New Year’s Resolution: Do your own science fair project (correctly)

I get it… few parents and kids love science fair projects as much as I do – but that’s OK – I am here to help! Doing a science fair project should be fun and informative, not stressful. For the new year, I recommend tackling the science fair with a new outlook. Design your own project. It is not as hard as it sounds.

There are two basic strategies:

Strategy 1. Take a project and make it your own:

For a student’s first science fair, this is a great strategy. There are many websites and science fair project books that have interesting ideas and tell them exactly what to do, like a recipe in a cookbook. And that is OK – just follow the directions and complete the project, but don’t stop there. Have them select ONE variable (i.e. one “thing”) and change it to see how the change affects the results (i.e. another “thing”). The more often they do this, the more in-depth the project will be. It will also give them practice at conducting experiments.

Basic philosophy: CHANGE one “thing” … MEASURE the outcome in another “thing”.
Strategy 2. Starting from scratch:

To have a truly unique project, the student will have to design it themselves. That means they have to ask the question, write the hypothesis, and design their own experiment. Everything they find online is available to everyone, so you should expect other kids to be doing (or have already done) the same, or a very similar, project.

Basic philosophy: FIND an interesting correlation, old wives’ tale, food hack, hobby, and/or myth and set up an experiment to test if the relationship between two “things” is predictable.

The basic steps are the same:

1. Make the observation (Ask it in the form of a question)
2. State your hypothesis (if THIS THING is changed…then will THIS OTHER THING change?);
3. Do the experiment… change the first thing, measure the second thing.

For example, I have a friend whose son doesn’t love science but loves skateboarding. I know very little about skateboarding. So I had him start but writing down all the “things” associated with a good day at a skate park. We started focusing on the skateboard itself.
— Are they all the same?
— What makes them different?
— What makes them “good”?
— Why do you want a longer/shorter board?
— Why are the wheels different?
— How many different types of wheels are there?
— Why is there a difference in price?
— What do you care most about (speed? distance? control?).

He ended up tackling: “How does the type of wheel affect the speed of a skateboard?”

And then we had it… Change the type of wheel/Measure the speed. He enjoyed the project and did well because he was interested in the topic, cared about the outcome, and contributed to the design.

Good Luck and Happy New Year!
Keep the questions coming!

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What will the Science Fair Judge ask me??

This time of year, many students are preparing for an actual science fair competition. Most fairs have an interview portion, when the student will explain their project to one or more judges. This will make most students nervous – so the more prepared they are, the better this will probably go.

When the judge comes to your project:
—-stand up, stick out your hand and say:
—-“Hi, my name is _____ and my project is ______ (state your title)”.
—-Then, BRIEFLY summarize the project in 1 minute (maybe 2).
—-Then, say: “Do you have any questions?”

PRACTICE this with friends and family – it will help with the nervousness.

Questions students should be ready to answer :

• Where did you get the idea for this project?
• What research did you do?
• What was your control?
• What were your independent and dependent variables?
• How (and how often) did you replicate the experiment?
• What would be the next experiment you would do?
• Why did you think that would happen?
• Why did you choose that…?
• What did you change and what did you measure?
• How did you measure that?
• Why are your findings important?
• What does that word mean (for all big/science words used)?
• What did you learn?
• What was the hardest part?
• What was the most fun?
• Did anything surprise you along the way?
• Who helped you?
• Why did you choose that amount, or measurement, or piece of equipment?
• If you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently?


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What do I do with my data??

This time of year, most of the questions I get focus on how to graph the data collected. If you are trying to decide between a line graph and a bar graph… it usually is not your choice. The type of data and type of project dictate what, mathematically, you are “allowed” to do.

Here is a reminder:

LINE GRAPH – you must have quantitative and continuous data for both your independent and dependent variables. That is data that can be assigned a number that could be logically placed on a number line. For example, temperature, time, size, weight, wavelength, speed, etc. HOWEVER – if either of your variables are qualitative you CAN NOT use a line graph (even though your graphing program will let you!!). This is one of the biggest mistakes I see at science fairs.

BAR GRAPH – the overwhelming majoring of science fair projects are best presented with a bar graph. Usually that means you have a qualitative variable on the x-axis (horizontal) and a quantitative variable on your y-axis (vertical). Use bar graphs for all projects that have different “treatments”, for example: different conditions under which you pop popcorn, or freeze liquid, or bounce balls, or break eggs, or grow plants, or fly paper airplanes, etc. Use bar graphs too if you are varying colors (e.g. red vs. blue) or groups (e.g. male vs. female; different types of soda; different types of seeds; etc.).

With yes/no data (or counts):
—You might be able to make a pie chart showing the percentage of yes vs. no or
—You might be able to make a bar graph by calculating the number of yes (or no) divided by the number of attempts (or trials) and then you have a number for your y-axis. For example if you ask 20 women and a question and 10 answer yes and ask 20 men the same question and 5 say yes; then you could calculate the percentage of women who answered yes (10/20*100 = 50%) vs. the percentage of men (5/20*100 = 25%) and graph the percentage.
—The same applies to projects where you have “counted” the occurrence of something, for example the number of times the can floated; or flower died; or egg broke. Convert “counts” into percentages and make a bar graph or pie chart depending on your project.

DON’T FORGET TO LABEL BOTH AXES with labels, units and numbers. That is another very common mistake.

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Unique Science Fair Experiment: What Prevents a Pasta Boil-Over?

There are so many science experiments that can be done in the kitchen! Here is one example: Macaroni Mayhem

Practical science fair Experiments you can do in your kitchen: Preventing the pasta boil-over!

Practical science fair Experiments you can do in your kitchen: Preventing the pasta boil-over!

To design your own experiment, all you need is a testable observation, or idea, or solution to a problem.

Background: This is how pasta is made in my house – boil water, add pasta, walk away from stove, hear sizzling sounds from kitchen, run back to kitchen to find “pasta suds” spilling out of pot all over the stove … Sadly this also happens with rice and potatoes.

So when my neighbor, who loves to cook, wanted to design her own science fair project we tackled this question: What is the best way to prevent the pasta boil over? (Aside from the obvious… don’t leave the kitchen). We looked for solutions on the internet that we could test. We found an article for little known uses of butter, and one was listed as preventing pasta from boiling over. And that is all we needed to design an experiment – an observation we can test!

Question: Does butter prevent pasta boil-over?
Hypothesis: If butter is added to the pot, then the pasta will not boil over.

Procedure: In its simplest form we would have two same-sized metal cooking pots, each with the same amount and type of pasta, and each with the same amount of water (these are all the controlled variables and we need them to be as identical as possible). We put them on the same size burners at the same time and set the heat to the same temperature setting. One pot gets butter (that is the experimental condition) and one pot does not (that is the control). “Butter” is the independent variable because that is what we are manipulating. Our dependent variable is the boil over – which we could just count as yes or no (technically quantitative) but to make it more quantitative we use a stop watch and time when the first “sizzle” happens (i.e. marking the official start of the oh so familiar boil-over). Don’t forget to repeat the whole experiment 3 times (cooling the pots between runs) for the appropriate level of replication and use the same amounts of water, pasta, and butter each time.

Did it work? Yes…sometimes!

So now you can use this basic design to create your own project.

Dependent variable is:
—yes/no for the boil-over happening and
—TIME it takes for the boil over to occur

Independent variable is:
—what you will manipulate, so think about each component of the above design. Pick one that interests you and vary that, for example:

* How much butter is needed? (compare 0.5 tsp, 1 tsp, 1.5 tsp, etc.)
* Does salt content of butter matter? (compare salted to unsalted butter)
* Does margarine work better than butter? (compare margarine to butter)
* Butter is a fat, so is oil – does oil work? (compare oil to butter)
* Which oil works best? (compare olive oil, to vegetable oil, to peanut oil, coconut oil, etc.)
* How much oil is needed (compare different amounts of oil)
* What other strategies do people use to avoid this?
(e.g. salt, wooden spoon, lower temperatures, more water, etc.)

When the pasta is cooked, the trial is over. In all cases, “better” and “best” will be determined by (1) if no boil over happened and/or (2) the longest time before the boil over happens

Once you find the best solution, you can add a follow-up experiment:
* Does my solution work for all pasta types (compare wheat pasta to white pasta to gluten free pasta)
* Does my solution work for different volumes of water and different ratios of water-pasta?


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Example of a successful Mung Bean Science Fair Project

Here is an example of one version of the Mung Bean project targeting acid rain. He is a fifth grader and focused on changing pH with vinegar to evaluate the effects of low pH on plant growth.

5th grade Science Fair Project Board

5th grade Science Fair Project Board

If you have done a version of the Mung Bean project I detailed in earlier posts, send me the photo and I may post it too!

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A technically complete science fair project in ONE HOUR

This project is not going to win any fair, but if you are in a jam and just need SOMETHING and a decent grade, then this project might help:

Science Fair Project in One Hour

WHAT YOU NEED: maple syrup (cheap fake stuff is best), tall thin glass container like a flower vase (taller is better), at least 30 pennies, pot with 3 inches of water on stove, stopwatch, thermometer (but can do the project without one – see below).

QUESTION: How does temperature affect viscosity?

RESEARCH: look up “viscosity” and learn what viscosity is. NOTE if you actually have more than one hour, then also learn about how viscosity affects very small organisms like phytoplankton and fish larvae and think about how global climate changes could impact the viscosity of the oceans and what that might mean for marine ecosystems.

HYPOTHESIS (pick one, but only one):
—-If temperature increases, then viscosity will increase
—-If temperature increases, then viscosity will decrease
—-If temperature increases, then viscosity will stay the same


Independent variable (the one you will change) = temperature; measured with a thermometer or as a function of time with heat applied (called Heat Time; see below)

Dependent variable (the one you will measure) = viscosity; measured as the time it takes for an object to fall through a fluid (called Fall Time below). Low viscosity = Short fall time

Controlled variables (the ones you don’t care about but must stay the same between trials) = size/shape of container, maple syrup, pennies

1. Fill the glass container with maple syrup, put container in pot with about 3 inches of water; do not turn on heat yet.

2. Drop in one penny and time (use stop watch) how long it takes to hit the bottom of the container, listen for the sound of the penny hitting the glass. Repeat 2 more times making sure you drop the penny from the same height each time; record data in a table.

3. Turn heat on to medium; start another timer or look at clock to mark Heat Time = 0

4. Every 2 minutes drop in another 3 pennies (one at a time, timing each one). If you have a thermometer, you should also record the actual temperature. NOTE: as time goes on, more heat is applied and temperature increases. In this case, time is easier to measure than temperature because where the thermometer sits in the maple syrup will affect your temperature reading.

CONTROL: the viscosity at room temperature, before any temperature increase is applied; so the Fall Times for the first three pennies dropped in.

Make a table showing Heat Time (0, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, etc. in minutes); Temperature in degrees if you took it; and the three fall times, one for each penny. Then make a column for the average fall time.

Make a LINE GRAPH with Heat Time (a measure of Temperature) on the x-axis and FALL TIME (a measure of Viscosity) on the y-axis. Graph the average fall times for each heat time data point.

If you took real temperatures, make a second line graph with Temperature on the x-axis.

What does the line look like? Is it straight or curved? If you did both are the two lines the same or different?

Now you must accept or reject your hypothesis. So determine if the data match your hypothesis. If yes, then accept. If no, then reject.

Does the line go up? Then the data show that as Heat Time (= temperature) increased, the Fall Time (= viscosity) increased. Is that the hypothesis you chose? Then accept your hypothesis, otherwise reject it.

Does the line go down? Then the data show that as Heat Time (= temperature) increased, the Fall Time (=viscosity) decreased. Is that the hypothesis you chose? Then accept your hypothesis, otherwise reject it.

Is the line straight across (not going upward or downward)? Then the data show as Heat Time (=temperature increased, the Fall Time (=viscosity) did not change. Is that the hypothesis you chose? Then accept your hypothesis, otherwise reject it.

IF you have more time, you can also do the experiment by putting container in refrigerator to change the temperature in the opposite direction.

MAKE IT YOUR OWN: Repeat with different types of syrup (rank by cost) or with other fluids like corn syrup or molasses.

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How to design a science fair project from scratch: day 4

Wow look at the difference by ONLY day 3 of the trial run. All of the mung beans in the control have sprouted while none of the mung beans in the low pH environment (i.e. with vinegar) sprouted. So – all other factors being equal – we could conclude that pH has a negative effect on mung bean sprouting!!

Control on right

Control on right

Remember that “plant projects” always get you a little extra credit for “effort” because they can’t be done in a day – but this one could be done in as little as 3 days.

Things I have learned:

*** pH has a negative effect (i.e. the project idea worked!!)

*** 1/2 cup of vinegar + 1/2 water = maximum amount of vinegar to use (since none sprouted)

*** soaking time not critical as long as its longer than minimum of 6 hours (remember I accidentally let them soak all night – but the control still sprouted 100%

*** too much cheese cloth makes rinsing difficult

*** mung beans are like glitter – they get everywhere!

*** pictures are important for documenting and for the backboard

*** I can eat the control mung beans when done!!


The design above will work for the basic design, but I would like to do a more advanced design and look for a dose-response relationship between the amount of vinegar (i.e. the pH level) and the amount of sprouting.

So I would do:

3 jars: Control (water; no vinegar)
3 jars: Low dose vinegar (highest pH level): 5 drops of vinegar into 1 cup of water
3 jars: Medium dose vinegar (medium pH level): 1 tablespoon of vinegar, fill to 1 cup with water.
3 jars: Highest dose of vinegar (lowest pH level = most acidic condition): 1/4 cup of vinegar, fill to cup line with water.

Also make a data sheet for observations and think about what to measure BESIDES number that spouted (e.g. size of sprouting, etc.). More data will mean more information that could lead to more experiments.

Control on right

Control on right

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How to design a science fair project from scratch: day 3

Doing a “trial run” might seem inefficient, but I assure you – it will help discover any issues or problems and will help pinpoint concentrations, volumes, times, etc. that need to be worked out if you are designing your own project.

Mistake #1: I put the 2 jars in a dark area of my kitchen; for me this was behind my breadmaker… However – out of sight = out of mind because I forgot to dump out the water after 8 hours. Anyway – here is what the beans now look like:

mung beans 2 001

Adding to procedure, we would want to drain the water out of the jar through the cheese cloth top. Fill the jar with tap water (through the cheese cloth) and rinse 3 times (both the control and the test get rinsed with clean water).

Interestingly, the volume of beans seems to be about the same in each jar, but I can see signs of sprouting in the control jar (small white rings in the center of the swollen green beans) and not in the test jar, suggesting that the lower pH might interfere with sprouting.

See the control:



And the test beans exposed to a low pH environment (i.e. vinegar)

TEST (low pH)

TEST (low pH)

Thinking about what I can measure/observe: Volume of beans, signs of sprouting, color, etc. I will want to include all of these on a data sheet that I make for my real run. I will also want to have a camera on hand to document the progress and get photos for my backboard.

Today: Rinse the beans 3x in the evening

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How to design a science fair project from scratch: day 2

Today I am figuring out the best set up to use and doing a “trial run”. Buying 12 mung bean sprouters isn’t in by budget so I made one from items I could find easily (pasta jar, cheese cloth, elastics):

Make a mung bean sprouter - you will need at least 6 (3 for controls and 3 for test)

Make a mung bean sprouter – you will need at least 6 (3 for controls and 3 for test)

This is a 12 oz mason jar that I buy Classico Alfredo Sauce in (and fortunately my kids love this stuff so it won’t take long for me to save 12 jars). I have covered it with a square of cheese cloth (bought cheesecloth at the supermarket – it’s on the “kitchen stuff” isle) held in place with a rubber band (found in my junk drawer).

Yesterday, I selected 100 mung beans so that the math (I will be calculating %) would be easier and intuitive; but once I counted out 100 beans I immediately figured out that 100 was not enough because 100 mung beans is only 1/2 Tablespoon (didn’t even cover bottom of jar). To make the math a bit easier I figured I should have 1000 mung beans in each sprouter…. The best procedure is to actually count 1000 mung beans… but that gets old fast, so I did 5 tablespoons and that turned out to be a level 1/3 of a cup of mung beans. There would now be “approximately” 1000 mung beans per sprouter.

So now I know I need 1 cup of mung beans per “treatment” and 1 cup for the control. I know I will put 1/3 of a cup into each of 3 clean jars. I also figured out the mason jar can hold 1 cup of water.

So my “procedure” so far looks like:

1. Rinse all mung beans for 3-5 minutes;
Mung bean 3

2. Add 1/3 cup of mung beans to each of 6 jars (if basic) and 12 jars (if advanced).

Mung bean 2

3. Add 1 cup of water to 3 control jars.

Of all my questions, I started with testing pH because I had some white vinegar. I know vinegar is acidic but I don’t really know how much vinegar I should use. So I picked 1/2 cup:

4. Add 1/2 cup of water and 1/2 cup of white vinegar to 3 test jars.

That means my QUESTION is: What is the effect of pH on mung bean sprouting?

So my HYPOTHESIS is: As pH decreases (i.e. lower pH is more acidic) the percentage of mung beans that sprout will decrease because the acid will have a negative effect.

5. Soak for 8 hours.
6. Rinse morning and evening every day for 5 days (keep out of direct sunlight).
7. Observe for signs of sprouting and note the volume change in the jar (the beans will expand).

This is my trial run with 1 control (tan elastic) and 1 test (blue rubber band)
Test on left; Control on right
If you look close, the water levels are not even which means I will need to measure more carefully and I should count 1000 mung beans per jar. I don’t want little differences between my jars to obscure any results that I may record later.

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How to design a science fair project from scratch: day 1

Here is some insight into life with a scientist: My daughter tried some freshly sprouted mung beans from a friend at school –> She looked up mung beans and discovered they are very healthy and wanted to start eating them more regularly –> I went to the store to buy mung beans and discovered you have to sprout them yourself –> My daughter’s friend’s mom teaches me how to sprout mung beans –> After two days, beans sprouts…. and I (insert light bulb here) immediately realized mung beans would be a great tool to conduct science fair projects with!! Mung beans are cheap, easy to sprout, and the results are quick. So here I will design a science fair project – from scratch – so you can see how I work my way through the process.

The key is that the mung beans need to sit in clean water for 6 to 8 hours; clean water leads to most beans sprouting in 2-5 days. MY OBSERVATION: What happens if the water is not clean? So –> CHANGE THE WATER… MEASURE THE NUMBER OF BEANS THAT SPROUT.

This is a model system – the mung beans represent living organisms. With this model system I can ask many questions that have real world applications. For example:

What if the water has a low pH? = Ocean acidification and/or Acid Rain

What if the water is salty? = Salt water intrusion and/or Rising Sea Levels

What if the water is polluted? = Non-point Source Pollution and Runoff

What if the water has growth additives? = Use of Fertilizers or Effects of Vitamins

What if the water has tannins? = Chemical Ecology

What if the water has sediment? = Erosion and/or Sediment pollution

What if the water has an anti-biotic in it? = Effects of Anti-biotics

I haven’t decided which one I will tackle here – but the point is, with this system you could test the effect of WHATEVER YOU ARE INTERESTED IN as long as you can add it to the water.

My first task: Figure out what I need for materials….

I know I need a CONTROL set and an experimental set and I know I need REPLICATION; so that means I will need 6 jars/bags/sprouters for a basic experiment and 9 to 12 for a more advanced design… Here I am thinking:

3 jars for control (clean water)
3 jars for a “test” condition

3 jars for a control (clean water)
3 jars for a “low” condition
3 jars for a “medium” condition
3 jars for a “high” condition

Each jar needs a square of cheese cloth and an elastic and I need enough mung beans for each. My initial thought: count out 100 beans for each… (I was a pharmacy technician so I can quickly count by 5s) but that might get tedious so I could use a standard measure like a 1/4 cup or 1/3 cup. We’ll have to see how many fit in the jar leaving space to expand.

I am also envisioning what the eventual data will look like (most likely a bar graph with condition on the x-axis and % of beans that sprouted on the y-axis) and thinking about making a data sheet to keep track of the washing schedule and observations regarding the beans….

For now I need to go search my house for jars … or maybe red Solo cups… and go to the store to buy beans and cheese cloth … more later

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