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Meet the coach

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My name is Maille, which is Gaelic and pronounced “Molly”.

I won my first science fair in 6th grade at Joseph Case Junior High School in Swansea, Massachusetts. My project was called “The effect of acid rain on house plants”. As luck would have it my science teacher (Mr. Fonseca) was also my soccer coach. I loved doing projects and did a science fair project every year (required or not) up through my senior year. I enjoyed it so much, that I eventually pursued a career in science and now get to do the grown-up equivalent of science fair projects almost every day.

Today I am environmental microbiologist specializing in aquatic bacteria (which means I can only respond to posts at night and on week-ends). I have a Bachelor of Science Degree in Biology from the University of Massachusetts (UMD), a Master’s Degree in Biology from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), a post-graduate certification in Epidemiology and Biostatistics from Drexel, and a Ph.D. in Oceanography from the University of Connecticut (UCONN).

My passion for science fair projects was recently rekindled when a friend asked me to help her, help her son. He was in 5th grade and required to do a project. The teachers expected it done at home because they didn’t have time to do it in class. My friend is very smart, but since she is not trained in science she struggled with the confusing “informational packet” sent home to guide the students. I was more than happy to help and soon word spread that I loved helping kids with projects. Before I knew it, I was coaching as many kids as I could find from several schools and several grade levels. My own kids are now too old for projects, so I look for curious kids who need help – and that is why I started this website!

44 Responses to Meet the coach

  1. Melissa Hartnett

    I can say from personal experience that Maille knows what she is doing. She coached my daughter’s 8th grade project and we went on to regional and state science fairs. Maille made the experience educational and more importantly to my daughter, fun! If you are looking for ideas, Maille is the BEST resource for you!!! She is a true coach…not doing it for you, but being there with ideas and advice every step of the way!

  2. Dave Correia

    Great site Maille . Lots of practical information. Wish we had a useful resource like this when we were in high school. ………Dave Correia ExxonMobil Northeast Ops

  3. Family

    Did your family, especially younger siblings, contribute to your need to aid the youth? I bet they were indeed the brightest students in town.

  4. Jan Pechenik

    I’ve just discovered your excellent website and will be posting it as a resource for parents and teachers at

  5. best electric toothbrush

    Excuse me, but I attempted to email you in regard to an issue on your webpage but the given e-mail address did not work. Is there an alternate place I might contact you?

  6. Madeline

    Would love for you to write an article for my blog or site. You can put a link in it to your coaching site.

    You also may be interested in joining to trade one of a kind articles.

    Thanks, Madeline
    Science Fair Blog

  7. Pakscience club

    Great site Maille . very good practical information i learn many things from your website
    all science fair projects are informative

  8. ethan french

    Dear Maille

    i am looking for coaching for my 6th grade eCybermission project. Interested in scientific trending topics that will benefit my community and the military,

    I am currently reaching out to my network of Scientists and Military advisors.
    I am located in Las Vegas. This is a 3-4 member group effort and i might end up leading this group.

    can you assist me and my parents get started? and maybe more

    thank you

    Ethan French

    • Dr. Maille Lyons

      Dear Ethan,

      I can absolutely help with find questions, format and structure of experiments, and probably data collection/analysis and survey design (I have an advanced degree in Epidemiology/Biostatistics), but eCyber-stuff isn’t my specialty. Post your questions here and I’ll do my best.


  9. Faith

    Dear Maille, My best friend, Karla and i are doing the science fair together. We are in 6th grade. We are looking for some good, easy ( yes, i said easy and we are in the smartest classes in 6th grade!) cheap, and of course,…… Fun!!!! We need it soon!!! plz email us some ideas by Wednesday, November 14 2012!!!!! thanks!!! ps: We love your website!!!

    • Dr. Maille Lyons

      If the project is DUE by Wednesday – then look at the ideas for popcorn, bubblegum, or airplanes on this site. If the idea is due by Wednesday – then think about the Ocean Acidification project or a Biomimicry project if you are looking for originality (but those require work) or the coffee project if you just want a good grade and just want to get it done.

      Good Luck!

  10. Lisa Bergantz

    I found your website and I LOVE IT!!!! Finally, some good, solid, accessible Scientific Method information out there. My background is in Molecular Biology and we have encouraged our kids to do science projects for fairs each year since Kindergarten age. I run a Science and other topic blog, and started a science club at our elementary this year…so last night the teacher assigned to run the science fair called me and …asked to run the science fair this year. I have judged two fairs and was in them in high school, but I was wondering if you can post some helps for running an AWESOME science fair!
    I see that you mention giving awards like “Best in Chemistry”- I like that. What other things have stood out to you that made certain science fairs GREAT!
    Thank you so much!!!
    I think you’re great to share your knowledge with others!


    • Dr. Maille Lyons

      I think the WORST fairs are those that do not allow the kids to talk to people about what they did. I’ve judged some that just have the kids bring in a completed back board which are then set up, judged, and sent back home. The kids (usually) have worked hard on the project – they should be given a chance to tell other kids, parents, teachers, etc. about what they have done.

      I think the BEST fairs I have judged included more than just 1, 2, 3 place. There are many ways to recognize the work the kids have done. I like ones that recognize the TOP TEN and then pull them out and display them together so that other kids can see what was done to earn a top 10 spot. So often, parents automatically assume “that kid won because their mom is a teacher/scientist/doctor etc.”) – but I have found that if you separate out the top ten projects – it usually becomes obvious why those projects were recognized.

      I also like fairs that have a family night or science night where kids can stand in front of their projects and tell people what they did.

      Other ideas for awards:
      Best in chemistry, physics, math, engineering, microbiology, biology, marine biology, environmental sciences etc. Most creative, most unique, most unusual, etc. Best graphing, Best use of math, Best display, Best presentation, Best photographs, Best use of the Scientific Method, Best Question, etc.

      Hope that helps! If you have tips for others – post them here!

  11. Sandy

    Hi! Fantastic site. I, too, will be posting it as a resource for our Science Day. Thanks!

  12. Gabi

    I am doing a grade 9 science expo testing the 5 second rule. I am comparing 4 different foods, and have cultivated the bacteria before and after I dropped the food for five seconds. I am not sure how to analyse my results as the bacteria has grown differently in each sample. Some are easy to count the colonies. One is just one very large colony, one had lots of bacteria on it before!!! I am confused.. Gabi

    • Dr. Maille Lyons

      First, I am glad you were interested in doing (and got approval for) a microbiology experiment – most schools and states have banned them.

      But now you have discovered that something as simple as counting bacteria is more complicated than it sounds. You did not describe how you plated the samples, but the proper plating method requires a liquid sample, spread evenly onto an agar plate with the idea that each viable bacterial cell is spread out and will form its own colony (thus the unit for bacterial counts is cfu = colony forming units per volume).

      Assuming that you probably touched the food to the agar plate, it is not surprising that the bacteria have overgrow each other and now you don’t have individual colonies to count. The only way you might be able to get something to compare would be to (1) photograph the agar plate and do a visual, qualitative comparison and/or (2) using a grid, estimate the percent coverage of the growth.

  13. Lossa

    Dear Dr. Lyons,
    First of all, we love your website! My two daughters used it last year for their science fair projects. My oldest daughter did a magnetic field effect on plants last year and won the 7th grade district science fair. She really enjoys doing experiments and learns a lot in the process. This year she wants to continue with the same topic, however she wants to see if there is any differences in cellular level and in any nutrition values. We are having a hard time finding a lab where she could dissect the plants and look under a microscope. Do you have any recommendations to how to go about this? Thank you!

    • Dr. Maille Lyons

      Congratulations! And I’m glad you like the site. I would start by asking the high school teachers if you could work in one of their laboratory/classrooms. Most high schools have basic science equipment including microscopes, dyes, test tubes, etc. that she would need to test different aspects of the plant’s morphology or biochemistry. Next I would contact a biology professor at a local college or community college – have her ready to pitch her idea. The overwhelming majority of college professors are excited to help the next generation.

      If not, chromatography can be done in your kitchen and that might yield insight into changes in the pigment content.

      Google: Chlorophyll chromatography and look for the website from the Naked Scientists:

      Good Luck and if you send me a photo of her backboard, I will profile her project on my site.

  14. Annie

    Thank you for this site. I’d like to use it as a guide for my 8th grade students this year. I teach 8th grade general ed in GA. Please let me know if I may have permission to publicize your cite to my students and their families. Also, please let me know if I may link my website to your blog. Thank you.

  15. Saoirse

    Hi I am in fifth grade and in a science fair this year. My project is called dance till you drop. I’m putting three 100 percent cotton dolls that are filled with 3 different amounts of popcorn into a microwave. I am trying to determine which amount of popcorn will make the doll dance the longest. Thank you for making this website it helped a lot with my project. I would have gotten 5 points taken off. I was wondering if anyone else has done a project similar to mine? Please write back!
    Sincerely, Saoirse

    • Dr. Maille Lyons

      I have never seen or heard of a project like this – so great job on creativity. I am not sure what you mean by making the doll dance, but it sounds like you have a quantitative dependent variable (time). Good Luck.

      • Saoirse

        When I said the doll dances that means that when the popcorn pops around and bounces it is going to make the doll flop or dance

  16. Dave

    Hi. Love your work! Umm… I was wondering if you may have some projects that I can do. I just want an easy, but complex project. I’m in the sixth grade. Please help me.

  17. Marty

    Hi, I just wanted to thank you for having this website. Science fair has been a really big source of stress for me since around seventh grade because I never have an idea and I put it off until the last minute, and it’s been really affecting my grades. (Plus, my school is set up so that if you fail the fair, you fail the class.) Your website has really helped me calm down about it by having a ton of options up. So thanks.

  18. Rob Atkinson

    Awesome website-very inspirational! As a plant ecologist, I like thinking about plants, soil and pH. For my bio major Environmental Conservation class, I try to get the students thinking about how nutrients are held by soil and that some acidity would temporarily increase nutrient availability (until the nutrients are carried away). I would like to show my class the 5th grader’s results from your website and see if they reach this conclusion: low concentrations of vinegar were too low to be toxic but acidic enough to increase nutrient availability. I’ll ask them what should happen over time… that if the soil is allowed to drain, the nutrients will drain out with the water. My sneaky reason to use the example from a science fair is to help them realize they should get involved in fairs their whole life! Have you given any thought to these ideas which you could share?

    • Dr. Maille Lyons

      I think it is a great idea. And it is a very easy set/demo – so your students could look for the tipping point, i.e., at what pH does the system switch from positive (beneficial) to negative (harmful).

  19. Kim

    Hello! My daughter and I are struggling with her 6th grade science fair project. We planned to show what we believe will be the negative affects on memory of mice after consuming artificial colors in their diet. We plan to use 4 groups of mice and will test their ability to run a memory maze after being given artificial food colors, added to the water supply for one week. There will be 2 mice per group: 1st group will receive no artificial colors (control), 2nd group will receive Red #40, 3rd group will receive Blue #1 and 4th group will receive Yellow #5. We are thinking of using following anticipated measurements, time to complete maze, # of wrong turns mouse makes and # of dead ends. Science teacher keeps insisting we will not have graphable data, so no data=no project. Are we missing something, because I do believe we will have data to graph? Help!!!

    • Dr. Maille Lyons

      Hello – yes you will have data to graph, but I am very surprised your teacher gave you permission for this project. Make sure you have all of the correct paperwork filled out regarding science fair projects with vertebrate animals. Check out this site for more information:

      If you complete this project, which I do not recommend, you will be able to make a bar graph with the different treatments (control, red, blue, yellow) on the x-axis and any/all of your quantitative measures on the y-axis (one graph for time; one graph for # of wrong turns; etc). You would also be able to calculate a percent decrease/increase by comparing each variable to the control value and graph that.

      • Kim

        Thank you so much for your response!! I reviewed the link you enclosed and see the conflict.

        For our school’s 6th grade class, the project is more about learning the scientific method, so there is not an opportunity to continue on to other judging levels, so no paperwork to be completed for work with vertebrate animals. The teacher has indicated that for 7th and 8th, there are no animal experiments allowed.

        We had not thought of the percent decrease/increase option, so I appreciate that idea. We’ll see if this gets approved further. Due to tight deadlines that they have detailed, we have had to begin work on the maze, so hoping we do not need to go back to square one.

        Great website, so glad I found this!

  20. Christie

    Hello! I am so happy to have come across your website today. Last year my son won 1st place overall for his 5th grade science fair project on how to make a homemade water filter using common materials around your home. He went to regionals with absolutely no prep from his school. When we got there, we were not ready and he did not do well. However, I was very proud of him, I could tell he felt defeated.

    So this year he is in Jr. High and we talked about what he wanted to do for his science project. After some research, he decided to make a homemade light blub using pencil lead. So we got his project ready and he worked hard on his presentation. I am happy to say that he won 1st place overall again and he will be returning to Regionals.

    The information from your website is helpful. As you may be aware, raising a pre-teen is not easy and they do not like to take advice from parents. When I found your website, I called him in the room and had him go through it with me and read everything. Your information help reinforce some things I was trying to tell him to do and introduced new information on what we need to consider. Now he has a plan for regionals and is gearing up for the challenge. We are even talking about taking your suggestions for project board information and changing up a few things on his board.

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge with everyone.


    • Dr. Maille Lyons

      You are welcome!

      From the sounds of the title – the key thing will be to emphasis the “experimenting” over the “designing”. For example, what aspects of the final product did he “test” or “optimize” – so that he can focus on the steps of the scientific method (vs. a straight engineering project).

      Good Luck!

  21. Shell

    My daughter wants to do her science fair project on what happens when fudge crystallizes at different temperatures? What results do you graph? temperature of fudge and difference in crystals? What do you measure? Isn’t the difference in crystals bias to each person who looks at it? Please help

    • Dr. Maille Lyons

      She will need to find a way to measure some characteristic of the crystals. Maybe size or number? Whatever she figures out will go on the y-axis and the different temperatures that she selects will go on the x-axis. If there are only 2 or 3 temperatures, make a bar graph. If more than 3 temperatures, make a line graph.

      Research fudge making and maybe even go visit a local shop that makes fudge.

  22. Paul

    Dr. Lyons,

    My son has a 5th grade project due. I came across your “creepy” idea to measure survival rates. I’m like alot of people regarding confusion around Control and Constant. His project has to have a constant, control, and variable. In your survival rate experiment regarding going to a local cemetery, what would be each of these? Is death the Constant? Is control the different categories (before 1900′ etc…)?

    • Dr. Maille Lyons

      This project/experiment is a bit non-traditional but technically correct, so the control/variable/constants are not as easy to identify.

      Yes – the control group is the oldest headstones because you are evaluating if more recent people live longer – so all the other groups (this is the experimental variable) are ultimately compared to the oldest group of people. The constants are “variables” that you could change if you were interested in them, but you are going to keep them constant because they are not the focus of your question. In this case, constants would be … the location (if you used one cemetery), sex (if not tracking males vs. females, although you should because that too would be easy and interesting), burial (since you will have no one that was cremated), and yes – death. Depending on where you live and what cemetery/graveyards you use, other constants might be religion and/or race.

      The “experimental” groups are the age categories since that is what you are “changing” prior to measuring/calculating life span. Sex (males vs. females) can also be way to group data and thus one of the experimental variables.

  23. Meera

    Dear Mrs.Lyons, I have no words to thank you for all your invaluable guidance and immaculate coaching rendered for our boys. It was their first ever project and they had absolutely no idea where to begin. You truely led them through the right path and thanks to you they were able to complete the project successfully and looking forward to more. Your precious time to guide the boys despite your busy schedule is something we always will remember and cherish. You are truly giving and we wish you all the very best in all your endeavors. I highly recommend the readers to subscribe to the pdf file on this site . It’s worth every penny and like a bible to the students and parents alike.

    • Dr. Maille Lyons

      You are welcome! Your boys worked very hard and put together a fantastic project. I wish them the best in their next level of competition, but most of all I am thrilled that they had fun!

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