Thoughts on a Science Fair Project, part 2

Science Fair Resources

Go back to part 1

An Original Science Project!

“Dear Happy Scientist. My teacher says I have to do a science project, but it has to be one that no one else has ever done. Please help!”

With over ten million students per year doing science projects, year after year, coming up with a unique science fair project can be very difficult. The internet has made that even harder. I know of several teachers who tell their students that if the topic of their project shows up in a Google search, they have to find a different project.

Why? Teachers want their students to actually do a project themselves, instead of just downloading a pre-done project from a website. They want the students to have the experience of thinking scientifically, actually testing an idea, controlling variables, and evaluating the results. A science project is a chance for students to be involved in “real science” instead of just memorizing facts.

Now look at things from the student’s perspective. You have to do a science project, but you have no idea what topic to pick. The first things that you think of (Which Detergent Gets Your Clothes Cleaner?, Do Plants Grow Better When You Play Music To Them?, etc.) have all been done a million times, plus the fact that they are horrible topics to begin with. More on that later. Unless you have a science-related hobby, you are stuck with trying to think up some random topic, that you really have no interest in. When you do think one up, you do an internet search and find 120,486 pages that talk about that topic as a science project. Total frustration!

So what is the solution? Well, actually there are several. Even better, the key is to look at the project the way professional scientists do.

  • Look for a topic that you are interested in. Unless doing laundry is your favorite activity, a project comparing laundry detergent will be tedious and boring. Think about the type of research that actual scientists do. An astronomer is probably not going to be researching the behavior of White Crowned Sparrows. A botanist is probably not going to be researching the crystal structure of the mineral pyrite. Instead, they will be working in their field of interest and expertise. 

Try doing the same thing. What are you an expert at? Playing the guitar? Shopping for shoes? World of Warcraft? Whatever it is, there are potential science projects hiding there. The best part is, once you find the right topic, it will be something that you really want to know about. If you find a topic in an area that you are already an expert in, you are much more likely to find a project that ten thousand other students have not already done.

  • Focus on specifics. OK, imagine for a moment that you are indeed fascinated by laundry detergents. Don’t propose a project to find out which brand of detergent cleans your clothes the best. Why? First, to test that you would have to test every known brand of detergent with every kind of fabric, and every kind of dirt and stain. The topic is far too broad. Even worse, you would not really be learning anything that was scientifically useful. Your testing might show that Superbright gets the clothes cleaner, but it would not show why. Surely just putting a Superbright label on a detergent does not make it work better. So what can you do to improve the topic? 

Instead of brands, focus on chemicals. Compare the ingredients in different detergents. A little research will let you weed out the chemicals that are just added for color, fragrance, etc. Then focus on a particular fabric, such as your cotton, soccer uniform, and a particular stain, such as grass stains. Now, you are getting closer to an actual science project, something along the lines of: 


    Does adding nonanoyloxy benzene sulfonate improve sodium percarbonate’s ability to remove grass stains from cotton fabric? 



    Now that is a science project! And it is easy to do. Several major brands have detergents with sodium percarbonate as a bleaching agent with nonanoyloxy benzene sulfonate added to activate it, and detergents with sodium percarbonate, but without the nonanoyloxy benzene sulfonate. Your variables have been greatly reduced, your project is much more scientific, and it is probably not going to show up as a science fair project on a Google search. If it does, simply shift to a different kind of fabric, or a different kind of stain.

    

Instead of “Do Plants Grow Better When You Water Them With Soda?”, change it to

    “The Effects of Dilute Carbonic Acid on the Growth of Zea mays.”

    Carbonic acid is the carbonation in soda, and Zea mays is the species for corn. By using carbonated water instead of soda, you remove the variables of sweeteners, coloring agents, flavorings, etc. By selecting corn as your plant, you make your project very specific. Has someone already done the project with corn? Switch to lima beans, petunias, or crab grass.

Now, a note for the teachers out there. In the real world of science, not every project is original and unique. In fact, replication is a very important part of the scientific process. Just because one student (or even a few thousand) tested to see whether rock music makes geraniums grow faster, that does not mean that the replicating the project is a bad thing. Since many science projects done by students who have no real interest in the topic, the testing and conclusions may not be as accurate as they could be. Replicating those experiments could easily uncover new information, identify flaws in the testing process, or reach a different conclusion. In science, a single experiment does not prove the conclusion, but that is the impression students get when they are told that a project is denied because it has already been done by someone else.

In fact, for those students that are not at all excited about doing a project, and are having trouble coming up with a topic, replication is a great idea. The student gets experience with variables, controls, testing, etc., and they often wind up learning more about real science than they would from struggling through a project that holds no interest for them. Remember the prime goal in a science project is for the student to get some experience with the actual process of scientific investigation, and replication is an important part of that process.

Go on to part 3