Sunday, February 13, 2011

How to win a science fair.

Okay kids, this one is for you. As a yearly science fair judge, I want to give you some pointers that will get help you score high on your project:

1. There's a BIG difference between science and a demonstration. A baking soda/vinegar volcano is a demonstration, a potato or lemon-powered clock is a demonstration. Demonstrations make sci-fair judges weep. Science involves discovering something that no one else knows. It doesn't have to be important information just new information. There are many mysteries in the world waiting for the light of science to be shined upon them. For instance, which fast food hamburger will decompose the slowest when left on a window sill for two months.

2. It is your job to present to us your project. This means you need to have a well-practiced presentation about your research. You need to tell us why you became curious about the thing you researched, what your hypothesis was, why you came up with that hypothesis, how you tested it, what the results were, what you concluded from your results, was your hypothesis correct, and if not what new hypothesis did your results lead you to. You NEED to do this. Have your presentation polished, practiced, and down pat. It's true, a good presentation can turn a lame project into an award-winning first step towards world domination.

3. Label all the data presented in your graphs. It's very frustrating to a judge when they find an interesting project with an excellent presentation, then look at the display and see a piece of paper containing a bunch of unlabeled colored lines taped to the tri-fold cardboard. Label name of your x-axis, label the units of your x-axis, label the name of your y-axis, label the units your y-axis, label the individual lines or bars of your graph or chart!! You are trying to convince us of something. Unlabeled data is meaningless data. If you can't figure out how to label these things in Excel (or whatever computer program) then just write them on the graph after you've printed them out.

4. Understand the components of your project and how they could affect your experiment. If you are using vinegar in your project then spend a few minutes looking up the chemicals in vinegar and their percentage. Same goes for lemon juice, milk, batteries, Coke, dish soap, bean plants, etc... This is especially important in regards to your hypothesis. If you tell me something like "My hypothesis is that orange juice will be the most corrosive to the paint on my mom's new boyfriend's Jaguar because it is the most acidic." then you should be able to tell me the pH of the different fluids you tried.

5. Your display should be bold, colorful, attention getting but also clear and easy to pull information from. Some people get upset that a lame experiment can still win if it is presented with flash. Those people are usually called "underlings". A truly bad project won't be saved by a great display, but many average ones can win with an exceptional display. Colors are great. Big CLEAR pictures of your experiment are great. Your actual plants, hamster, assassin droid, or whatever is great. Having things organized in a way that makes sense is great. You want to attract the judge's attention with what appears to be an interesting subject so have your picture or actually experiment components front and center of your display. Place your hypothesis statement in the upper left side of the display because that's where we look to start reading, just like in a book. Print the hypothesis in a big, bold, easy to read font, and don't have any other words on that piece of paper, though artwork is okay as long as it doesn't interfere with reading the hypothesis.
Below that on a new sheet of paper tell why answering this question was important to you along with interesting background information.
Next have a sheet clearly describing your experiment. Also place on this sheet a list of sources of possible errors in your measurements.
In the center goes the big pictures of your experiment and clearly-labeled raw data.
On the top of the right side place a write-up of you conclusions. What did you learn? If possible include a summary graph comparing the important values/data after analysis.
Below your conclusions have a short paragraph on whether or not you hypothesis was found to be true. If your hypothesis turned out to be false add another paragraph explaining the flaw in your original hypothesis. Make sure there are 3-4 blank lines between this explanation and the discussion of your hypothesis above it.

6. Your eyeball is not source of scientifically accurate measurements. For instance, if you are comparing the oil-absorbent capabilities of cotton, silk, and wool then actually weigh the different materials out on an accurate scale. If you are delivering a certain amount of fluid to a system then use a graduated cylinder, syringe, measuring cups or some other device capable of delivering an accurate, repeatable amount each time. Tape measures, volt meters, and other measuring devices are critical to true scientists. They need to be for you, too.
Here's another tip, if you are comparing the amounts of bacteria growing on a plate don't just eyeball the different plates. Take a digital photograph of the plates, print it out, cut out the bacteria colonies out of the picture and weigh the resultant pieces of paper. It's still a crude method, but it's much more scientific than saying, "Uh, it looked like that one had more...".

Hope this helps.

Adventure! Excitement! Oh no, another lemon battery!


BDTX said...

You have seen the video that debunks that fast food hamburger BS haven't you? It's just a pet peeve of mine that people believe that crap.

Anonymous said...

I guess it wasn't a video, my bad.

Jackie said...

Thanks! Grandkids are having a science fair next month! Now we will kick butt! :)

Merriwether said...

At the last science fair I judged a girl took hamburgers from Wendy's, McDonald's, and Burger King and set them in a moist environment. The Wendy's burger quickly became covered in mold and other growth while the other two burgers remained uninhabited. Eventually a small amount of fuzz started growing on one of the other burgers but I don't remember which one. The last burger never did have anything grow on it even after two months. From this she concluded the meat in burgers from Wendy's contain the least amount of preservatives. It was very interesting.

Izzy G. said...

Ah. Science fairs. How I miss thee.

County Winner 5th grade Science Fair for Phototropism.

Anonymous said...

Merri: That makes more sense, I just thought you were referring to that stupid hamburger jerky myth. I thought Morgan Spurlock did something similar with the burgers in a closed environment, I'll have to look.

Merriwether said...

I wish she had also included a home-cooked burger. That would have made it even more interesting!

Anonymous said...

My daughter is having a huge science fair in two months; 700 people!
Thanks for advice

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much. I'm working on a project right now, and I'm kind of stressed. But that really helped! Any more advice? I was also wondering if I have a complex project but I don't present it well can I still win? Also dose it matter if I do a placebo project on adults instead of kids? Thanks so much!

Merriwether said...

A simple project presented well is many, many times better than a complex project presented poorly. Using adults as subjects is better than kids in my opinion because an adult will be more consistent in their response over repeated experiments whereas kids get bored, tired, etc...