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Getting Started

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This is an excerpt from my unpublished Science Fair Coaching Manual, which I affectionately call:  “How to win the 5th grade science fair at 40”

The first you thing you need to know is that a science fair project is different from a school report on a special topic like dolphins, rocks or global warming. It is also different from making a model such as a volcano or solar system. A science fair project involves conducting an experiment to answer a question or solve a problem. As the student’s coach, you will need to guide the student toward developing a project that includes an experiment.

Whether you like it or not, the science fair has become like a competitive sport where the measure of success is winning. Similar to the all-too-common situation where the “coach’s kid” always gets to pitch (or start, or quarterback, or take the penalty kick, or some other favored task), it is usually the “scientist’s kid” or the “teacher’s kid” that wins the school science fair. Sometimes it is favoritism, but more often it is because those kids knew HOW to do a project correctly (i.e., they were better coached!).

This website is designed to help parents, teachers, and other mentors (that are not scientists) become better science coaches for their students. Although the information targets 3rd through 8th grade students, the details will be useful for all first time participants (i.e., “the rookies”) regardless of grade level. It will also help those that don’t want, or need, to win the science fair, but rather just desperately need the A grade or extra credit in science class. 

Formula for Success:
Scientific method (45%) + Creative idea (45%) + Random intangibles (10%) = SUCCESS!

Basic Game Plan:
BEFORE the project, you should…
1. determine what type of student you are coaching
2. get the proper equipment (starting with a notebook)
3. learn/review the scientific method (see tab on home page)
4. learn the general rules (see tab on fatal flaws)
5. complete the practice experiment
6. help student find a creative idea

DURING the project, you should…
1. ask the right questions (see tab on judging tips)
2. pace the project
3. help prepare them for grading/judging

25 Responses to Getting Started

  1. Lauren Deloach

    As a parent of three children who all have science projects I have found getting organized to be a huge challenge.Your website is a huge help!

  2. Stan

    Hi, Great website here! We have won 3 out 4 Science Fairs to date, so we are pretty good. This year we are interested in the project you listed, How does the concentration of sunscreen affect aquatic organisms? We want to try to make the project our own and eliminate the use of live coral which can be costly and hard to record data. We were thinking of testing each sunscreen in saltwater and after a certain amount of time sample the levels of hydrogen peroxide in the water. Higher levels of hydrogen peroxide would indicate higher amounts of bleaching of coral. Would that work? any better suggestions? Thank you!

    • Dr. Maille Lyons

      Yes that should – as long as you can accurately measure the levels of H2O2.

      You could ask several questions:

      How does the concentration (i.e. amount, so you would add different amounts of the same sunscreen) affect bleaching (measured as the amount of H2O2 in the water).

      How does the strength of the sunscreen affect bleaching? (i.e. same brand of sunscreen, same amount of sunscreen, different strengths: SPF 8, 15, 30, 50, etc).

      How does the type of sunscreen affect bleaching? (i.e. same strength, same amount, different brands because they have different chemicals – include at least one with zinc oxide in it).

      You could also add a visual component. Try putting the sunscreen on the outside of a plastic bag and put something that will change color (i.e. “bleach”) inside the bag – then leave in the sun. I would recommend seaweed if you have access to the coast. Ulva (sea lettuce, green) would be easiest but Porphyra (red) would make an interesting contrast. Take photos – it would be qualitative, so not sufficient by itself, but paired with the measuring of hydrogen peroxide would make a nice project.

      Good Luck!

  3. laura

    Hi, this is my first time doing a science project and i don’t know how to start my experiment. My experiment is ‘How long does it take to pop popcorn kernels of different brands in hot oil?’. I dont know if this is good or not I’m just really cofused right now.

    • Dr. Maille Lyons

      You have a question. Now you need a hypothesis – you need to rank the oils (independent variable) according to which you think will cause the kernels to pop the fastest. You can rank by anything you want – price, color, etc.

      Then start popping. Measure time (dependent variable). Make a bar graph.

      Do your results match your hypothesis?

      Discuss why/why not.

  4. Sarah

    Hi. This is my first time doing a science project, and I don’t know how to start my experiment. my experiment is’ Which brand of popcorn pops the fastest? should I try using the Stove top, the microwave and a popcorn popper. is this ok or not

    • Dr. Maille Lyons

      Yes, your independent variable would be “brand of popcorn” and your dependent would be time. Make sure you are using same amount for each.

  5. amy

    Hi Dr. Lyons,
    I am so excited to see that you are an environmental microbiologist! I am hoping you can help me with a problem involving my science fair project.

    I am an eight grade student. My science fair project is to compare clam filtering vs oyster filtering over 7 days. Approximately 6 hours into the process the color of the water in the tanks (including the control tank) began to turn an orange rust. After much research, I believe that it is due to diatoms (brown algae) that was present in the water.
    I continued to test the water for turbidity and water quality (ph ,NI, NA , KH.)

    I was wondering since my control tank (water tank w/o clams or oysters) was affected with the changes, would it still be considered a control? Or should I use the original reading as my control to chart my data.
    ( Also, as an environmental microbiologist; Do you find it odd that despite the color change in the water my turbid reading improved?)

    Thank you!

    • Dr. Maille Lyons

      I find it very odd that the water in all three tanks turned orange after only 6 hours…

      …but you didn’t mention what the source of the water was… local salt water? hatchery water? artificial seawater? Also – Is the water re-circulating in individual tanks or do you have flow-through tanks set up? If you have access to a microscope (even a very basic one) you could “settle” some water (put some in a glass for a few hours and then gently pour off top part), and put a drop under to the scope to see if it is diatoms (easy to identify as a group) or something else… (clay? eggs/sperm? flagellates?).

      As long as you have measurements for each time point (control, clam tank, oyster tank) then you should use that reading and not the original – non-orange one. Line graphs are probably your best choice (time on x-axis; measurements on y-axis; one line for each tank).

      As far as turbidity goes – it depends on how you are measuring it and why the water is orange. Color and turbidity are related but not equivalent, and because the clams and oysters take “particles” out of the water I am not surprised your turbidity was reduced in these tanks.

      • amy

        The water is local salt water.(bay water)
        All three tanks held the same water. They have seperate air circulation for each tank.
        The clam tank was the first to show signs, but shortly after all three tanks turned. The clam tank did not do as well I thought they would. I was thinking maybe the water was not a problem as I originally believed when it changed color.

        I will try to get hold of a microscope to see if it is diatoms

        I measured the turbid using a light meter and light. In a dark room I put the light behind the tank and measure the light that passed into the front. Using this measurement showed how clear the water was.

        Thank you for responding! It is a great help!

  6. Mom

    Hello! My son is doing his science experiment with seeds/live plants and my question has to do with repeating the process 3 times. I know that when using live plants the process is a bit different. There will be 3 different growing medium and in each there will be at least 3 seeds. Everything else will be the same (water, light ,temp, etc.) Does this fulfill the part of repeating the experiment 3 times because there are at least 3 seeds in each medium? Or should he use each one of the growing medium 3 times? Making this a total of 9 cups with at least 3 seeds in each rather than just the 3 cups with at least 3 seeds in each?
    Hope I was not too confusing. 😅 Thank you for any helpful information or tips you can share with us.

    • Dr. Maille Lyons

      Best design would be three seeds in each of three containers for each of three soil/media (so 9 cups; 3 of each medium; 3 seeds in each cup = 27 seeds).

      Next best: You could put as little as one seed in each of three to six containers containing each medium (for example one in each well of an egg carton);

      Least best: three seeds in one container (for example a pot) for each of three medium choices. Technically counts, but it’s not as great as the other designs.

  7. Sureshg

    My son is in 10th grade I need fully completed science project he is special needs. Can you please help me

    • Dr. Maille Lyons

      What is he interested in? I would recommend a variation of the Mung Bean project – something like “What is the effect of pH on seed sprouting?”

  8. Lisa Benton

    We have a first grader who is probably a Kiera or a Josephine but might become a Rachel if we wait too long. Neither of us (her parents) are particular science enthusiasts, but we would be happy for her to become one so we don’t want to hold her back. Rather we want to give her all the tools she needs to enjoy science fair projects, as they are required throughout her entire elementary school years, at minimum.
    So we are happy to talk with her about what she is interested in and then go from there. Tonight she told us she was interested in Pixie Dust–as in Tinker Bell and Fairy Hollow pixie dust. Got any suggestions for how we might turn this Disney magic into a science fair experiment for a 1st grader? Alchemy suggestions are welcome . . .

    • Dr. Maille Lyons

      So… pixie-dust is not real…

      But glitter is – So I would recommend a project that uses glitter and you can just call it whatever you need to… including pixie-dust 🙂

      For first grade, she could do:

      Question: Are all glues equal for glitter projects?
      Hypothesis: If more expensive glue is used, more glitter will stick/stay in place.
      1. Get as many as practical of – generic liquid glue, Brand name liquid glue, generic glue stick, brand name glue sticks, spray glue (determine cost per ounce and rank from low to high).
      2. Cover 1 inch square with a single type of glue (may need to play around with actual size)
      3. Sprinkle 1/4 teaspoon of glitter evenly over square (may need to play around with amount needed)
      4. Wait 30 seconds
      5. Flip upside down and collect all the glitter that did not stick
      6. Repeat three times per type of glue testing
      6. Determine which glue “held on” to the most glitter (i.e. least amount of free glitter)

      Analysis/Conclusion: Were the “best” glues the most expensive ones? If yes, accept hypothesis; if no, reject hypothesis

      Make observations regarding the brand name vs. generic of the same type and between types

      So – this isn’t really chemistry. If she likes chemistry – look up the red cabbage experiment on this website and complete that.
      Good Luck

  9. Jen

    Hello, my son would like to do his science fair project on biomechanics, either pitch speed affected by stride or batting stance/ steps and how it affects batting average. I am having trouble helping him figure out how to do this scientifically. Do you have any suggestions? We have a pitching machine and also a pitch speed detector which may help in the experiment.

    • Dr. Maille Lyons

      Biomechanic-based projects are problematic because it will be difficult, if not impossible, to isolate the variable he is interested in (stride or stance) such that is the only thing changing. So even if the pitching machine puts the same pitch in the same place at the same speed, small changes in his arms, posture, muscle fatigue, head position, etc. will also change every time he swings. But, as long as he is aware of all that… he could try something along the lines of:

      How does pitch speed affect accuracy of ball placement?

      Experiment: Select 3 pitch speeds (slow, medium, fast; use the machine). For each speed, attempt to hit 10 balls to right field, 10 balls to center field, 10 balls to left field. Tally how many of the balls make it to the right place.

      Analysis: Does the percentage of balls that made it to the designated place (i.e. accuracy) change with pitch speed? If you leave the 10 balls where ever they land, you can also measure precision (how close they are to each other). For each area, for each speed.

      Take photos!


    Hey there. My daughter is doing a project on household items bleaching/lightening hair. I dont know what to do to collect data. We are using bleach, vinegar, hydrogen peroxide, etc.,but it will either be a yes or no, and we need to be able to graph something, but what?? Time it takes?


      And what sort of graph? Science isn’t my best subject!

    • Dr. Maille Lyons

      She needs to figure out a way to measure if the bleaching or lightening of the hair occurred and/or how much and/or how fast, etc. That will eventually go on the y-axis in a bar graph. It must be a number, not just a yes or no. You need a number in order to make a graph. Otherwise you can present a table with yes/no and other observations and photos for results.

  11. Roshni

    Hi – I have researching last 2 weeks and still have no clue.
    Just came across your site, can you please assist with with a topic.
    I am in 9th grade high school student.


    • Dr. Maille Lyons

      For 9th grade I would recommend the ocean acidification project (shells in water with different pH – it’s detailed on my website) – if you have time (need several weeks); or one of the variations of the mung bean project if you don’t (need only about 1 week; look for the details, I have outlined exactly what you need).

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