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Fatal flaws

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The first time you watch a less common sport (e.g., curling, cricket, water polo, ice dancing, etc.) you will have difficulty following the game or match unless you are with someone who knows the rules (and consequently the penalties for breaking the rules).

Here is a list of violations that can end your science fair 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 wow factor, but will not be considered for awards at higher levels. The exception is in middle school if there is a technology division and engineering projects.

2. Violation: Failure to follow scientific method
Explanation: The three most common errors that fall under this violation are
• no hypothesis
• no control
• not properly replicated

3. Violation: The dependent variable was not quantitative
Explanation: Quantitative beats qualitative every time. The student MUST measure something!

4. 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., 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 consistently) 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.

5. Violation: It is a common project (i.e., does not show 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.

6. Violation: Against the Law
Explanation: It 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), 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 prohibit growing bacteria and mold at home.

12 Responses to Fatal flaws

  1. Stefan Auerbach

    Would a projects measuring the level of voice tone or type of body movement to determine the affect of dog behavior to a command be considered a violation of law.

    Ie question – can the changes in a humans voice when giving a dog a command affect the behavior of a trained dog? I.e. Will the dog react to “sit” or “stay” if the person gives the command in load stern voice vs a normal tone?

    Problem is we are trying to determine whether dogs understand the word or is it tone and body language together with the word that causes the dog to obey or not obey.

    I..e I say “sit” fido vs SIT!!! Fido vs ” SIT FIDO” and point my finger down.

    Would this be considered valid since dogs have a backbone. The experiment will have 5 commands given to two dogs. The change will be 6 tests. Each test will give 5 commands to both dogs. The difference in each test will be measured again baseline which is normal voice and no body language. Subsequent tests will be changing the voice level across all commands or adding body language or both to see if the trained dog reacts different from the base.

    The idea behind this to determine if dogs really understanding English or the word or is it the tone and body movement the react too,


    • Dr. Maille Lyons

      Hi Stefan,

      It sounds like great idea (although I recommend testing 3 dogs for the correct amount of replication); however it absolutely requires pre-approval with the correct paperwork for vertebrate animals (see Forms 5A and 5B). The good news is that it should be approved by the science committee.

      Good Luck,
      Dr. Lyons

  2. Cathrine

    Is this good?
    Does the color of food affect whether people like it or not?
    1) color plain yogurt with food coloring (leave one plain for control group)
    2) give to 10 people ask for flavors and whether they liked it or not
    I know it’s simple but I don’t have much time…
    Do you recommend any science fair idea sites? please leave link in reply
    And please share more dumb science fair projects soon

    • Dr. Maille Lyons

      Interesting idea – the hard part is your data will be all yes/no responses. You could make a pie chart for each color with % yes and % no.

  3. Mandi Follrod

    My son is attempting to do a science fair project regarding the pitch stance as it relates to pitch speed. He would do a certain number of pitches without a stride, the same number with short stride (i.e. 2 ft), and then the same number again with a larger stride (4 ft). Then compare the speed of each pitch in relation to the stride length. Anything we are missing? Anything that would help?

    • Dr. Maille Lyons

      Sports projects are inherently difficult because small variations in each throw (or shot, or goal, or kick, etc.) frequently outweigh differences in the independent variable.

      Consider having several friends repeat what he is doing (increases replication) – addresses potential criticisms of it only being relevant to him as opposed to getting consistent results across several subjects;

      Consider having him repeat the procedure on several different days starting first with no stride, small stride, large stride; then again with large stride, small stride, no stride; then again with no stride; large stride; small stride – this could quell criticisms regarding order of pitching influencing pitch speed.

      Consider randomly deciding which of the three (none, small or large) is done in which order – see if results are similar, avoid 3 with no stride, followed by 3 with small stride and 3 with large.

  4. Angie Lawrence

    I saw this really cool idea on a science topic generator, it was about using real data to track bird migrations on Google Earth. I know from this page that it’s best for me to use a creative idea, but how can I add a twist to this science project?

    Hellllppp! The science fair is in January!

    • Dr. Maille Lyons

      Depends on what the project said to do. Maybe do whales instead? Or multiple types of birds? Or something… not sure without more details

  5. Michelle

    My daughter compared a Chinese made product and a US product (Sea-Monkeys) using five separate kits in three trials. The jars were kept inside a tank where she monitored environmental conditions but neither of us can figure out what the control would be. She has independent and dependent variables but I’m stuck and can’t help with an answer. Please help us. Regionals is in two days and I know she needs to answer this question.

    • Michelle

      Are control and controlled variables the same thing?

      • Dr. Maille Lyons

        No, just an unfortunate overlap in names.

        The control is compared to the experimental condition that is being evaluated. For example if the hypothesis was: If salinity is increased, then boiling point increases. The control could be zero salinity (fresh water) or the lowest salinity tested.

        The controlled variables are all the variables that remain the same between the control condition and the experimental condition (which should only vary by the variable of interest); in the above example they may include, amount of water, source of heat, type of pot, etc. It’s all the things that the experimenter was NOT interested in, so they were kept the same (i.e. they were controlled).

    • Dr. Maille Lyons

      The control is either the Chinese product or the US product, but will depend on her question and hypothesis. Did she think the US product would be better? Then the control is the US product and the experiment would compare the US product (“normal condition”) to the Chinese product – as this was the change she made and was interested in evaluating. If she thought the Chinese product would be better, then it is the control. If she thought the more expensive product would be better, then that was the control and the less expensive is the experimental condition (and the hypothesis should be something along the lines of: if the price is decreased, the product will not be as good). That can also be written as: if the price in increased the quality of the product will be better – in which case the cheaper becomes the control.

      So, think – which is the “standard/normal/regular” condition (that is the control condition) and which is the one she was interested in evaluating, and so made a change from that “standard/normal/regular” condition to determine if there is indeed an impact of that change (that is the experimental condition).

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