As a veteran science fair judge and participant, I’ve seen some of the most amazing projects ever created. I’ve also seen some very terrible ideas implemented terribly. Then, mostly, I’ve seen kids with good ideas that didn’t quite pull it together. The science fair project is meant to utilize the scientific method as a problem solving technique and expose students to semi-realistic research oriented situations. This includes the use of abstracts, the development of problem statements and hypotheses, and data analysis. It must be taken into consideration, however, that for many doing a science fair, these concepts are brand new. The experiment itself, therefore, need not be too overly involved. The focus should be on the quality of the experiment and the ability to present it in a concise manner, not how complicated the procedure is or grandiose its intent. Conversely, science fair projects are, also, a practice in real world aesthetics. A mediocre but good looking experiment and project board can get better scores and more attention than a complex yet unimpressive presentation even if both are done well. That being said, following are some basic ideas for science fair projects at the high school level that have gotten great results in both learning experience and competitiveness.
The effect of some chemical (or environmental aspect) on plant life:
There are a wide range of possibilities under this idea including electromagnetic radiation, various chemicals, pollutants, soil types, and the ever popular music. It might seem done to death, but this kind of experiment provides good, solid empirical data that translates into table and graph form very easily. Height and leaf number are quite illustrative observations as to plant health that go down well in a lab notebook. The major issue in dealing with plants, though, is planting seeds soon enough to gather data. I cannot count the number of times a plant oriented experiment has gone utterly awry because the plant did not grow enough over the experiment time to collect decent data.
The effects of energy drinks on the human body:
With an increasing number of high school and college age students sucking these things down on a daily basis, exploring what energy drinks actually do at a biochemical level is a very relevant experiment. Done correctly, an experiment testing this is relatively easy. It also gets more students involved with the process. The experimenter would need to test either reaction times, athletic ability, or mental acuity in a subject pool previous to energy drink consumption (the control) and afterward. Something to take into consideration is the number of test subjects. Good scientific procedure would want as many as one hundred subjects. Most high schoolers, obviously, do not have access to that many people. Usually in an academic science fair setting, a smaller test group is acceptable.
The ability of various materials to bear loads:
This kind of experiment has the best potential to look great without being too procedurally intricate. It, also, gives the more kinesthetically minded student the opportunity to use their hands. An experiment of this nature would require the building of a bridge or other such structure using different materials. The experimenter can then load weight onto the structure and observe the results. This kind of experiment also provides superb data that looks awesome as a bar graph. Pictures of the structures on the science fair board are an added, eye-catching bonus.
This is a fantastic opportunity to use one of the fancier, more impressive looking scientific terms. Bioavailability, in short, is the ability of the body to absorb a substance. With pharmaceuticals taking so many different forms (tablets, liquids, gel caps), the quickness and effectiveness of these different forms is a real world problem that pharmaceutical companies actually face. Testing for bioavailability essentially comes down to dissolving medicines in water or highly diluted hydrochloric acid. The relative amount of time it takes for different kinds of pill to dissolve gives observations from which relative availability can be inferred.
Working with bacteria can be difficult. It sometimes requires access to agar, Petri dishes, and microscopes, not all of which are always available. If you are lucky enough, however, to have these on hand or at the school, growing bacteria can be incredibly fun and visually interesting. Take samples from places around the house or school and see what kind of environment hosts the most bacteria by counting bacterial colonies. Grow bacteria from a seed sample and test environmental variables on bacterial growth. There are many variations on these two ideas, all of which are very enlightening.
Though it can vary between schools, at the national competition level, the preferred format tends to be “the effect of something on something.” Sticking to such a template assures that all required elements of a good research experiment (purpose, hypothesis, observational data, analysis, and applications) are met. In general, judges and teachers alike want to see that the student has not only learned something, they are able to take what they’ve learned and apply it in a substantial way. Where many students fall short is experimenting just beyond their means. A simple, well produced project is better than a convoluted experiment that the student is unable to really explain understand. Be creative, pay attention to the science, and be interested in what you’re studying, and it’s sure to come out well. Mostly, though, have fun, because that’s the whole idea.