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Indentifying the type of student you are coaching is critical because it will determine what type of project they will most likely be successful with.
Here are 4 basic types of students and the type of project they need:
The “Caroline” (or Carl): is the self-motivated, task-oriented, science enthusiast.
Every book on science fair projects was written for this type of student, but in reality this group makes up only a very small fraction of the kids. If you have one of these students, your role as coach is to ask the right questions. These students can do almost any type of project they want, for example…
Plant projects – plant projects, by definition, show effort and effort is evaluated at judging. Plant projects should only be undertaken by this type of student because they require attention to detail, consistency, and a time commitment. The problem with many plant projects is that they lack creativity. There are only so many ways to water a plant, or grow a plant in different soil types, or under different conditions. See my tips on adding creativity under designing your own project.
Environmental projects – most environmental projects also require time and consequently automatically show effort. Here again the challenge is creativity. Think about all the possible variables you could measure in the environment (temperature, salinity, humidity, sunlight, biomass, oxygen, pH, density, diversity, water content, etc.) and look for creative combinations in contrasting places or across gradients in time and/or space.
The “Kiera” (or Kevin): is the passionate about winning, but maybe not about science competitor
Unique projects – the key to a successful project for a student in this group is the “I’ve never seen that before” factor. The project does not need to take too long, but will need to be executed with proper scientific method, and must excel in the creativity category. The strategy is to be the project the judge has never seen before. Both the “start from scratch” and “making the project your own” strategies are successful, but there has to be a depth to the project (more than one experiment or more than one variable) to compete well.
The “Josephine” (or Joseph): is the might like science as long as the project is cool or the prize is cash skeptic
Wow projects – the key here is that the project will need to be “cool” enough for the skeptic to complete it. Options include: Physics projects, and anything that uses spitballs, paint-balls, paper airplanes, catapults, radar guns, rockets, explosions, and/or something gross or scary (spiders, worms, mud, etc).
The “Rachel” (or Rick): is the desperately needs the extra credit for science class student
Just get it done projects – these need to be easy, but perfectly complete (since they are not going to be very creative) and generally fall under the categories of: one day kitchen projects, boiling water, melting ice, or popping popcorn. Look at my list of emergency projects if you have this student.