While in primary and middle school a paper-mache volcano with foam coming out the topic was considered a worthy science fair project, the bar jumps up quite a ways in high school. A potato with two electrodes in it just won’t make the cut, so let’s take a look at what will.
The Intel Science Talent Search is one of America’s two most famous competitions (the other being the Siemens Competition), and one of its winners did a project on the fairness of science fairs. His analysis determined that the very best predictor of a student’s success at a science fair is how far the student lives from a major research University. As a science-fair winner myself – my direct methanol fuel cell experiments earned me a spot at Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair – I have some inkling why that might be.
The best place for a high school student who wants to do research is a University: rather than having to come up with his own project. professors will cheerfully provide him with reasonably simple and understandable work. Rather than have to procure his own equipment, he will have access to top-notch, multi-million dollar machinery. Rather than having to self-teach all the relevant scientific material, he will have on hand a crew of professors who love his field and love teaching, and will guide him along.
And how to get the professor to talk to you:? Look up his phone number, and give him a call to schedule an appointment. Professors love to teach, and they love inquisitive students who want to learn. If you show the interest, he will take you on, or direct you to the department you are best suited for.
Of course, some students will live in far-flung areas, with no University labs available, and will be forced to work on their own. In this case, the wisest choice is to turn first to local scientists for ideas – an aerospace engineer at a local Boeing plant, or professor at the local community college – and then begin to piece together what sort of equipment will be needed. For students without access to outside laboratories, the options are, unfortunately, severely limited, so a math-oriented project, with a low emphasis on physical equipment and a high emphasis on the student’s own thought processes, is often the simplest choice/
If you are trying to get a handle on what exactly a science fair project should consist of, ask around about when the next local one will be (most are in Spring, about a month or two before the scheduled date of the International Science and Engineering Fair). Judges and students in the “Senior Division” – the high school age group – will all be knowledgeable and helpful, and provide useful guidance.
Always remember: science is not just an activity, it is a mindset. Even if it proves impossible to get a serious science fair project going for your child, you can encourage him/her to read scientific texts, and develop a knowledge of and love for the sciences.