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Change THIS, Measure THAT: How to design your own unique science fair project

Posted by on September 14, 2013

Back to school time is also: “what am I going to do for a science fair project” time. This happens to be my FAVORITE time of year, but I appreciate that the required project also causes a lot of stress in a lot of classrooms and households!!

START EARLY – here is some help:

Look for ideas that will “test” a relationship between two variables, because the fundamental structure of all science fair projects is to change something and then measure how the change impacted another thing (here the “things” are called variables). Sometimes it is easier to identify what you can measure first. Think of variables that would have numbers and units such as time, distance, angle, speed, growth, age, weight, volume, temperature, circumference, salinity, intensity, hardness, etc. or alternatively some event that happens that you could count (i.e. the number of times something specific happens).

Look for a “statement” in a science book, the newspaper, or on the web that you could test or you want to know more about, such as:

*** Spiders avoid coconut oil.
*** Ants are attracted to raw foods more than processed foods.
*** Salt water intrusion harms lake-side plants.
*** DNA degrades over time.
*** Storing opened containers of tomato sauce upside down will make them last longer.
*** Ocean acidification might kill crabs and oysters.
*** Sunscreen from swimmers harms aquatic wildlife.

Now take your statement and make it a QUESTION, for example:

— Will spiders avoid coconut oil?
— Do ants prefer raw food compared to processed food?
— Does salinity affect plant growth?
— How long does it take for DNA to degrade?
— Will storing an open container of food prolong it’s shelf life?
— How does pH affect the shells of oysters and crabs?
— How does the concentration of sunscreen affect aquatic organisms?

Now make your question into a HYPOTHESIS:

^^^ If there is coconut oil applied to a corner, then spiders will not approach the corner.
^^^ Ants will be attracted to raw, unprocessed foods more (or faster) than processed foods.
^^^ As salinity increases, plant growth will decrease.
^^^ As age increases, the amount of DNA that can be extracted will decrease.
^^^ Upside-right contains will mold faster than upside-down containers.
^^^ As the concentration of sunscreen increases, the density of phytoplankton will decrease.

Based on your hypothesis, design your EXPERIMENT, remember change THIS, measure THAT: There are MANY different ways to test the same hypothesis. Here is just one example:

Change the conditions (with and without coconut oil); Have 2 areas (tanks, walls, rooms, cups, etc.) one with and one without coconut oil and then measure the number of spiders, the time a spider will stay in the area, the frequency with which a spider visits) etc.

Change the food available and measure how many ants come or how quickly the first ant comes.

Change the amount of salt in the water for the plant, and measure the plants’ growth. This could be down as with and without salt (simple) or as a concentration gradient of salinity (more advanced)

Extract DNA from fruits of different ages (i.e. change the age: fresh, less fresh, decaying, decomposing, mush) and measure the amount of DNA extracted from the same weight/volume of each “age”.

Change the way similar jars of the same food are stored and measure the time it takes to see the first signs of mold.

Change the concentration of sunscreen dissolved in water and measure the density of plankton it can support.

Designing your own project is not hard and chances are your teacher will recognize it as original (yes, they have already seen most of the ones on the popular websites …)

Remember to include replication and a control.

Good Luck!

2 Responses to Change THIS, Measure THAT: How to design your own unique science fair project

  1. Robin

    Hi, my daughter wanted to make recycled paper and see what combinations were sturdier or better for writing. How would we graph the results? We would do a 50/50 blend of newspaper and printer paper and 50/50 magazine and printer and one more? I \’m just confused on how to present the results.

    • Dr. Maille Lyons

      Great idea!

      First, think about what you will be MEASURING. How do you evaluate “better for writing”? You need this measurement to be quantitative (i.e. a number) so “better for writing” can be a great observation, but I recommend you also include something else. You should be able to quantitatively measure “sturdier” – but you should figure that out before you start. How will you evaluate this characteristic? It could be assessed using small weights to measure strength – i.e. how many pennies can the paper hold before breaking/tearing? That would be a quantitative dependent variable.

      Then you would make a bar graph with “treatment” on the x-axis (the blends of paper) and “strength” (the number of pennies the paper can hold) on the y-axis.

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