Just the announcement of a Science Fair project can throw even the strongest of parents into frenzy – I know it did for us during the entire tenure of my child’s pre-college educational experience. So, after the dust settles and the volcanoes are all made by others and the bean plants grown and the usual science fair staples in place, you are left to find something uniquely different, but easy enough to attain at the home level. This is not to say that there won’t be those whose parents are doctors, laboratory workers or scientists who “help” with the science fair project, producing the most eloquent and far reaching experiments known to elementary, middle and even high schools students, but let us be realistic in our goals as isn’t the objective of the Science Fair that in which the STUDENT thinks of the project (with the help of parents, teachers and mentors, of course) and actually produces the project?
In our case, we made this so and even at that level, our son was able to compete against the parent done projects of epic proportion and still receive 2nd place one year and honorable mention for several years – and that, in my book, is quite an accomplishment when you are an elementary school student and your competition is that of a girl in your classroom whose mother is an interventional radiologist who performed an MRI on the child for the sole purpose of having the child “explain” image per image her results on poster board, accompanied with radiologic readings by professionals, interpreted on a power point presentation for all who came to see the project.
All this being said, there ARE some innovative, educational, learning experiences for science fair projects which can actually be undertaken by those non-science professional elementary and middle school students without benefit of hospital or lab facilities. My son performed several projects which were fun, interesting and that which he totally understood, enjoyed participating in and could completely explain to examiners and on-lookers alike.
The first of many of these was the toothpaste experience. This is a simple experiment wherein the student explains how different toothpastes with varying degree of whitening agents actually produces or do not produce whitening effects on enamel (tooth covering). To do this one must purchase a couple of basic white enamel covered bathroom tiles from a home improvement store (the smaller, the better). We used a sheet of pre-glued tiles which were meant to be used as a vanity countertop or even a backsplash. They were your basic off white and were easily cut into small squares through the mesh backing. We soaked each tile in grape juice for a finite amount of time. Let them dry and then proceeded to “brush” the tile, again for a finite amount of time with each toothpaste, rinsing for a finite time under cool water and examining the depth to which the whitening took place. He then posted these tiles with results on the standard science fair backboard. Amazingly, he found that those toothpastes with ultra-whitening powers did no more than plain baking soda and water or a mixture of baking soda, peroxide and water.
Of course you have your standards – one free tile with NO grape juice and one tile soaked in grape juice, rinsed and with no brushing whatsoever. He did this experiment in 5th grade and was greeted with rave reviews (yes even against the MRI experiment,) winning 2nd place in the school competition and going on to the district competition and then ultimately onto the regionals. He understood his project, was excited about it and, to this day, still uses the Colgate toothpaste which showed the best results because this project meant so very much to him and proved his point more than adequately. I might add my son is now 21 and physics major in college!
Another great project for the faint of heart is the laundry detergent experience. Take a white sheet (cheap found at Wal-Mart) or even a pillow case but white. Stain it with; yes you guessed it, grape juice. Let it sit for a period of time and then wash in various detergents (we used Tide, Store brand, homemade detergent made from Naphtha soap from a recipe gotten on the internet and Cheer.) The results were, again, not what we expected, with the regular tide taking out most of the stain and the home made detergent coming in a close second. To make this more interesting and a 2 dimensional experiment we then took those washed pieces of cloth (Oh yes, you must cut the fabric into strips of the same width, length and depth so that this is a constant along with that of soaking time, drying time and washing and rinsing time and water temperature) and added Oxyclean to the cloths and rewashed them to see if there was any difference in stain removal.
Again he mounted the strips on the standard Science Fair Board and explained the differences in stain removal and why he thought some came out better than others and if enhanced products, indeed made any difference. Again this project won an honorable mention at the school level and went on to the district level.
No, he didn’t solve a major medical problem, nor did he invent anything that would save the world, but he did learn valuable lessons about truth in advertising, product choices and legitimate expectations of over the counter products. Did he win national acclaim – NO! Did he further his knowledge and foster a new knowledge of the scientific world – I guess so since he decided to major in science in college and now graduate school, but the lesson learned here is that it is the child who must be involved in the planning, executing and explanation of the experiment NOT the parent and it is not all about winning the prize but about the learning experience and the enlightenment which occurs at the elementary and middle school levels.
There is no need to purchase books about science fair experiences, scour the internet for experiments to duplicate which have won large prizes – just sit down with your child, hash out some ideas and voila, a science experiment is born!