As an athlete you might like to believe that “talent” always beats “equipment”, but the more you participate in a sport, the more you realize that good equipment helps with success rates. Not all projects will require all of this equipment, but the better the equipment, the more competitive the project. The bare minimum will depend on the schools’ requirements for full credit.
Backboard – The backboard is the final product, but planning for its design can start immediately. The backboard is the single most important piece of equipment because it is the tool used to communicate all that the student did. It should stand alone, meaning that a person, not familiar with the project should be able to understand what was done without the student present. This is critical because most judging includes a component whereby the judges evaluate the project without the student present.
Backboard Guidelines: All projects should have the basic components including the title, abstract/summary, question/problem, hypothesis, variables, materials, procedure, results/data, and conclusion. Keep in mind that judges are looking at many projects. They expect some of these features to be in specific places and if those features are not in the expected location, the student runs the risk of a judge concluding the student is missing that component. These components (i.e., Title, Problem/Introduction/Abstract, Hypothesis, Conclusion) need to be very close to the designated location, but the specific location and amount of space used for the other components (i.e., materials, variables, procedure, data, results, and photographs) should go where they fit best and where the student can use them to tell their story. It is important to make all features easy to find and spotlight the data collected on the center panel.
Practice makes perfect: Scientists have their own version of the science fair at national and international research meetings where they design posters to communicate the results of their research. Just like science fair backboards, these posters must catch the eye of the other scientists, be informative even when the author of the poster is not there, and communicate a message to a diverse audience. Consequently, these science fairs are good practice for future scientists.
Log book – This is a bound notebook used for hand-written notes equivalent to the research notebook of a scientist. A 70-page, wide-rule, spiral bound, 1-subject notebook is recommended. The student should purchase this as soon as possible. On the first page have them write the date and the title: Science Fair Project Research. Start the log book by having the student jot down subjects that might be of interest. At this point the student does not have to have decided on a project, just have committed to doing something. The earlier the first entry is the better as most judges will check to see when the project was initiated. From this point forward, have the student write everything in the log book such that they could go back through the notes and find details for their report (below) and backboard and if someone were to ask them a question. Another advantage to detailing the process from before the student specifically asks their question is that they will be able to show the origin of their idea and explain how it was developed. All of the handwriting in the log book should be that of the student, unless and mentor is brainstorming or teaching, and then that should be noted directly near the adult’s handwriting.
RED FLAG WARNING: Too much “adult” handwriting in the student notebook or on the backboard is a red-flag for over-coaching (i.e., excessive parental involvement, see major violations under avoiding penalties). It is better to have information in the student’s handwriting even if it is not as neat as the parent’s handwriting would have been.
Photo log – Take pictures throughout the student’s process. These can be taped into the log book or presented in a separate “photo log”. The more pictures the better because the student will have more to choose from when making the backboard. Photos are generally more appealing to look at than a paragraph of text, so have the student use the photos to help communicate what was done in the project. Photos also serve as a record of the process, in the event that the notes were not specific enough on certain details.
Research paper – Some schools will require a research paper and some will not. Regardless, students that complete a research paper will have a better understanding of their project. The student should go to a real library and look for books on their topics of interest (have them take their log book and camera and document it as part of the project development). Have the students write down general information on their topics eventually getting increasingly more specific until they have justified why their project will be important, interesting and relevant. Ensure the students record all their references in their log book so they can find them when writing up their bibliography. The research paper should be written in first person (“I” unless it is a team project then “we”) or third person.
RED FLAG WARNING: Excessive use of the term “we” in an individual project is an indication of over-coaching (i.e., excessive involvement) by the mentor. Teach the student to use “we” when more than one person was involved, for example if one person used a stop watch to time an event, while the other was simultaneously doing some other part of the experiment, but to use “I” for pieces they completed on their own. No student is expected to complete a competitive project entirely on their own and few, if any, scientists work in complete isolation. The concept of acknowledging help when and where it was received is important for the student to understand.
Binder – The 3-ring binder includes the log book, research paper, photo log, and all the information about the project such as problem, question, hypothesis, variables, materials, procedure, data, results, and conclusions and any additional information that could not fit on the board. The binder is also the place to include any newspaper or science magazine articles or journal articles that the student found during their research. The binder would be presented in front of the backboard for judges to flip through while evaluating the project.
Power point presentations – Some schools require a power point presentation, some will not. The advantage of putting together a power point presentation of the project (even if the school does not require it) is that it will help the student with preparing a logical presentation of information to judges.
RED FLAG WARNING: Use of the power point presentation during the judging is a double edged sword. If the student rigidly sticks to the presentation and uses it as too much of a crutch, then judges will not be as impressed. The student will have limited time to interact with a judge so it is generally better to rely on an actual presentation. The exception is for parts of the project that are better communicated with a video or computer program.