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Science Fair Project Primer – ‘Tis the Season for the Scientific Method

January 3, 2011

Science Fair Project on Plants & Pollution

With the New Year brings the promise of elementary, middle and high school science fair projects.  For students and parents this either provides an opportunity for a shared educational experience… or a panic attack. Fortunately, your local library and the Internet provide excellent starting points for science fair projects.  Below are just some of the resources available for Dublin students and parents.

Start with the Scientific Method

“After meeting all of the scientists that we get to meet and work with on the show over the years, I do think that we’re scientists. We think methodically and critically through problems that we’ve got to solve, and that is the simplest definition of being a scientist.” – MythBusters star Adam Savage (at the Dublin High School Engineering and Design Academy Open House)

The value of any science fair project starts with the scientific method.  When a teacher asks for a poster board presentation requiring sections such as: Question, Hypothesis, Materials, Procedure, Results and Conclusion, what they are really requesting is that the student cover key elements of the scientific method. While a poster board presentation is the inevitable outcome, the most important learning occurs not in gluing summary information to a poster board, but in understanding and experiencing the scientific method.

What is the scientific method? According to, the scientific method is “a method of research in which a problem is identified, relevant data are gathered, a hypothesis is formulated from these data, and the hypothesis is empirically tested.” provides a useful overview of the scientific method (read more…).

The key to any science fair project is choosing a good question – a question that is interesting to you and that can be addressed test empirically – meaning through observation.  And key to empirical testing is coming up with a repeatable procedure that provides credible data for answering the question being posed. Why do teachers always want a hypothesis (or educated guess) about the question? Trying to predict the outcome helps you think through the problem – and helps validate the question being asked.  For younger students, forming a hypothesis about the outcome is also motivational.  Was my educated guess correct?

A fun way to introduce students to the most basic elements of the scientific method is the popular TV show MythBusters.  MythBusters starts each segment with a question (a popular myth), presents a hypothesis and then through elaborate experimentation either busts or confirms the myth. ( had the privilege to interview Kari Byron from MythBusters earlier this year – read more…)

Research Before Starting

Scientists and engineers don’t start from scratch – they invest time in research.  For younger students, the research will likely start with science fair project ideas.  There are numerous books that provide template-style science projects – and those are useful (see the resources section below).  More interesting, however, is to use those resources as inspiration to come up with a new question, and a question that the student is motivated to explore.

Poster Board for a 4th Grade Science Fair Project

For example, my younger daughter was interested in doing an experiment with plants for a 4th grade science fair project. We picked up some books from the Dublin Library but nothing caught my daughter’s imagination.  She ended up creating an experiment involving plants and possible pollutants with the question being “How does pollution in water affect plant growth?’ Five identical plants were given a variety of solutions for 12 days (water only, water + chlorine, water + salt, water + sugar and soda). Every day my daughter measured the height of the plants and took notes on appearance.  The project became a member of the family for 12 days with all of us interested in the outcome – and my younger daughter curious to know if her hypothesis was correct.

Science Fair Resources

Alameda County Library Science Fair Project Books – our local library has numerous books covering science fair project ideas. Science Fair Project Ideas – there are many online resources available covering science fair projects – I like this website with its diverse directory of project ideas along with a “Topic Selection Wizard“.

Tri-Valley Science and Engineering Fair – this annual event sponsored by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory brings together young scientists from across the Tri-Valley to showcase their projects.  The event is schedule to run Mar 22-25 this year.

  • A great video of last year’s event showcasing Tri-Valley students is available here.
  • Dublin High School’s Kirsten Mengell’s project on sleep deprivation not only won first place in her division at last year’s Tri-Valley Science and Engineering Fair but also was recognized in the Young Epidemiology Scholars Competition (read more…). An interview with Ms. Mengell is included at the bottom of this article.
  • Dublin High School Scientists Win Awards at Tri-Valley Science Fair – this article summarizes Dublin High’s overall participation in last year’s event.

John Green Elementary School Science Fair – local elementary, middle and high school science programs participate in science fairs – this is one example from last year.

YouTube is also a terrific resource for sharing your projects and learning about fellow student efforts.  My older daughter’s middle school “Elasto Blaster Newton Scooter” project became a YouTube video that has been viewed over 6,000 times (view here…).

Related Articles

  • MythBusters Adam Savage and Kari Byron on the Art of Science and Experimentation (read more…)
  • Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Series (read more…).
  • Dublin High School’s Engineering and Design Academy (
  • Interview with Dublin High science teacher Kim Baumann (read more…).
  • Dublin High junior Andrew Song leveraged his love of science and engineering to participate in NASA’s INSPIRE Collegiate Experience (read more…).
  • Dublin Schools Win at Alameda County Science and Engineering Fair (read more…)
  • STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programs are more important than ever – and need to start earlier (read more…).
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