How to create a great…and winning science project

You’re probably at this website because you (or your child) has been assigned to do a science project this year. This is NOT like your other school work and definitely should not be treated the same way.

Doing a science project doesn’t have to be anything like school work. In fact it can be great fun if you choose a topic or project on something that’s really interesting to you like plants or food, or computers or sports? Do you enjoy roller coasters, computer games or dinosaurs? Have you ever asked yourself why something works the way it does? Do you care about the environment or forensic investigations?

Science is all around you. What’s great about a science fair project is you get to create your own question – and, find the answer to it. You can do a science project on anything that interests you. You’re only limited by your own imagination!

It doesn’t matter if you’re in elementary school, middle school or high school, you should go through the same process to pick a topic. The most important thing is to choose a subject that’s interesting and fun for you — and your science fair project won’t be mind-numbing like some of your other schoolwork might be. It will only become a chore if you wait until the last minute to try and get it done.

If you’re genuinely interested in the subject of your science project, then your interest will come through in the quality of your project and, in your interviews with the judges.

Come back and visit our web site over the next several weeks and months, as we create the step by step process to not only survive your science fair experience – but thrive with it.  Next time – help in choosing a topic.

Make sure you also regularly check our Facebook page for on-going ideas and information about other competitions you can enter.

Don’t Waste the Summer!

School is nearly over and most of the science fairs have finished, but summer is the perfect time to start thinking about and to plan next year’s science project.  To get a big head start with your next science fair project, plan to select a topic and do a lot of research on it over the summer. Your judges will be really impressed if they see the first entry in your science journal back in June or July of the previous year!

And, just like athletes who work hard to train over the summer so they’ll be in shape for fall sports, science fair students who begin working on their next project the day after school gets out for the summer will have a much better chance at winning a prize than those who wait until the week before it’s due to start working on the project.

Have you checked out the Mister Science Fair Facebook page lately?  All year long, our Facebook page is full of useful information, advice, resources, and inspiration to create a science fair or engineering design project. It’s also the perfect place to learn about other on-line science competitions you might be interested in entering.

Our Facebook page has links to stories about the winners of some of the local, national & international competitions, and information about upcoming science competitions and webinars.  Many competitions release their rules and deadlines over the summer. You might even find ideas for topics on web sites such as the Kid Wind Challenge, Operation Firefly, the Green Electronics Maker Challenge, the Cybermission Challenge and the Google Online Science & Technology competition. There’s news about free online courses such as MatLab’s Modeling and Simulation class and the “Hour of Code” projects, as well as fun links to videos including the Zombie College lab safety film.

As the science fair season heats up, you’ll also see posts such as the Ten Most Likely Questions to be asked by one of your judges.

Facebook posts happen nearly every day. So, check us out at – and “like” us on Facebook to make sure you don’t miss out on the excitement and opportunties!

Two Keys to Understanding the Scientific Method: Curiosity & Observation

    It pretty much goes without saying that curiosity comes naturally to kids! How many times has your child asked the question, “Why?”

But, observation, and the ability to focus are also both skills that are fundamental to learning about the scientific method, and something you can help your child learn.  It’s never too early to start, even before your child goes to school.

The first thing to do is to buy your young scientist an “Observation Notebook.”  This is where they will write descriptions and draw pictures of what they see. These types of notebooks are extremely important to scientists.

Really good scientific documentation in a notebook captures the development of the scientist’s thinking, how the research was done, and first impressions of what was observed by a scientist. This is as important as the data itself. Capturing data is not the same thing as observation. What made Sherlock Holmes a good detective was the ability to notice details…large and small. If you’ve never thought of it this way before, scientists are really detectives.

Some of the most successful scientists in the world learned to use a notebook at a very young age. Getting a middle school and high school student to learn the importance of maintaining an on-going notebook from the very early concepts of a science fair project through its conclusion is usually a challenge, and I know many science fair students who waited until the last minute to “catch up” with completing their notebook the last few days before the competition.  It’s difficult enough for students to remember everything they did for their project if they haven’t taken good notes along the way, and it’s near impossible to recall observations that may have happened months ago. This is not good science!

 While younger scientists may need help writing things down in their Notebook, older students usually need to constantly be reminded to do it.  Pictures, photos & drawings of observations are perfectly legitimate to include but notebooks that include written observations enhance literacy skills; studies have shown that writing down observations helps to improve focus, memory and retention.

Figuring out what to observe is only limited by your child’s (and your) imagination. For instance, take a walk around the house and write down or draw everything you see that’s green.  Make sure you date the day of the observations and what room you were making the observations in; consider doing the same thing a month or two later so you can compare the changes. Or compare the number of green items in one room versus another.

If you do the same thing on a car ride, you might want to keep track of how many blue cars you see.  If you do this as a game every Saturday on the way to soccer practice, you can even chart the results after a few months to see if there are any changes. If your child likes cats, have them create a Cat Observation Notebook.

While observation plays a major role in the steps of the scientific method, it’s also a skill that will help your child in so many other areas as he or she gets older.

A high school science fair project…about dinosaurs!

Let’s go back to what I consider to be the most important part of creating a great science fair project, and what might be the really hard part of doing a science fair project – choosing a topic. Most students dread the thought of doing a science fair project, so I really can’t emphasize enough the importance to parents of helping a child find a science fair topic that they are interested in.

Let’s look at things from your child’s perspective. Unless your child likes to fertilize the lawn, a project comparing the effects of different fertilizers on sections of your lawn will be boring, uninteresting (may make your lawn look funny) and will not spur them on to enjoying the science fair experience. How about a project which compares the growth of plants when you play different types of music to them? This might be a fun experiment for your child, especially when he or she will have to play rap music every day for several weeks… loud enough to hurt your ears; but it’s been done at least a thousand times. And, unless your child is a musical prodigy and will be able to answer the judge’s questions about specific differences that may have affected the results between the various genres of music, then this might not be the best topic to choose.

Helping your child choose a science fair project topic that he or she is interested in is important, not only for them to develop an interest in doing the project and to learn from it, but it also might be an opportunity for you to learn something about your child you may not have known before. If you have a child in elementary school, you might want to have them gather their favorite story books and sit down together to see if there are any commonalities between the themes or subjects in the book, and choose a science fair topic based on some of those subjects.

With a middle school or high school child, ask questions about their interests, favorite subjects in school, or what things they’d really like to know more about like “How does a bridge stay up and not collapse under the weight of all those cars?”. Brainstorm possible project s with them. Unless you’re an expert in one of those areas, encourage your child to call or write someone who is an expert on the subject, to give them some ideas about how to narrow the idea down to an experiment.

No subject area should be considered absurd. My son’s passion for all-things-dinosaurs as a 6 year-old led to a week-long Paleontology camp in Montana when he was 12. After some encouragement and advice about doing a science fair project on dinosaur eggshells from the scientists he met at the camp as well as from staff at the local science museum where he took a summer workshops on how a Scanning Electron Microscope works, he then set out to research the subject at our local university library. With funding from his high school physics teacher for stamps, he then wrote letters to curators of museums and zoos all around the world describing what he wanted to do with his project, and asked for samples of fossilized and non-fossilized eggshells.

We were all quite astounded when he started receiving packages with pieces of eggshells, and in one case – an entire emu and ostrich egg! With eggshells in hand, and a more refined idea about his project, calls to local science equipment companies and college professors allowed him access to some incredible equipment. This eventually turned into four years of high school science fair projects comparing fossilized eggshells with those of modern day birds (he was hoping to find a missing link between dinosaurs and birds).

Some of the more interesting & fun science fair projects takes time to develop (most of my son’s eggshell samples didn’t arrive for about 2-3 months after he first sent out his letters), so it’s never too early to start the process of coming up with a topic, to figure out the best way to approach the subject or, to make contacts with experts (or in my son’s case, egg-sperts) to get the guidance to make it a fun and valuable learning experience.

Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) photos of fossilzed eggshells from Barnas Monteith’s 9th grade Science Fair Project

Is there anything left to discover?

Large Hadron Collider

A 2007 photo of the tunnel and dipole magnets of the Large Hadron Collider, a particle accelerator, nearly a year before it opened. It’s said to be one of the greatest scientific inventions of modern times.

I remember reading an article several years ago in Time magazine about a debate between Paul Hoffman, former editor of Discover magazine & past president of the Encyclopedia Britannica and John Horgan, author of a controversial book, The End of Science (Monday, April 10, 2000).
In the debate, Horgan tried to convince Hoffman that “…we’ve discovered all we can realistically expect to discover and that anything we come up with in the future will be pretty much small-bore stuff.” If you buy this line of thinking, then there is no reason to have any more science fairs, and the new national Next Generation Science Standards for school kids should be thrown out the window.
Let’s look at the evidence of some of the biggest scientific breakthroughs and discoveries over the past decade…since the article was released:
• The human genome project was completed
• Two teams of scientists, one in Wisconsin the other in Japan, announced their discovery of a way to make stem cells without using embryonic stem cells.
• The first self-replicating, synthetic bacterial cell was created.
• An artificial liver was developed to be used as a bridge for the liver transplant, minimizing the chances of liver failure.
• A vaccine preventing cervical cancer was developed.
• The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was built, a 17-mile-long looped track located an average of 300 feet beneath the Earth’s surface under the Swiss-French border, which accelerates two beams of particles to 1.2 trillion electron volts (TeV) and then smashes them together. It’s said to be one of the greatest scientific inventions of modern times.
• Scientists at the Genome Sequencing Center report that they have sequenced all the DNA from the cancer cells of a woman who died of leukemia and compared it to her healthy cells. In doing so, the experts found mutations in the cancer cells that may have either caused the cancer or helped it progress. It is the first time scientists have completed such research.
• Scientists have created a vaccine that seems to reduce the risk of contracting the AIDS virus.
• Scientists have published the first comprehensive analysis of the genetic code of the Y chromosome.
• The Hubble telescope has detected the oldest known planet—and it appears to have been formed billions of years earlier than astronomers thought possible, 12.7 billion years ago.
• Two new solar systems were discovered.
• The world’s first vaccine was developed against the malaria parasite, which has been shown to be effective against even the most deadliest strains.
• Jadarite was discovered; it is an essential component in the production of batteries for cellphones, computers, and electric or hybrid cars.
• Exoplanets have been confirmed to exist revolving around distant stars similar to our sun. As a result, we may begin a rethinking of the universe and our place within it.
• Then, there were the inventions of the iPod, the iPhone, hybrid cars, the Segway transporter, 3-D printing, augmented reality, and using water as fuel.

If there’s any question about where I stand in the debate between Horgan and Hoffman, let me state unequivocally that I do not support Horgan’s claims that “…we’ve discovered all we can realistically expect to discover” and anything else will basically be small-potatoes.

If anything, the above evidence illustrates how important it is to train and support the next generation of scientists.

What do Bill Gates and Marconi have in common?

I recently read a quote from the most influential physicist of the 20th century, Albert Einstein, and it immediately made me LOL (laugh out loud).  Einstein said, “A person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of thirty will never do so.” (Brodetsky, S. Nature 150, 698-699 (1942)).  I don’t know why I thought the quote was funny, but it brought to mind the importance of getting students interested in science and the “wow factor” of scientific discovery, at as young an age as possible.

Research indicates that the most recent Nobel Prize winners made their discoveries in mid-life (late 40s) and, that NIH grants have been awarded in recent years to more established scientists (late 40s), But there are many scientists including Einstein, who made incredible discoveries or who developed inventions in their 20s. Among the youngest of the bunch includes Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of the radio.

James Watson was only 25 when he wrote one of the most important scientific papers of all time about DNA.  Isaac Newton was 23 when he began inventing calculus. Galileo published his first piece of writing at age 22.  Edwin Armstrong, an electrical engineer who was fascinated by radio from childhood, built a 125-foot-tall antenna in his front yard at the age of 20; within two years he invented the continuous-wave transmitter and the regenerative circuit which developed the backbone of radio communications as we know it, and later invented FM Radio.

Younger scientists and inventors also include Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, noted chemist Glenn Seaborg, and Danish Nobel Prize winning physicist Neils Bohr who developed the model of the atom and who’s one of the scientists featured in a new book for children The Desperate Case of the Diamond Chip.

The one thing all the “younger scientists” mentioned above, seem to have in common is an inquisitive mind. The story is told about Einstein’s curiosity at a young age about the pocket compass his father showed him, and Einstein’s interest in what made the needle move despite the “empty space.” Bill Gates developed a fascination about computer programming when he was a teenager, and spent countless hours learning how to do different things with source codes and computer languages before anyone else his age at the time. With Glenn Seaborg, it was a high school science teacher that spurred his interest in chemistry, and in college Seaborg learned to ask relevant questions in his dealings with Berkeley physicist Robert Oppenheimer, who later became the director of the Manhattan Project.

A few years ago, Francis Collins, the director of the NIH, stated in a Wall Street Journal article (Fleeting Youth, Fading Creativity, February 2010) “researchers in the early stages of their careers tend to be the ones with the fire in the belly. They’re not afraid of tackling the really hard problems.”  As a result, Collins further went on to say the NIH was intending to increase the percentage of grants going to scientists applying for their first grant.

Discoveries by younger scientist may be more commonplace over the next decade as a result of the response by the NIH and because of the Next Generation Science Standards.  These new standards, mentioned in one of my earlier blogs, will result in more teaching and testing of students on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) literacy in elementary, middle and high schools across the USA.

Encourage a youngster you know to get interested in science.

Bill Gates in 2006

Bill Gates was 13 years old when he developed an interest in the then burgeoning field of computer programming. Within a few years, he found ways to access computer time at local computer companies. By the time he was a college sophomore, he was devising solutions to complex and unsolved math problems with his programming skills. Before his 32rd birthday, Gates had become the world’s youngest self-made billionaire.

The Nobel Prize…and, science fairs

Have you ever heard of the Nobel Prize? Since 1901, this award has been given once a year to the world’s greatest contributors to science in the fields of chemistry, physics, physiology or medicine, literature, for peace, and since 1968 in the field of economic sciences. The Nobel Laureates for this year were chosen a few weeks ago, and they will receive their prizes at a ceremony on December 10th in Stockholm, Sweden.

In the past, Nobel Prizes have been given to scientists who contributed to the discovery of DNA, HIV (the virus that causes AIDS), the person who discovered x-rays, and to the scientists who discovered penicillin and how our immune system works. Albert Einstein was awarded the Physics Nobel prize in 1921 for his discovery of the law of Photoelectric Effect. Marie Curie, the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize in 1903, is the only person to win the prize twice and in two different fields – Chemistry and Physics.

The road to a Nobel prize starts with people asking questions about the world around them and figuring out ways to find answers to their questions.  In other words, scientists who are curious just like you, and who do experiments just like you’ll do in with your science fair project!

The myth surrounding science is that you have to be really good at all branches of science and math to be a real scientist. This is simply not the case. In this short video about the life of chemists who have won the Nobel from, you’ll find out that it all comes down to — as Rudolph Marcus, the 1992 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry says — “Curiosity…just curiosity. Just by walking into the street you can ask yourself an endless number of questions. – Trees are green. Why are they green and why are they not blue?”

What are you curious about? Let us know below.

Alfred Nobel (1833-1896). Since 1901, the Nobel Prize has been honoring men and women from all corners of the globe for outstanding achievements in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and for work in peace. The foundations for the prize were laid in 1895 when Alfred Nobel wrote his last will, leaving much of his wealth to the establishment of the Nobel Prize. But who was Alfred Nobel? More information about the scientist, inventor, entrepreneur, author and pacifist here.

Dinosaurs…and the new STEM literacy requirements

My son’s avowed interest in all-things-dinosaurs from the age of ten, combined with the boundless sense of wonder that all kids have, made it possible for him to use his four high school science fair projects to interpret the microstructures of dinosaur eggshells in some ways other scientists had not previously thought of.  As a result, he delivered a presentation to more than a thousand scientists at the annual Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Conference — at the age of 20.

Informal science education, such as the type of learning a student gets outside of the normal classroom environment by participating in a science fair, provides kids with an in-depth and hands-on look at “real world” science.  While it’s possible that participation in a science fair can open doors for students who have already discovered their abilities and passion for science, it can also help students develop an interest in science which could be important to them no matter what career they choose.

Getting students interested in hands-on science now is actually very important for another reason, since a new national set of science education standards is under development. The Next Generation Science Standards have a targeted release date of 2013.

Some of the most important arguments for the Next Generation Science Standards are: 1) American students are falling behind in math and science, performing at levels below students in competitor nations on international tests; the United States currently ranks 25th in math and 17th in science among developed nations, 2) fewer students are pursuing careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) disciplines, and 3) science is profoundly important to address the problems we’re now facing such as preventing and curing diseases, maintaining supplies of clean water and addressing the energy crisis.

Our collective futures are dependent upon students being interested in science.  The purpose of more science education, broadly expressed as ‘STEM literacy’ is to motivate all students (not just the parents and students who are already a fan of science) to fully engage in the very active practices of science and engineering. Aside from the movement to provide 100,000 STEM teachers over the next decade, the other important reason to help your child become interested in science is that through the Next Generation Science Standards, students will be tested on STEM literacy in school.

As your child passes through all grade levels, the new Next Generation Science Standards testing will be evaluating your child’s skills and capabilities in areas such as:
1. Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)
2. Developing and using models
3. Planning and carrying out investigations
4. Analyzing and interpreting data
5. Using mathematics and computational thinking
6. Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)
7. Engaging in argument from evidence
8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

In essence, the new standards recognize that “science, engineering and technology permeate every aspect of modern life” and that by the time a student graduates high school they “should have sufficient knowledge of science and en­gineering to engage in public discussions on science-related issues, to be critical consumers of scientific information related to their everyday lives, and to be able to continue to learn about science throughout their lives.” (See the Report Brief from the Framework for K-12 Science Education for more details.).

Being a scientist or having an interest in science is no longer relegated to a bunch of old men in white coats with goggles, pens in pocket protectors, grumpy attitudes and an inability to talk about anything other than research.

A scientist can be someone who is 20 or 30 years old and who digs dinosaur eggs in the Montana badlands, does all his communication through a PDA, excitedly jumps up and down upon finding a 20-million-year-old fossil of a previously undiscovered life-form, and enjoys talking about music and videos and computer games and lots of other things with his friends.

A non-scientist – but someone who has an interest in, and an understanding of science – might be the salesperson at the appliance store who can help you select the most cost-effective furnace, or the grocery store clerk who understands the potential for botulism if meat isn’t properly refrigerated, or the politician who’s fighting for a clean-energy policy.

Science is all around us, and it benefits everyone at every age, to become more science literate.

Barnas Monteith standing next to Society for Vertebrate Paleontology Logo

As a college junior, Barnas Monteith was given the distinct honor of being the youngest person to give a Plenary session lecture before the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology, which is the central professional organization for dinosaur paleontologists from around the world. Barnas’ interest in dinosaurs since he was six years old, led to his cross-disciplinary study of eggshells for his four years of high-school science fair projects.

Discover the why

Have you ever had to speak in front of a group of people, or in front of a class in school? Some people get sweaty palms and dry-mouth when they have to speak to others in similar situations, and it ends up being a terrible experience for them. This is the part of the science fair project experience that can be most scary for your child. It’s never too early to start preparing for your child’s science fair oral-presentation and judging experiences, even though the science fair may not be happening for several weeks or months.

One of the ways to help your child get ready for that dreaded day NOW, is to start asking questions about the project as your child is working on it, and then have them write those questions and answers down in their notebook (don’t forget that your child needs to maintain a written journal to record everything they’re thinking and doing about their project) so the information sticks with them better. There are many studies showing that when we write things down, we create spatial relationships in our brains between the various bits of information we are hearing, saying, thinking and writing down. The process of writing things down usually means we are putting some thought into evaluating the information we’re recording.  The relationships between these spatial tasks are handled by another part of the brain that allows us to then remember a higher proportion of key facts.

The questions don’t have to be complex.  Have your child explain to you what they’re doing.  Are they measuring something, are they making observations about the status of something?  What differences are they noticing from yesterday to today with their project? Are they thinking about an expert in the field they might want to talk with about their project?  Are they thinking about a photograph they might take to capture what they’re doing?

Remember when your child was “at that age” of always asking “why?” You need to do the same thing. Ask your child a lot of “why” questions. “Why did you decide to use that particular chemical or brand?” “Why do you think the liquid changed to a purple color?” “Why do you think this trial didn’t work out like the other ones?” These are the same types of questions judges will ask your child. If your child has been asked the same questions by you, then this means they’ve already thought about the answers and have a good understanding of their project.  They are less likely to be nervous when you let them know that these are the same questions they’ll be asked by judges.

Nurturing inquisitive minds

Several parents have asked me over the years, “What did you do to fuel your son’s passion for science?”

As someone who became a math major in college with the hope of someday realizing my dream of working for NASA and the space program, I used to love watching my son develop an appetite for science.  It was deeply satisfying for me to see him explore his personal interests in geology and paleontology – interests that would not only eventually become hobbies and science fair projects, but would also lead him to a career in these and other science-related areas when he grew up.  Don’t we all yearn to have fun at our jobs?

A lot of his interest in science was originally sparked by taking him to the Museum of Science and to the Aquarium, where he was first introduced to the “ooo’s” and “aaaahhh’s” of biology, chemistry, astronomy, oceanography, electricity and… dinosaurs.  What kid (or adult) isn’t fascinated with the Van de Graaff generator, the huge T-Rex, or real sharks in huge tanks? They can all be kind of scary when a child is very young!  But most museums also have wonderful interactive exhibits and trained professionals to help explain what your child is experiencing in ways that may help them want to learn more.

The courses my son took at the Museum and Aquarium, on weekends and during school vacations when he was an elementary school student, allowed him to have a hands-on experience in “the art of experimentation” with activities, materials and equipment that I couldn’t afford to supply at home, at an age when it could (and obviously did) make a lasting impression.

When it came time for him to start working on school science projects and his science fair projects, the contacts he had made at the Museum of Science, in particular, were invaluable to opening many doors.  The Museum staff not only helped him develop his project ideas, but helped him to find access to materials, labs and equipment not often available to someone so young.

The most valuable thing you can do to help your child start developing an interest in the fascinating world of science is to encourage regular visits to a science museum.  Encourage them to take the courses there, and when they express an interest in a specific topic, nurture their natural curiosity until it blossoms into their own experiment or project.  A museum course instructor or workshop leader may even agree to become a mentor to your child, and may be best equipped to help your child to expand upon ideas and interests.

What are your ideas for nurturing kids and getting them to develop a greater interest in, or appreciation for science ? Share your thoughts below.

15 year old Barnas Monteith was able to get access to equipment at Yale University as a result, in part, of the credibility he obtained by taking courses at the Boston Museum of Science