Finding a good science fair project can seem like a daunting task, unless you create a strategy. You have certain unique interests and abilities. You can narrow your search considerably by listing what you are truly interested in. Don’t worry if you feel you don’t know very much about a particular subject. You will soon be gathering background information, developing a hypothesis, and experimental procedure. By the time you’re finished with your project, you’ll be an expert.
Brainstorm using the following questions. Write down your answers so that your refer to them during your search:
What are my interests? What do I find uninteresting? Is there anything that I’ve always wondered about or questioned? Do I prefer the “hard” sciences (i.e. physics, chemistry, mathematics) or the “soft” sciences (biology, botany, medicine and health)? Is there a category of science fair competition that appeals to me more than any other? Do I prefer to spend time inside or outside? Is there a particular interest about which I feel passionate? What resources are available to me in terms of a mentor, labs, research facilities, equipment and mentors?
You may find inspiration for your topic in a textbook, scientific journals such as Science News and Scientific American, popular magazines such as Discover and Popular Science, even local newspapers. As you look for a topic, record exactly where you find any information. This will help you when you begin to write your research paper.
Consider the world around you, the problems of your own community. Look for a problem and gear your project toward solving that problem. The problem becomes a question and the solution is your hypothesis. Your interest may be triggered by a real-life situation, such as a disease process involving someone you know, an ecological disaster, or a behavioral situation.
A local newspaper is another often overlooked source of valuable information. The daily news of your community can often suggest specific questions that you might tackle in your project. This is especially true in the area of environmental sciences.
Does your community have any unique ecological challenges? What are your hometown’s sources of commerce and industry
Finally, your own observations of the natural world can be valuable for investigating possible topics. You may have learned that green plants contain chlorophyll and photosynthesize. Do plants that aren’t green still carry on photosynthesis? Do they contain some other pigment? Does a firefly’s flash rate change depending on the outside air temperature? Do certain kinds of spiders create certain kinds of patterns in their webs? Are certain web designs more effective at catching insects than others? The world around you is full of fascinating questions that can be explored in your science fair project.
Keep the project simple. Don’t be afraid to select what appears to be a simple project (so long as it isn’t too simple, and your teacher is the best judge of that). Not everyone can split DNA, clone a baby chick, discover a cure for a disease, test water in several thousand backyard wells, build a robot that will revolutionize the auto industry. Sometimes it is the less sophisticated project that when well researched and presented is a winner
Keep your focus narrow. Don’t allow yourself to be side-tracked with a problem that has too many aspects to pursue. You can always decide to make your project a continuing study for future years. The more narrow your focus, the more you can concentrate on the process rather than the outcome. Occasionally, your research of background information will suggest an entirely different direction to proceed and you will have to decide which experiment you want to perform and whether to save the rest for another year. Choose one aspect of the problem and work to find and test one solution, even if it doesn’t work.
Pitfalls to avoid: Choose a topic your parents and teacher will approve. Consider the materials, equipment or supplies you will need. A list may help the teacher decide if the project can be approved. It is not uncommon for projects today to require such sophisticated technology as a LASER, electron microscope, incubator, autoclave, hyperbaric chamber, wind tunnel or a computer. If your school does not have what you need, is there a research lab, a university lab or a hospital lab where you can work? Is there a mentor or research scientist willing to supervise your work?
If your project requires a controlled environment over a period of time, what will happen over the Christmas holidays or school breaks? What will happen if there is loss of electricity because of a storm? Is there sufficient security for your project?
Will your project involve chemicals that may be hazardous to use? Do you have personal protective attire available for your use? How will you dispose of these chemicals? Even something you may consider ordinary such as motor oil cannot be poured down the drain when you are done using it. Chemicals must be handled according to state and federal environmental rules and regulations, as well as school and ISEF guidelines. Your school should have a book listing all chemicals which may or may not be used and how to handle and dispose of them properly.
Projects involving viruses require a professional research laboratory and supervising scientist. Recombinant DNA projects must comply with National Institutes of Health guidelines. A lab and scientist must be licensed to use radioactive materials and special shielding must be available whenever you work with a LASER, UV light, x-ray, microwave radiation and high intensity radio frequency waves (RF). Most states science academies prohibit the use of cultures taken directly from humans or other warm-blood animals because of the danger of unknown viruses. Cultures must be purchased from reputable supply houses.
Other questions to consider as you deliberate over topic ideas:
Is this topic truly interesting to me? Enough so that I won’t lose interest after one month or longer? Can it be completed in an allotted period of time? What will the time commitment for experimentation entail (i.e. two hours every afternoon, once a week, etc.) Is it safe? Do I have access to the necessary equipment and technology to perform the experiment with proper technique? Is there someone available to act as mentor? Is it an actual experiment and not just research in a particular area? Can I discover, study, design, create or improve? Is it relevant? (Students often call this question, “Who cares?”) Will it benefit society or my community? Is it creative or original?
When you have narrowed down your topic to one or a few choices, ask a friend, classmate or parent to review it. Ask them to apply the questions above. Jot down the pertinent information: a possible title, the question, what supplies you will need, who might be your supervising scientist or mentor. Now, it’s time to present your project to your teacher. He or she will help you complete the forms necessary for approval, get together the equipment and supplies and contact a mentor.