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5 Ways to Lose the Science Fair

Posted by on November 18, 2011

Many times when you don’t win a science fair there isn’t any feedback on why your project was not selected as “best in show”. Here is a list of the 5 most common “red card violations” to get you kicked out of the science fair game (note that although I frequently fouled out of basketball games, I never got red carded in a soccer game):

1. Violation: Gadgeteering
Explanation: Projects that do not follow the scientific method to solve a problem will usually be dismissed as a demonstration or gadget. This is particularly common with a new technology. Just demonstrating you know how a solar cell (or DNA extraction kit or hover-craft) works is not sufficient for a competitive science fair project because there is no experimentation. The project might win at school level for a “wow” factor, but will not be considered for awards at higher levels. The exception is in middle school if there is a technology or engineering division. If this is the case, learn engineering design principles (very similar to scientific method).

2. Violation: Failure to follow scientific method
Explanation: The three most common errors that fall under this violation are
• no hypothesis (or not a testable hypothesis)
• no control
• not properly replicated (minimum 3x)
• dependent variable not quantitative

3. Violation: Lack of standardization for part of the procedure
Explanation: Projects that include activities such as: kicking a ball, hitting a ball, throwing a ball, blowing a bubble, etc. are fundamentally flawed because an important component can not be standardized (i.e., done the same way every time). Without a way to ensure that the activity is the same each time (e.g., use a pitching machine instead of a person to throw a ball) small differences in that component are expected to affect the results as much or even more than the independent variable. Consequently, results can not be interpreted as due to changes in the independent variable. HOWEVER, finding a way to overcome the issue of no standardization (e.g., build an automatic kicker, use a pitching machine, etc.) will usually earn approval from judges. This is part of the problem solving that scientists have to frequently do.

4. Violation: Lack of creativity
Explanation: If the project came from the internet or a science fair project book, then other students are probably doing the same project. In fact, there are some projects that are done EVERY year at EVERY fair. A judge with experience will recognize these projects and generally reduce the overall score – unless there is a creative twist.

5. Violation: Against the Law
Explanation: Project breaks science fair rules (or is missing paperwork for) approved use of human subjects, non-human vertebrate animals, bacteria, mold, and/or hazardous chemicals. There are good laws that prohibit some types of experiments. Generally, if the animal has a backbone (including humans), then the entire project must be pre-approved by a governing board. This means you can not give Grandma a box a donuts and test her blood sugar before and after to answer the question: “What is the effect of a dozen donuts on blood sugar?” Similarly, you can not add ice to your fish tank and monitor breathing rate to answer the question: “What is the effect of temperature on fish respiration?” Sadly, these are both examples of projects I have seen a school fairs!!

Check the rules before you start – they are changed frequently. Newer rules now prohibit growing bacteria and mold at home.

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