Every great science project includes the same basic activities:
- Identifying a testable question. The question should be answerable, using affordable materials and methods that are both safe and feasible.
- Testing each variable in an experiment more than once. Repeated testing will ensure you have enough data to make valid conclusions.
- Testing only one variable at a time. This approach allows you to identify and measure the effect of each variable individually.
- Data gathering and recording. Data include measurements and observations.
- Graphing data, and then identifying trends in the data. That will help support your conclusion.
This science fair project guide published by Science Buddies can help you get started. This 15-minute animated video, by a young artist named Kevin Temmer, provides a great introduction to preparing for a science fair. And at SSP, we share tips and advice from past participants in the Intel ISEF.
Now that you know what to do, choose a topic and then:
- Research the topic. This means becoming a mini-expert on the topic.
- Organize. This includes stating the question you want to answer.
- Create a timetable. Research takes planning, pacing and usually much more time than you expect.
- Make a research plan. This is a roadmap of the questions you will have to answer as you design, conduct and interpret your experiment.
- Review rules, and have an adult review and approve your experiment if necessary. Every science fair requires students to follow a set of rules. For example, here are the rules for Intel ISEF competition for high school students. Some projects also require the review and approval of an adult. These can include projects involving hazardous or potentially hazardous substances and devices, or live animals (including people).
- Construct a hypothesis. This is an educated guess about how something will work. An experiment will test your hypothesis.
- Conduct the experiment. You will have to repeat it multiple times, following the same procedure each time.
- Record results. This means collecting your measurements and observations.
- Analyze results. Review your data, using charts and graphs to help interpret them.
- Draw conclusions. Your data will either support or refute your original hypothesis.
- Present results. You can share the results of your experiment through an abstract, or brief summary. You may also present your results in a research paper or on a presentation board.
Each of the above steps will take time — more than you may think at first. Making a timetable will help you plan. Be ambitious but realistic. That means making sure that the topic you choose not only interests you but also can be researched in the amount of time you have. Once you have identified your testable question, next develop a timeline to manage how you will test it. Build into your project some extra time to accommodate unexpected problems. These might include taking a big test, getting the flu or having to leave town for a family event.
If you will be taking part in a large science fair, you may have to fill out entry forms and review your research plan with your sponsor. Allow time for that. Certain projects will require more time because they need prior approval from a Scientific Review Committee (SRC) or an Institutional Review Board (IRB). Budget time for that. And allow plenty of time to experiment and collect data. Sometimes experiments don’t work. Sometimes experiments raise more questions than they answer — and require even more experimenting. This all takes time. Finally, you may have to write a paper that pulls together your findings. Or you may need to create a display or poster that presents your data and findings.
Creating an independent research project doesn’t mean you can’t ask for help. Parents, teachers, experts and other students may offer to help you on your project. Figuring out what kind of help is fair — and what type of help is not — can be tricky. Below are several stories from Science News for Kids that help offer guidance on that issue.
Many students find a mentor to help them refine what questions to ask and how to answer them. Ideally, a mentor should never tell you what to do (even if you ask). Instead, a good mentor will help you find information that will inform your decisions on what to do and how to do it. For example, this story from Science News for Students gives examples of the proper roles played by mentors. This article discusses the advantages of working with a mentor. Meanwhile, we feature in this story the rewarding example of a young student who had the courage to contact an outside expert in the topic he was researching.
Parents and teachers can play a role too. Parents and teachers may offer advice and give assistance, but they must not do any of the actual work on a research project.. For instance, they may help you map out the time you have available to do your work. Parents and teachers also can evaluate whether the project you want to do can be done in the time available. They also can help determine whether supplies will cost more than you can afford, or whether what you plan to do might be dangerous or require approval from others. Here are two links to SNK stories that expand on this topic.
This Science News for Students article features what parents learned about their role in helping on science fair projects. And this story highlights teachers sharing the roles they played.
Presentation and Competition
Once you have completed your experiment, analyzed your results and drawn your conclusions, there is still more to do: You must communicate your findings. You also should be prepared to discuss your project, answering any questions that judges, teachers or others might have about how and why you tested or developed something the way you did and how to interpret your findings.
There are many different ways to present the results of your research. Remember: Presenting results doesn’t mean performing, demonstrating or repeating your experiment. Instead, you should prepare:
- A research paper. This gathers in one document all the work you have done on your project. The contents will vary, but should include a title, table of contents, hypothesis, background research, materials, procedures, data analysis, conclusions and a bibliography. You might also include ideas for future research and acknowledgements.
- An abstract, or brief summary of your research paper. An abstract typically includes the purpose of the experiment, procedures used, results and conclusion. You also may want to include an introduction. Science Buddies offers this concise guide to writing an abstract.
- A project or display board. The board includes much of the same information as in your research paper. However, it is designed for display and brevity. That means it must be organized and laid out in a way that makes it easy to read — even by someone standing a short distance away. Again, Science Buddies provides some clear guidelines for preparing a board. For most science fairs, there are complex and strict rules that govern what a board must (and cannot) include. For example, review the Intel ISEF Display and Safety Regulations.
At SSP, we provide several online guides to completing a science fair project. That page includes links to guides on writing an abstract and creating a display.
When presenting your work, it can be helpful to keep in mind what judges look for in reviewing the entries in a science fair. Even if you don’t plan to compete, these criteria can help you focus in creating a presentation of your work. Some of the criteria include originality and creativity, design and methodology, knowledge achieved, and clarity of expression.
For more examples of what judges look for, review the Intel ISEF Judging Criteria. You can also try searching on the Internet for “science fair judging criteria.” You can narrow your search by adding, for example, the name of your state. SSP-Affiliate Fairs are listed in a Find-A-Fair index by state; many have websites with details about registration, judging and past winners.
Next: Feed Your Brain
Part III: What every great science project has in common
Intel ISEF Ethics Statement
Intel ISEF Eligibility/Limitations
Intel ISEF Requirements
Continuation of Projects
Scientific fraud and misconduct are not condoned at any level of research or competition. This includes plagiarism, forgery, use or presentation of other researcher’s work as one’s own and fabrication of data. Fraudulent projects will fail to qualify for competition in affiliated fairs and the Intel ISEF. Society for Science & the Public reserves the right to revoke recognition of a project subsequently found to have been fraudulent.
1. Each ISEF-affiliated fair may send the number of projects provided by their affiliation agreement.
2. A student must be selected by an Intel ISEF-affiliated fair, and:
a. be in grades 9-12 or equivalent;
b. not have reached age 20 on or before May 1 preceding the Intel ISEF.
3. English is the official language of the Intel ISEF. Student project boards and abstracts must be in English.
4. Each student is only allowed to enter one project. That project may include no more than 12 months of continuous research and may not include research performed before January 2017.
5.Team projects must have no more than three members. Teams competing at Intel ISEF must be composed of members who all meet Intel ISEF eligibility.
6. Students may compete in only one Intel ISEF affiliated fair, except when proceeding to a state/national fair affiliated with the Intel ISEF from an affiliated regional fair.
7. Projects that are demonstrations, ‘library’ research or informational projects, ‘explanation’ models or kit building are not appropriate for the Intel ISEF.
8. All sciences (physical, life, social) are represented at the Intel ISEF. Review a complete list of categories and sub-categories with definitions.
9. A research project may be a part of a larger study performed by professional scientists, but the project presented by the student must be only their own portion of the complete study.
1. All domestic and international students competing in an Intel ISEF-affiliated fair must adhere to all of the rules as set forth in this document.
2. All projects must adhere to the Ethics Statement above.
3. It is the responsibility of the student and the Adult Sponsor to evaluate the study to determine if the research will require forms and/or review and approval prior to experimentation, especially projects that include human participants, vertebrate animals, or potentially hazardous biological agents.
4. Projects must adhere to local, state and U.S. Federal laws, regulations and permitting conditions. In addition, projects conducted outside the U.S. must also adhere to the laws of the country and jurisdiction in which the project was performed.
5. The use of non-animal research methods and the use of alternatives to animal research are strongly encouraged and must be explored before conducting a vertebrate animal project.
6. Introduction or disposal of non-native and/or invasive species (e.g. insects, plants, invertebrates, vertebrates), pathogens, toxic chemicals or foreign substances into the environment is prohibited. It is recommended that students reference their local, state or national regulations and quarantine lists.
7. Intel ISEF exhibits must adhere to Intel ISEF display and safety requirements.
8. All projects must adhere to the requirements of the affiliated fair(s) in which it competes to qualify for participation in the Intel ISEF. Affiliated fairs may have additional restrictions or requirements. Knowledge of these requirements is the responsibility of the student and Adult Sponsor.
Approval and Documentation
9. Before experimentation begins, a local or regional Institutional Review Board (IRB) or Scientific Review Committee (SRC) associated with the Intel ISEF-affiliated fair must review and approve most projects involving human participants, vertebrate animals, and potentially hazardous biological agents. Note: If a project involves the testing of a student designed invention, prototype or concept by a human, an IRB review and approval may be required prior to experimentation. See Human Participants Rules for details.
10. Every student must complete the Student Checklist (1A), a Research Plan and Approval Form (1B) and review the project with the Adult Sponsor in coordination with completion by the Adult Sponsor of the Checklist for Adult Sponsor (1).
11. A Qualified Scientist is required for all studies involving Biosafety Lab-2 (BSL-2) potentially hazardous biological agents and DEA-controlled substances and is also required for many human participant studies and many vertebrate animal studies.
12. After initial IRB/SRC approval (if required), any proposed changes in the Student Checklist (1A) and Research Plan must be re-approved before laboratory experimentation/data collection resumes.
13. Projects which are continuations of a previous year’s work and which require IRB/SRC approval must undergo the review process with the current year proposal prior to experimentation/data collection for the current year.
14. Any continuing project must document that the additional research is new and different. (Continuation Projects Form (7))
15. If work was conducted in a regulated research institution, industrial setting or any work site other than home, school or field at any time during the current Intel ISEF project year, the Regulated Research Institutional/Industrial Setting Form (1C) must be completed and displayed at the project booth.
16. After experimentation, each student or team must submit a (maximum) 250-word, one-page abstract which summarizes the current year’s work. The abstract must describe research conducted by the student, not by the supervising adult(s).
17. A project data book and research paper are not required, but are strongly recommended for judging purposes. Regional or local fairs may require a project data book and/or a research paper.
18. All signed forms, certifications, and permits must be available for review by all regional, state, national and international affiliated fair SRCs in which the student(s) participate. This review must occur after experimentation and before competition.
Continuation/ Research Progression of Projects
1. As in the professional world, research projects may build on work performed previously. A valid continuation project is a sound scientific endeavor. Students will be judged only on laboratory experiment/data collection performed over 12 continuous months beginning no earlier than January 2017 and ending May 2018.
2. Any project based on the student’s prior research could be considered a continuation/research progression project. These projects must document that the additional research is a substantive expansion from prior work (e.g. testing a new variable or new line of investigation). Repetition of previous experimentation with the same methodology and research question, even with an increased sample size, is an example of an unacceptable continuation.
3. The display board and abstract must reflect the current year’s work only. The project title displayed in the finalist’s booth may mention years (for example, “Year Two of an Ongoing Study”). Supporting data books (not research papers) from previous related research may be exhibited if properly labeled as such.
4. Longitudinal studies are permitted as an acceptable continuation under the following conditions:
a. The study is a multi-year study testing or documenting the same variables in which time is a critical variable. (Examples: Effect of high rain or drought on soil in a given basin, return of flora and fauna in a burned area over time.)
b. Each consecutive year must demonstrate time-based change.
c. The display board must be based on collective past conclusionary data and its comparison to the current year data set. No raw data from previous years may be displayed.
5. All projects must be reviewed and approved each year and forms must be completed for the new year.
NOTE: For competition in the Intel ISEF, the Continuation/ Research Progression Project Form (7) is required for projects in the same field of study as a previous project. This form must be displayed at the project booth. Retention of all prior years’ paperwork is required and must be presented to the Intel ISEF SRC upon request.
1. Team projects compete and are judged in the scientific category of their research at the Intel ISEF. All team members must meet the eligibility requirements for Intel ISEF.
2. Teams must have no more than three members. A team with members from different geographic regions may compete at an affiliated fair of one of its members, but not at multiple fairs. However, each affiliated fair holds the authority to determine whether teams with members outside of a fair’s geographic territory are eligible to compete, understanding that if the team wins the right to attend Intel ISEF, all team members’ expenses must be supported by the fair.
a. Team membership cannot be changed during a given research year unless there are extenuating circumstances and the local SRC reviews and approves the change, including converting a team project to an individual project or vice versa. Such conversions must address rationale for the change and include a clear delineation between research preceding the change and that which will follow. A memorandum documenting this review and approval should be attached to Form 1A.
b. Once a project has competed in a science fair at any level, team membership cannot change and the project cannot be converted from an individual project to a team project or vice versa.
c. In a future year, any project may be converted from an individual to a team project, from a team to an individual project and/or have a change in team membership.
3. Each team is encouraged to appoint a team leader to coordinate the work and act as spokesperson. However, each member of the team should be able to serve as spokesperson, be fully involved with the project, and be familiar with all aspects of the project. The final work should reflect the coordinated efforts of all team members and will be evaluated using similar rules and judging criteria as individual projects.
4. Each team member must submit an Approval Form (1B). Team members must jointly submit the Checklist for Adult Sponsor (1), one abstract, a Student Checklist (1A), a Research Plan and other required forms.
5. Full names of all team members must appear on the abstract and forms.
Contact the Science Education Programs or the Scientific Review Committee with questions.
Sources of Information for ALL Projects
1. United States Patent and Trade Office
Customer Service: 1-800-786-9199 (toll-free);
571-272-1000 (local); 571-272-9950 (TTY)
2. European Patent Office
3. The Mad Scientist Network at Washington University School of Medicine:
4. ANS Task Force
Acquatic Nuisance Species (ANS) Task Force
Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service
Invasive Species List
6. Invasive Species Specialist Group
The Global Invasive Species database contains invasive species information supplied by experts from around the world.
7. Invasive Species Information
Provides information for species declared invasive, noxious, prohibited, or harmful or potentially harmful.
8. Success with Science: The Winner’s Guide to High School Research
Gaglani, S. and DeObaldia, G. (2011). Research Corporation for Science Advancement.