The KEY to designing your own science fair project is …

So you have to do a science fair project and there are plenty of websites that will give you detailed, step-by-step directions like a recipe for a cake – but, that’s not “real science”.

If you have found your way to my website – I hope you are at least thinking about designing your own project!!

The key to designing your own project is NOT to start with the question – even though that seems like a good place to start – but rather to start with the DEPENDENT VARIABLE!!

Remember that the DEPENDENT VARIABLE must be quantitative — That means it can be measured in numbers (as opposed to qualitative variables that are described with adjectives).

So figure out what can you measure???

What might you have access to that other students do not? Think about what your mom does, what your dad does, what your neighbors do, what your teachers might have in their classrooms and try to identify something unique. Pretty much ANYTHING that measures something such that you end up with a NUMBER – will do.

Here are some things to think about:

You could measure…
• size or a change in size: weight, height, length, volume, area, perimeter, diameter
• speed (= distance / time)
• concentration (= # / volume)
• density (= mass/volume)
• frequency (how often something happens)
• angles and/or direction
• percent coverage, percent change (loss or increase)
• and many other things like temperature, humidity, light, sound, pH, wind speed, direction, water quality, tidal height, heart rate, blood pressure, reaction time

Now you need to figure out an INDEPENDENT VARIABLE can be either quantitative or qualitative (but quantitative would be best).

Examples of qualitative variables would include:
• color: red, blue, green, yellow, orange
• male/female
• small, medium, large
• slow, medium, fast
• high, low
• old, young
• labels for groupings: A, B, C, D, E
• any type of category

NOW form your question: How does the independent variable effect the dependent variable?

Your experiment will involve CHANGING the independent and MEASURING the dependent.

Good Luck! The best part will be when the judge asks “where did you get the idea?” (and they will ask!) – you will be able to say “I designed it myself!”

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Unique and Topical Science Fair Project Idea: Ocean Acidification

Question: How will changes in ocean water chemistry affect animals that live in the ocean?

Step 1: Research

Examples of animals without backbones include the animals that made these shells

Search for “Ocean Acidification” and look for websites by NOAA or NSF or from a University/College.

DO NOT get overwhelmed by the chemistry. The essential idea is that ocean water is naturally basic (pH ~ 8) but with all the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, some of it diffuses into the ocean and shifts the pH to something lower (i.e. less basic = more acidic). The name is a bit of a misnomer in that the ocean is becoming more acidic, but it is not necessarily becoming an acid. Regardless, this project looks at the effect of pH changes on marine life.

Note: acids have a pH of less than 7 and bases have a pH of more than 7. Ocean water has a pH about 8 – and that might not sound like much of a difference from neutral (= 7), but because pH is a logarithmic scale (just like earthquakes), each change of 1 unit = 10x. A change of 2 units is really a 100 fold (10 x 10) difference.

Also decide which animals you want to determine the potential impact on – the best choices are mollusks, crustaceans, or echinoderms depending on what you have access to. Go to a seafood restaurant or seafood department of the supermarket and ask for left-over oyster, mussel, clam or scallop shells (all mollusks), or crab, shrimp, or lobster shells (crustaceans), or sea urchin shells (echinoderms).



Step 2: Design your own unique experiment

Question: How will changes in ocean water chemistry affect animals that live in the ocean?

The question is already in the right format: How will X affect Y?

X is your independent variable so it will be the one that you manipulate.

Y is your dependent variable so it will be the one that you measure.

Therefore, the experiment will need to change water pH and measure a change to the shells. If you don’t have access to real ocean water, you can make your own by buying the salts at a pet store or online. You can also buy pH strips or pH test kits anywhere aquarium supplies are sold.

Figure out a way to change the pH of ocean water (hint: vinegar is an acid and bleach is a base – be careful with bleach!).

Now figure out a way to measure a change to the shells — think about: if the shell dissolves how will you measure the change in size? (hint: differences can be measured as absolutes or percentages).

Don’t forget replication. You will need 3 shells for your control condition (ocean water with no change in pH) and 3 shells for your experimental condition (ocean water with a different pH).

Creative twists: compare different animals or different types of animals, compare different pHs, compare different times, etc.

Final hint: Take photographs!

Good Luck – Oh and it may take a few weeks to months (depending on pH selected) to see noticeable changes, so set it up in a place that it will not be disturbed – NOT THE KITCHEN TABLE!!!

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One Day Unique Science Fair Experiment with COFFEE!

I usually do not write out all the details of an experiment because I want you (whether you are a mentor or a student) to have a hand in designing the experiment. I think that just following directions of a detailed procedure that someone else wrote, isn’t really experiencing science. It’s closer to baking or cooking.

However, here I will give you a basic design and then you can twist this into a unique science fair project by targeting a different variable. But, if you are in a crunch – and the project is due TOMORROW then just do Part I of the experiment explained below. It should get you a decent grade because it is technically correct.


First ask yourself: How long does it take for coffee to reach a safe temperature to drink?

Your gut reaction might be: “it depends” – and you would be correct, it does depend on many factors, some of which you can use in Part II to modify this basic design into your own unique project, but for now just estimate the time. Note that there is NO WRONG ANSWER here – it is just whatever you think it might be (10 seconds? 10 minutes? 10 hours?).

Now think about what information you need to know in order to determine a quantitative, objective answer. For example, you would probably need to know:

What is a safe temperature to drink?

— To find the answer, you could do some research or you could use:
— 143 degrees F (62 degrees C)

What is the temperature of coffee right after it is brewed?

— To find the answer, you will measure it yourself

How long does it take for a liquid to go from one temperature to another?

— To find the answer, you will conduct an experiment




— Coffee maker
— Coffee
— 3 identical mugs
— 3 meat- or candy- thermometers
— 3 stopwatches



1. Make a pot of coffee
2. Pour exactly 1 cup of hot coffee into 1 mug, start the stop watch, then measure and record the temperature with the thermometer.
3. Repeat with the second mug and then the third mug.
4. Measure the temperature every minute until the temperature is lower than the safe temperature you found in your research or the one I have listed above. You might want to continue to measure the temperature for a few more minutes to have a nicer looking graph.
5. Record the total time for each mug-thermometer-stopwatch set up
6. Graph time vs. temperature and add a horizontal line for the safe temperature

What is your independent variable?

— Answer: time – which means time goes on the x-axis

What is your dependent variable?
— Answer: temperature – so put temperature on the y-axis

How close were you to your hypothesis? (Hint: your hypothesis was the time you estimated BEFORE you started.



Here is where the creativity comes in. You will now compare the results above to the results from a second run with ONE and only one variable (i.e. factor) changed.

So what factors might the answer also depend on:

• Volume of coffee?
• Strength of the brew?
• Type of coffee maker?
• Type of container (i.e. material the mug/cup is made of)?
• Amount of cream added?
• Adding Cream vs. Milk (whole, 1%, 2%)?
• Amount of sugar added?
• Adding Sugar vs. Sweetener?
• Type of coffee?
• Coffee vs. Tea vs. Hot chocolate?
• Store bought vs. Home brewed?
• Different coffee shops or different major brands?
• Dunkin Donuts ® vs. Starbucks ®

Can you think of any others?


Now, the first set of results are your control.

The second set of results are your experimental results to answer a new question:

How does ____________ affect the time to reach a safe temperature for drinking coffee?

Hypothesis: If ____________ then the time to reach a safe temperature will
(pick one) increase/decrease/stay the same

Experiment: Repeat the same experiment, but make your change. Also make sure you cool the coffee maker and the mugs back to room temperature.

Note that the more time (and interest) that you have, the more times you could repeat the experiment with other variables. Generally, the more you do, the more competitive the project will be.

Good luck and have fun!

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How to prepare for a successful science fair project experience

It’s never too early to start planning for a science fair project. Here is a quick checklist so that you, as a mentor/parent, will know you have all the parts and can complete the project efficiently and successfully:

First, keep in mind the basic FORMULA FOR SUCCESS:

Scientific method (45%) + Creative idea (45%) + Random intangibles (10%) = SUCCESS!

Accordingly, the project must apply the principles of the scientific method to a creative idea to be successful. The last 10% (random intangibles) come into play at higher levels of judging and competition and are impossible to predict. So – don’t worry about them – focus on the first two parts, since they are worth more.

Next, review the BASIC GAME PLAN:

BEFORE the project, you (as the parent/mentor) should…

1. determine what type of student you have
2. get the proper equipment (starting with a notebook, later you will need a backboard)
3. learn/review the scientific method (see tab on home page)
4. learn the general rules (see tab on fatal flaws – know these ahead so you don’t start down the wrong path)
5. complete the practice experiment (skip if it’s the night or weekend before the project is due)
6. help student find a creative idea

DURING the project, you should…

1. be ready to ask the right questions (see tab on judging tips)
2. pace the project by setting realistic milestones/deadlines
3. help prepare them for grading/judging

Finally, remember that the scientific method is the framework by which we teach science. It will be important for you child’s project to have its basic parts including: question, hypothesis, experiment with controls, dependent and independent variables, data analysis, conclusion.

Good Luck!

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Projects you can start this year, for next year. Idea #3 = Plant Projects

If you know how to do a project AND you know you want to, or need to, do one for next year – why not start one now?

It is the perfect time to start a plant-themed science fair project because there will be sufficient time for the plants to grow by a measurable amount. Plant projects also automatically earn extra points for effort because they are an example of a project that could not have been done the night, or even weekend, before the due date.

Typically a plant project’s DEPENDENT VARIABLE will be some indicator of growth. That could be height, weight, surface area, volume (e.g. for a succulent), and/or the number of blades, leaves or flowers. If you start with seeds the dependent variable could be the number (expressed as a count or a percentage) that germinate and if you start with plants it could be the number that survive or the number that die. Color could also be selected, but remember that color is a QUALITATIVE variable and the top projects almost always have QUANTITATIVE dependent variables.

The INDEPENDENT VARIABLE is a much more difficult choice. Plant projects usually suffer from a lack of creativity because there are only so many ways you can water or light a plant. Very common examples include watering plants (seeds/seedlings/plants) with tap water, rain water, distilled water, bottled water, carbonated water, salt water, pond water, flavored water, etc. or other common liquids like coffee, milk, soda, tea, juice, bleach, etc. Also, a project that shows up at almost every fair I have ever judged includes growing plants under different colored lights. I highly recommend trying to design a creative project that stays away from these ideas.

To design your own plant-themed science fair project, try one of these strategies to find a creative topic:

1. Think about your desired end result:
• Do you want to ENHANCE plant growth to increase yield? This result might help certain regions of the world grow more crops. What aspects of growing a plant could be systematically manipulated to increase production of the targeted food?
• Do you want to REDUCE plant growth to eliminate a specific species? This result might help with weed control or removal of invasive species. What apspects could be systematically manipulated to discourage growth?

2. Think about plants in their environment:
• Are you interested in PLANT-ANIMAL INTERACTIONS? Remember there are some observational studies that are allowed using vertebrate animals such as birds, squirrels, bats, etc.? What aspect of the plant attracts or detracts animals? Can you suggest and test a suitable alternative?
• Do you wonder how plants discourage insects from eating their own leaves (did you know plants have “weapons”)? Research PLANT-INSECT COEVOLUTION and PLANT DEFENSES. Find one that interests you and test how effective it is.
• Did you know some plants compete with each other (for space, light, water, pollinators, etc.) while others help each other grow (symbiosis)? Look into ALLELOPATHY. How could allelopathy be used to help farmers?

3. Focus a project on the development of a part of the plant:
• Plants have many parts: Fruits, seeds, leaves, stems, shoots, roots, flowers, etc.
• Research PHOTOTROPISM, HYDROTROPISM, THIGMOTROPISM – Ask: How does the plant “know” where to grow? Can you outsmart the plant by altering an aspect of its environment? What practical application might this have?

4. Focus on a unique plant type
• Grasses are easy to grow, but mostly boring. Research: Mosses, Ferns, Vines, Epiphytes – what are their UNIQUE ADAPTATIONS that faciliate their success? What would you expect to happen if you manipulated their environment?
• Carnivorous plants; Research their unique ecology and ask: is there food preference among or within carnivorous plant species?
• Aquatic plants; Research their unique adaptations and ask: how much does that adaptation contribute to growth?
• LICHENS (OK – these are not plants, but if you live near or have access to the woods – you could do a very original projection on lichen growth and ecology)

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There’s no crying in Baseball … or in the Science Fair

Science fairs should be educational, exciting, and tons of fun, but — more often than not — they result in heartache and, if you have competitive kids like mine, in tears. Generally only 1 to 3 kids will place and the rest will go home having no idea why they weren’t selected as one of the best, what they could have done better, or what to improve upon next year. Consequently, many won’t even do a project next year because of the overall negative experience. This post was written to help avoid these issues.

Background: At school fairs, the school usually needs to select a specific number of projects that will represent the school at subsequent, higher-level competitions (e.g., county, regional, or state fairs). Most often, this selection process is based on the ranking of projects from eligible entries. Sometimes it is only first place, other times it is as many as 3 projects in each grade or in each category or some combination thereof. Unfortunately, this ranking becomes the focus of the science fair, but I argue that it does not need to be, because at the upper level fairs, no preference is given to the place earned at the school fair.

Alternative: Instead of ranking, identify the TOP 10 PROJECTS (named “in no particular order”) and then announce the 1 (or 3 or however many are allowed) that has been selected to compete at the next level. In addition, schools could also award as many award certificates as they so choose.

Award certificates for special recognition could be awarded for categories such as:
• Most creative
• Best use of Scientific Method
• Best visual display
• Most unusual topic
• Best integration of math
• Best interview
• Most interesting question/hypothesis
• Best in physical sciences
• Best in life sciences
• Best in environmental sciences
• Best engineering project
• Most disgusting
• Most difficult
• Most surprising results

In the end, the more efforts a school recognizes, the more likely students are to finish with a positive experience and the less likely they are to cry…

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3 Reasons I’m hanging up my lab coat for a business suit

Yesterday I officially resigned from my research science position to take a new, non-academic position. It was horribly bittersweet. Although I am excited about the next chapter in my life, I have been involved in research science and teaching since an undergraduate student work-study position on the R/V Lucky Lady out of UMASS-Dartmouth (1990!).

Here are the top 3 reasons I am going to hang up my lab coat for a business suit — but don’t worry — I will still maintain this website because my passion remains improving science education in America.

1. Job Security: All of my positions in science have been “soft money”. That means they are grant-funded opportunities and when the grant is done, so is the job. This situation creates perpetual stress because of the constant awareness that each job is finite and the next opportunity, if it even exists, may or may not align with my current research interests.

2. Geographic Stability: I knew I wanted to be a marine scientist since I was 8 years old and a college professor since college, but I have not found a permanent position in my area. Part of the problem is that besides being a scientist — I am a wife, mother and military spouse. Courtesy of the US Coast Guard, I have lived in 10 states in 20 years, including: MA, RI, CT, MD, NC, FL (2x), AL, CA, OR, and AK. Last year, when my husband finished 20 years of service and my oldest started high school, we decided to put the kids first and stay put for at least 6 consecutive years so that they could experience geographic stability. For me, that translates into geographic restrictions in new job opportunities, because I can not relocate and job prospects in higher education in my area are not promising.

3. Couldn’t figure out how to become a high school science teacher:
I have a Ph.D. I have teaching experience in Biology, Chemistry, Environmental Science, and Oceanography at the collegiate level. I have experience with informal science education and outreach at K-12 levels. I am a great educator –but I couldn’t figure out how to get a job teaching high school science. I looked into it several times – but couldn’t find a path that did not require going back to school first. I wish there was a Lab-to-Classroom program similar to the Troops-to-Teachers initiative because I believe that there are other scientists who would make this transition.

Up next: 3 things I will miss most about working in a research laboratory

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Projects you can start this year for next year: Idea 2 = Moldy Matters

Idea 1 was Biomimicry:

Idea 2 is Moldy Matters: Remember that the one exception to doing a project with mold is that you are allowed to measure the time (quantitative, dependent variable) it takes for a food to show evidence of mold – but that you have to destroy the food and mold as soon as it is observed.

So how about a project that asks the question:

How much longer do store-bought foods stay preserved relative to home-made versions?

It would be interesting and relevant because it would give people insight into just how much preservatives must be in store-bought food and how much healthier it would be to eat more of the home-made alternatives.

To get started, think about foods that might be highly preserved, like fast food choices: French fries, hamburgers, chicken nuggets, tacos, etc. or grab-and-go sweet snacks: packaged cupcakes, cookies, Twinkies, snack cakes, etc. Also consider common foods that would be easy to make at home, like bread, popcorn, jelly, or yogurt. Choose a few (these are your independent variables) so you have some variety – and once you set it up, it is really easy to monitor. The hypothesis would be that the store-bought versions would take more time to mold because they contain presevatives.

The experimental design needs to include replication (at least 3 sets each) and controls. The way I laid out the project, the control would be the home-made version – made at home on the same day as the store-bought item was bought and opened.

For example, you could place matching pairs of food items (example: French fries from fast-food chain and French fries made at home) in the same container, side-by-side but not touching, and covered with a breathable top (cheese cloth, or screening or some sort, or even just left open). Mark your calendar. Check the pair every day until you see mold on either item (then discard that item, leaving the other one in the container). Count the number of days it takes to see mold start to develop.

Do some research on the environmental conditions that molds thrive under to determine where you store the project (warning – depending on food items selected, this could take close to a year or longer… so pick your storage spot with that in mind).

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How to prepare a final report for your science fair project

Generally a teacher would give guidelines as to what is expected in the final report, but if none come home with the project directions, then I recommend including the following sections (similar to a scientific paper) in this order:

Title, author, date

Abstract: 1 paragraph summary of entire project

Introduction: Background information including things like the motivation for picking your topic and why the project is important. Also include the hypothesis in this section.

Methods and Materials: This section can have several sub-sections. It would start with a list of what was used in the project. Also included would be a description of all the variables – independent, dependent, controlled and the control and level of replication. Once all that is spelled out, start with the procedure and describe the steps needed to complete the project. Photos of the process would also be included here.

Results: This section highlights the data – i.e., tables and graphs with descriptions of what they show. Remember that descriptions go above tables, but below graphs. Photos of results would go here.

Discussion: Now is the time to discuss the results – what does the data show, what did you learn, what surprised you, why do you think the results happened the way thbey did. Here you can also add what you would do better and what you would do as a follow-up experiment.

Conclusion: Specifically state if the data support or refute the hypothesis.

Acknowledgements: Thank everyone who helped you including your teachers, friends, mentors, and parents.

References: Bibliography

Writing a final report is one of the best ways to prepare for the judging interview.

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Creative Ideas for NEXT YEAR’s Science Fair Project

If you are working on this year’s project, and you have less than a week to get it done…. Check out my suggestions in posts for “popcorn projects” or “bubblegum projects” or even “paper airplanes” — They can all be done in a weekend (or even a day if you are really stuck).

But if you are looking for a unique idea for NEXT YEAR – do research on BIOMIMICRY

Biomimicry is biology inspired engineering and here are a few examples (copy and paste into your browser):

My personal favorite is the Solar Powered Bat Inspired Spy Plane

STRATEGY: If your science fair has an engineering category, then you could build one of these designs (Learn and Use Engineering Design Principles) or study nature and build something based on it.

If your science fair does not specifically have an engineering category, you need to be careful that your project is not just a demonstration (remember the fatal flaw: gadgeteering). That means you will need to FIRST build a design and then SECOND use the design to ask a question and conduct an experiment.

For example:

— How does the shape of the whale fin affect spin rate of the turbine?
— How does the height of a honeycomb affect the strength of the structure?
— How does the thickness of the termite mound affect internal temperature?

This year my daughter did: How does valve type affect flow rate in a giraffe neck?

Biomimicry Inspired Science Fair Project - 8th grade

So much for Paintball!

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