25 October 2005

Keys To A Great Science Project

A Great Science Project Is:


Doable -- don't bite off more than you can chew

Fun -- Pick a question you are interested in, and that you can actually complete. (Fun and Frustration are inversely correlated.)

Realistic -- Don't expect to break new ground. The objective is not publishable new results, but to show you can do a little science.

Original -- there are thousands of projects described on hundreds of sites. At least try a new wrinkle, rather than just copying one. Besides, you are you, with your own questions, capabilities, resources, knowledge, and interests.

Simple -- you have to understand what you are trying to do, and what the results mean. Even more important, the judges have to be able to understand it.

Clear -- If the judges can't immediately grasp what you were trying to find out or demonstrate, forget it. The judges, at least in the first rounds, aren't scientists, but teachers.

Statistically Sound -- Show you can do the math, and that the results have meaning.

The "Scientific Method"


Notice how the rules, guidelines, judging forms and suggestions at the sites listed below keep harping on the "scientific method" and "hypothesis"? You had better know what the "scientific method" is, and have a hypothesis.

Most judging forms say a good science fair project is an experiment. I don't necessarily agree with this, since a lot of good science is done by observation, collection of specimens, insightful reprocessing of existing data, calculations, or just thinking. (In Einstein's five breakthrough papers of his "year of wonders" of 1905, he didn't report on any experiments whatever.)

But a good project does have to pose a question, and provide an answer based on experiment, observation, or insightful calculation. In an experiment especially, it is important to be able to state how good that answer is (using statistics).

So here are some more suggestions:


Have a Hypothesis -- The question "What happens if . . . ?" is OK, but not likely to result in a great science project. A better way of asking is "If I do this, the result should be that." (a hypothesis) -- do your results confirm your hypothesis?

Many science projects (especially at the elementary grade levels, before students have learned that they have to game the system) are not experiments but demonstrations: Look, I can make a battery from a lemon! Yes, but what was the question you were trying to answer?
The voltage of the battery depends on the half-reactions at the electrodes (e.g., the composition of the electrodes and the electrolyte). Why can you make a battery from a lemon, but not from an apple? (Or can you?) If you make a battery from a grapefruit, does the voltage depend on how far apart the electrodes are? (Hypothesis: no). Does it depend on the area of the electrode exposed to the electrolyte? (Hypothesis: no)

On the other hand, the current from the battery might depend on these factors. All lead acid car batteries have the same voltage per cell, but some have more "cranking power" than others -- Why? How does the current or voltage of the lemon cell depend on temperature? Does a pickle battery have the same voltage as a lemon battery with the same electrodes? What is your hypothesis? Do your data agree with this hypothesis or not?
You can use experiments that Nature has already run. You just have to analyze the results.
Hypothesis: The populations of Eriogonum fasciculatum growing on Catalina Island belong to a different subspecies from those growing in the adjacent California coast in similar habitats. You don't even have to go to Catalina to answer this. Just look at specimens in local herbaria. But you had better be sure you can identify the locations the specimens came from -- are the habitats really similar? (Maybe there are some weather data, or info from ecological studies.) How different do populations have to be to be classified in separate subspecies? What characteristics of the specimens are you going to measure? Can those be measured without damaging the specimens? Maybe you can get permission to remove random leaves for microscopic examination, or to weigh them. How do you select leaves randomly?

If you grow seeds from the two populations together in a greenhouse or growth chamber, do their differences persist? (how fast does E. fasciculatum grow? Is there time? Has anyone else already done this, for example someone experimenting with native plants as ornamentals or for some other reason? Maybe they are already growing together in a local botanic garden.
Focus on the Question, not the Apparatus -- Building a cool apparatus is not science. Using a simple kluged-together apparatus to answer a question is science. Therefore, for example, grinding a telescope mirror is not science, but engineering. Using a telescope to answer a question (determine the truth or falsehood of a hypothesis, e.g., robins in my neighborhood feed their hatchlings more insects than worms) is science. Actually, I am not sure a telescope would be the right tool to explore that hypothesis. What would be the best way?

Do The Math -- When designing an experiment that is supposed to detect the difference between two experimental conditions, the biggest disappointment is not detecting that difference when it is really there. This is usually due to problems with design of the experiment (e.g., n is too small). (If you don't know what that means then you are not ready to do any experiment.)
For example, if the hypothesis is that fruit flies live longer on diet A than on diet B, how many populations do you have to run to get a reliable answer? How many flies should be in each vial? If you don't know how to answer these questions, don't guess -- figuring this out is the key to a successful and interesting project. Most of science is figuring out how get the data that will answer the question.

Don't waste your time on a poorly thought out experiment. (How long are the flies going to live? Are you going to experiment on larval or adult nutrition or both? What if the flies in the vials breed and you end up with multiple generations -- how will you measure the longevity of any particular fly? Better think all these things through.)
Think it Through -- what are all the things that could go wrong with this experiment, that would prevent you from getting useful results (i.e., results that either prove or disprove your hypothesis.)

Anticipate What Can Go Wrong and Design Around It -- What happens if you can't check the experiment for a couple of days? What if the plants outgrow the space you have given them? Are you going to have access to all the equipment, reagents, and materials you need, when you need them? How long is it going to take? You need a plan.

Keep a Notebook -- This is getting to be a requirement at many science fairs. The purpose of the notebook (a sort of diary or journal of the project) is to prove you did what you said you did when you said you did it.
When did you get the idea? Whom did you consult? (telephone numbers or email addresses?) What other resources did you use? What was the exact sequence of steps you followed? What modifications did you make as you went along? What data did you get, and how and when did you get it? What analysis did you do on the data?

The notebook should (ideally) contain all of the information you need to do the final write-up. Don't let yourself get caught wondering at midnight just before the project is due: "What was the model number of that instrument I used? And was that buffer 0.5 molar or 0.05 molar?" To prevent cheating, lab notebooks are never loose-leaf. Use a bound notebook and, if you want to do it the way real researchers do, number the pages and date the entries.
Talk to the Experts -- It is not cheating to get expert advice. In fact it is stupid not to. All scientists do this all the time. Ask someone knowledgeable to look over your plan. Take advantage of the experience and good will of others. This is how real science gets done.

Plan -- Don't arrive at the science fair with a half-baked project because you didn't plan ahead. Chose a project that can be baked in the time available.

Some Science Fair Project Resources


What Makes A Good Project from the California State Science Fair site

Suggestions from Ted Rowan, Falmouth, Massachusetts, High School

Advice from a science fair judge from the Energy Quest program of the California Energy Commission

A science fair judging form

David Wheat's Science In Action site has articles about science and math in the real world, weird science, science news, unexpected connections, and other cool science stuff. There is an index of the articles by topic here.

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1 comment:

Eva said...

Those are great tips. I was thinking on writing something like this at some point, because I get a lot of people to my site looking for projects.
Originality is definately an important point. I've judged a few science fairs, and there are always so many similar projects. Music, laundry detergents, decomposing food items, and environmentally friendly alternatives for other things are always overrepresented.
The projects that I actually remember judging last year were the original ones: a controversial study on fluoride in tap water and a model of a hypothetical future evolution of a new type of shark. I remember being really impressed by both projects from the moment I saw them, because originality is what makes the first impression. The judges see the title and the display before they see the students, so even if you have a good story to tell, that is never the first impression. Your topic is, so it has to be good!