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Helping Your Child Choose a Science Fair Project

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.  –A. Einstein

First of all, I must confess, I’m quite the science fair savant.  I had an 11 year career while in public school with projects like dissecting owl pellets, measuring the respiration rate of crickets, conducting experiments to see what color honey bees prefer, etc.  I even spent all three years of high school studying a weevil that at the time was undescribed; a project that took me to the International Science Fair, twice (insert back patting here)!

Why Participate in Science Fair?

Some kids had sports Dads; I had a science fair Dad.  My motivation wasn’t necessarily that I loved science. Initially my motivation was that I got to spend time with my Dad.  Every spring we would plot and plan my project, conduct my experiments, gather and analyze the data…

I’m sure there was some moaning and groaning in there somewhere, but looking back those are some of my fondest memories. I truly believe the science fair is one of the best ways to get involved in your child’s education (and by involved I mean taking on the role of guide and mentor; not active participant).

Believe it or not, children are naturals when it comes to the skills needed to excel at a science project.  They’re observant, curious, creative, unconstrained by what they think ‘should’ happen, passionate, and easily excited (Eureka! moments are not hard to create).  The ‘science’ of a science project isn’t in the subject matter; it’s in the process.  The textbooks call this process the scientific method, which is really nothing more than a simple but effective way of thinking.

The hardest part is helping your child come up with a project, something they would be interested in that hasn’t been done hundreds of times (my niece actually brought home a note last year discouraging “volcanoes”). This is really just as easy as asking a question.

Note: While we have included the major parts of the scientific method, the intent of this post is primarily to help you get started on a project. For more information on the actual process I would highly recommend this Project Guide, specifically the “detailed help for each step” section just below the visual.

Step One: Ask a Question

To do this, help them recognize when they’re making an observation that can be turned into a question. Make note of things that seem to always happen together, or things that appear to have a pattern to them (children do this daily—they just aren’t usually aware that this is where science begins).   For a science fair project help them center their brainstorming around things they are interested in and familiar with:

  • Have you noticed that most things you bake in the oven have eggs in them?
  • Did you see all those bugs fly out of the flower bed when we were there?  I didn’t see as many in the gravel…
  • Why are there always so many wasps at our barbeque?
  • Isn’t it interesting that scotch tape is never used by dad when he’s jimmy-rigging something?  It’s always duct-tape.
  • Have you noticed that the rose bush has yellow blossoms and white blossoms on it?  I swear mom waters them with the same stuff every day.
  • What do you think would happen if we didn’t put our food in the refrigerator?

Each of those observations can be followed by the simple musing:  I wonder why…. And any kid will follow that immediately with: What do you think would happen if… And now you have a science fair project.

Step Two: Construct a Hypothesis

This is really just an educated guess at the answer to your question. You must state your hypothesis in a way that you can easily measure, and of course, your hypothesis should be constructed in a way to help you answer your original question. “If _____[I do this] _____, then _____[this]_____ will happen.”

For example, say you settle on the question: What do you think would happen if we didn’t put our food in the refrigerator?

Let’s take a guess at what would happen (otherwise known as our hypothesis): If we don’t put our food in the refrigerator it will turn gross faster than the same foods in the refrigerator.

Keep in mind that your hypothesis does not need to be right. Let your child come up with what they honestly think will happen, you may know the answer right away, but the fact that they may not makes the experiment that much more fun, they’ll be surprised by the results!

Step Three: Test Your Hypothesis With an Experiment

The next step is to design a simple experiment that will answer their question in the end and either support or disprove their hypothesis. A couple of tips:

  • Consider the importance of making comparisons; with and without, before and after, etc.
  • Remind them to only change one thing at a time so that they can be certain of the cause and the effect.
  • Encourage measuring, drawing, photographing, recording, writing, or any other type of data collection that excites them.
  • Encourage them to repeat the experiment to make sure their original results were not just an accident.
  • Most importantly, let their creativity shine through.  Science, in spite of what stereotypes will tell you, is an extremely creative process.

Here’s an example: What do you think would happen if we didn’t put our food in the refrigerator?

  • Get a couple different kinds of food (milk, cheese, vegetables, meat, leftovers, etc), make sure you have 2 of each. Make sure they are in the same containers and that the food is the same age to better control your experiment.
  • Get two shoe boxes, label one “refrigerator” and one “counter.”  (This is so you can compare results later)
  • Put one of each kind of food in each box and put them in their appropriate locations.
  • Each day record observations, make note of the smell, the texture, draw sketches, take pictures, measure the temperature, whatever else your child dreams up.  Use a magnifying glass, toothpicks, any instruments you can find to fully engage them in the observing.

Step Four: Analyze Your Data and Draw Conclusions

Once you have collected all the measurements (a.k.a data) you need to analyze that information to see if your hypothesis was true or false. Remember to come back to the original musing: I wonder why? Why do we store things in the fridge?  Because if we don’t it turns green and smells funny. Does this answer support our hypothesis? Yes!

The best way to portray your results is through visual representation, use the pictures they took or drew and help them make a graph or chart. (Go here for more tips on drawing conclusions).

Step Five: Communicate Your Results

Now you need to create your ‘final report’ so that you can show everyone what you learned. Your school will have likely sent you home with a few guidelines on this. What size of display board to use, if it needs to be typed, etc.

The cool thing about this step is that professional scientists do almost exactly the same thing by publishing their final report in a scientific journal or by presenting their results on a poster at a scientific meeting. Basically, your child is now a real scientist!

Final Thoughts

The point is to engage your child in critical thinking, to help them understand how to ask and answer questions.

I can honestly say that my involvement in the science fair is one of the most useful things that came out of my K-12 education.  Not only did it help me develop a love and awe for the natural world, and a sincere admiration for the sciences, it also taught me the art of thinking, and gave me the skill set I need to find my own answers, and to be confident of what I conclude based on what I see around me.  We’ve all asked the question: Was that just a coincidence? This is how you find out!

What are some of the questions your kids have been asking? Share!

12 Comments so far

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  1. My 7-year-old is a scientist by nature (what kid isn’t, really). Just this week we put a gummy bear in water overnight to see what would happen. Made a hypothesis & everything. (BTW: I could NOT believe how enormous it became.) For a mom who wasn’t a sciencey kid, it’s fun rediscovering how the world works through a kid’s eyes.

    • Debi – That’s great, it’s like a ‘silly square’, hahaaa! And I agree with you 100%. My 5 year old is one giant science fair project waiting to happen, he comes up with new questions every day, and is starting to get the hang of suggesting ways we can “test” his ideas. I love it. Looking forward to engaging him more in the process as he gets older.

  2. Lacey

    Adan’s latest question, ” How did Evie get in your Belly?” Answer that one why don’t you. :)
    Great write up by the way.

  3. This is awesome, Lindsey. I think there is more potential in improving critical thinking from the process you described than anything else the kids do. I really think the science fair should be required every year. My daughter did the chewing gum one last year and had such a fun time with it. She chose the idea and we had fun talking about various ways to show her results. She was in K – there was only one other K student to enter the fair. Anyways, this year I want to spend more time preparing for it so we have been talking about it already – so I really appreciate your ideas!!!! You have such a great brain.

    So, is there a follow-up post with ideas, more specifics and examples? I really like the food one!

    This really is great though – because I think the parents probably need the most help since we are helping them throughout the process. You were so lucky to have your dad!!

    • Liz – Glad you found this helpful. And trust me, we have follow-up post ideas galore. When we will get to them I’m not sure, but they are in our brains. I thought about listing specific ideas, but the post got too long. Some day Liz I promise! Thanks for supplying the question, it was fun to think about the good old days!

  4. Amber

    Amazing! I have been trying to help Jackson along with his science fair idea (his ideas mostly involve making various inventions out of his legos). I’ve been struggling with helping him understand the whole idea of the scientific method. I’ve been tempted to bring you and Joe in as reinforcements! This totally helps.

  5. […] Outside mom discusses the pros and cons of the science fair […]

  6. […] written a bit about the science fair before, but focused on how to pick a project with your kiddo.  But we haven’t talked about the process of doing the project.  Just in case there are […]

  7. […] school wide science fair project.  I’ve talked before about what a wonderful and lasting effect the science fair had on my own life so I was excited to finally have the chance to share that joy with my own school-aged […]

  8. […] school wide science fair project.  I’ve talked before about what a wonderful and lasting effect the science fair had on my own life so I was excited to finally have the chance to share that joy with my own school-aged […]

  9. Susan

    Thank you for this very helpful information. I am having my preschooler take part in our local homeschool science fair and you are a tremendous help and inspiration! I always hated science fair stuff as a kid but now, as an adult, I am just as excited as my daughter!

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    I'm Lindsey. I'm an environmental educator, my husband's a biologist. The outdoors is infused into everything we do; which explains why I'm better at mud pies than home decorating. More About Me

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