Getting Started

Whatever the topic you choose, it must be one that you can experiment with yourself. A good way to start is to ask a question that can be answered only be experimenting. Here are some examples of topics chosen by other students and why they can or cannot be selected as good topics:

POOR TOPIC: "Motors"

The topic is too general. If the student is planning to describe how motors work, then he is merely doing a demonstration and not experimentation.

POOR TOPIC: "How Volcanoes Erupt"

This topic will not allow experimentation without visiting real volcanoes. If the student plans to make a model that erupts, then he is doing a demonstration and not experimentation.

GOOD TOPIC: "The Effect of Chemical Fertilizers On Bean Plants"

This could be a good topic because it suggests experimentation. The student must use a good scientific method in completing the project.

GOOD TOPIC: "How Do Pill Bugs React To Various Surfaces?"

This, too, could be a good topic because it suggests the use of an experimental method. The title of the project is in the form of a question. Asking a question is a good approach toward developing your topic.


Every Project Must Have A Purpose

Once you have chosen a topic, try to explain the purpose of the experimentation in one to three sentences. You can start this way: "The purpose of this project is __________." Your purpose may include any hypotheses (scientific guesses) that you have as to the outcome of your experimentation.

Here is an example of one student's purpose:

The purpose of this project is to determine if earthworms, Lumbricus terrestris, affect soil nutrients.

In one sentence, the student has described what he is attempting to find out experimentally and what his test subjects are going to be. A likely hypothesis would follow as "I predict that plants will grow better in soil containing earthworms than in soil without earthworms." It can also be stated as "If a plant is placed in soil with earthworms, then it will grow better than a plant in soil without earthworms."

The project title of this example could take two forms:

What Effects Do Earthworms Have On Soil Nutrients?


The Effects Earthworms Have On Soil Nutrients.


Library Research

No matter what the topic or purpose of your project, the next step should be library research. What we mean is this: find books, encyclopedias, magazines and any other source that contains information pertaining to your chosen topic.

At first you should look for general information. If the project deals with plants, for instance, then you must know something about plants: their structure, nutrients needed for growth, scientific names, photosynthesis, and other general characteristics of plant life. Your teacher may be able to suggest what you need to know about your topic.

Encyclopedias offer general information about many topics. Try looking up your topic in an encyclopedia. If there is an entry about your topic area, read through it to get an idea of how much there is to learn about the subject. Look for cross-references and listings of related articles.

Some widely used encyclopedias that give good information in the sciences are--

1. Encyclopaedia Britannica. This is a scholarly reference with long articles signed by specialists.

2. Collier's Encyclopedia. Collier's is a general reference for the layman. It is strong in contemporary science.

3. Encyclopedia Americana. This encyclopedia is especially strong in science and technology.

4. World Book Encyclopedia. World Book is a general reference with easy-to-read articles in the sciences. Some science project ideas are included with some of the science articles.


Your project should include controlled experimentation. In other words, if your experiment is done under carefully controlled conditions, what will happen? You, as the experimenter, will change certain conditions and observe how the condition of your subject is affected or changed. This experimentation provides a method for testing your hypotheses.

Your experimental design depends upon the experimentation that you are doing. Bacteria, mice or human beings will require different equipment and procedures than motors, soil and the weather. Whatever the experimentation or the subjects you use, there will probably be many variables. Two types of variables encountered in simple controlled experiments are:


The experimenter changes something to observe what will happen. The "thing" changed is the independent variable.


These "things" that were changed caused something else to happen. The "something else" is the dependent variable.

For example, if the independent variable is the differing amounts of chemical fertilizer added to experimental groups of plants, then a dependent variable would be the difference in height between the experimental groups of plants.

Results -- What Happened?

What do you do with the data that you collect during the experimentation? Well, if your observations are in words, organize a neat log or charts. If your results are in numbers, organize the data in tables and graphs.

Of course, there are many ways to construct tables and graphs. Certain types will serve best for your data. Your teacher may be able to help you decide on what types of tables and graphs to use.

Drawing Conclusions

Once you have completed your experimentation and have collected data, what have you proved? Before you answer that question, consider that data is not always reliable. If you worked with bean plants, for instance, how do you know that all bean plants are exactly like your sample? The answer is, "You don't know." You can only predict or infer that the rest are like your sample. The probability of your sample resembling the total population is not very high if you used five bean plants in each group.

One way to increase the probability, then, is to test a large sample. Fifty, one hundred, or even one thousand bean plants would increase your ability to predict. As a further step, you could have more than one experimental group with each group receiving a different amount of fertilizer. This method would give you even more significant results.

Scientists use statistics to analyze the data collected in an experiment. A statistical treatment of data allows them to predict, or generalize, about larger populations. If you can find someone trained in statistical methods, ask for help in analyzing your data.

You must be careful when drawing conclusions. If someone else repeated your experimentation, would they get the same results? Look over your data. Study it. Do a statistical analysis if you can. Then you can say what you think your experiment shows or seems to indicate.

Your data will either support your original Hypothesis or it will not. You must state this in your conclusion.

Be especially careful that your conclusion is not a new Hypothesis. Any new Hypothesis must be tested.

Writing Your Research Paper

The value of scientific investigation would be lost if it were not reported to others. You have the opportunity to report your study in three ways: a scientific research paper, an exhibit and an oral presentation. At this point, we will consider the writing of your scientific research paper.

By now you have collected valuable information on index cards. You have made observations and kept detailed notes. Your list of materials and procedures have been recorded. Data has been organized in tables, charts, and graphs. You have a wealth of information.

Now you must organize that information into an orderly and presentable research paper. Check before you start about rules that your teacher or science fair organization might have in regard to the parts and order of the paper. A commonly used order is presented here. Work on one section at a time.

1. Abstract

The Abstract is a shortened version of your entire paper. Others can read your abstract if they do not have time to read your paper. It should include information about yourself at the top: name, address, school, grade in school, age, and category of your project. Below this information write three short paragraphs: the Purpose, the Procedure, and the Results (you may include conclusions in this section). The entire abstract should be about 200 to 300 words and fit on one page. It is easier to write the abstract after you have written the entire research paper.

2. Title Page

The title page bears the title of your project in the center of the page, several inches from the top of the page. Your name, school and grade in school would be placed in the lower right-hand corner of the page.

3. Table of Contents

List the sections of your paper and the page numbers where they begin. You will have to wait until you write or type your final version to be sure of the page numbers.

4. Purpose

The purpose that you have already composed is the same purpose use here. It should be three sentences or less after which you may include any hypotheses you have as to the outcome of the experiment.

5. Acknowledgments

In one or more sentences, say "thank you" to those who have helped you with your project. You should include those who gave you guidance, materials, and the use of facilities or equipment.

6. Review of Literature

It is now time to use those index cards. This section of your paper is your report to the readers of work and research conducted by others in the past that relates to your topic and facts that help introduce the readers to the topic.

7. Materials and Methods of Procedure

List the materials that you used. Then explain step-by-step what you did in your experimentation. If drawings will make it more clear, draw them on separate pages and include them in this section. Explain any materials that you constructed in detail.

8. Results

The Results section of your paper is organized into graphs, charts, tables, or day-to-day log. Make sure that you label your graphs or charts so that the reader can understand them. Refer back to the sample graphs.

9. Conclusion or Discussion

This section is your evaluation and interpretation of your results. Look over your graphs, charts, tables, or daily log and then write what you think the data shows or seems to indicate. You may include your opinions. Don't be afraid to admit where you might have made mistakes. Negative results are not bad; if you did not prove your hypothesis, then say so.

10. Bibliography or Literature Cited

This is a list of books, articles, pamphlets, and other communications or sources that you used for researching your topic and writing your paper. They are written or typewritten in this form:

Last name of author, First name, Title of Source (book), Place where published: Publisher, Date of Publication

Example of Book:

Smity, John D., A Study of Plant Life, New York: Johnson Printing Company, 1979.

Example of Magazine Article:

Jones, Thomas A., "The Development of the Chick," Animal Development Journal, June 1976, Volume 16; 27-34.

Your Exhibit

Your exhibit (also referred to as a display) is one more way of showing others what your project is about. The exhibit alone is not the science project, but it is nevertheless important. As with all parts of your science project, you should take time to do it right.

Check with your teacher about the rules for making an exhibit. Most science fairs have restrictions on size of displays. One type of exhibit has three sides and stands by itself (without other means of support). The center part is reserved for the TITLE of the project and diagrams, photos, or drawings. On the table in front of the display backboard, you could place equipment that you used or samples of your experimental group and control group, such as, Petrie dishes, soil samples, plants, cages, etc.

The two side wings of the display could be used for a shorter version of your purpose, procedure, results, and conclusions. Under the RESULTS section you might display graphs or charts like those in your scientific paper. Your complete scientific paper can be placed on the table in front of the backboard. Thus, the backboard, scientific paper, and equipment comprise your EXHIBIT.

A 3-Sided Display

Your own creativity will determine how you make your display.

However, this diagram gives an example of a basic 3-sided display.

3-sided display

Graphs and Charts

2. Perhaps you would choose to display photographs or drawings of your work

3. Equipment and your research paper can be placed on the table


Make the backboard from any sturdy material. Remember that is should stand by itself on the table. Plywood, pressed board such as Masonite, or heavy weight cardboard would be a good choice. Assemble the three sections of the backboard with hinges or strong, wide tape.


Before you go any further, decide what colors you will use. If your backboard needs painting, an enamel paint works best. Choose contrasting colors for lettering. If you are in doubt about your color combination, get another opinion.


Your title should be cut out of construction or poster paper and attached (taped or glued) to the backboard. The use of large stencils will make the letters more attractive. Posters could be lettered by hand, first in pencil and then retraced in marker. Stick-on letters may also be purchased at office supply stores.


Drawings and sketches should always be drawn in pencil first and then retraced.

Large, poster size drawings can be produced by using an Opaque Projector at school. Tack or tape a poster to a wall. Place a drawing from a book, magazine, etc. under the opaque projector and project the image onto the poster. Using a pencil, trace the outline of the projection. You can fill in the details after you take the poster down from the wall.


Good photographs can be enlarged at a photo dealer to 5" x 7" or 8" x 10" so that you can show how you set up your experimentation. Every project does not need photos, but if you have a camera, you might consider recording your progress. If photos are included in your research paper, they should be placed at the end. Photos on your backboard should be labeled.