parents may need to purchase some materials, but are encouraged to let their child do all the work for the project. It’s an exceptional learning experience in developing a hypothesis, creatively testing it, keeping records, interpreting data and organizing the final report. Few school projects provide such a comprehensive and creative thinking process.

A good website is It breaks the process of the project down so that it is easy to understand and will benefit each student in a positive way. Simple steps are outlined: The Details, Learning Cool Theories, Be a True Scientist, Trudge Onward and Use Your Brain.

By Justin Ashwell