A good Science Fair project involves the student in a journey of discovery, driven by curiosity. It typically starts with a student proposing a question or hypothesis, and doing some background research. The student then develops an experimental apparatus or procedure that will produce data, from which the student can draw conclusions to prove (or disprove) the hypothesis, or answer the question.
A good hypothesis typically takes the form of "If I do this, then that should happen." A question typically takes the form of "Can I improve results by doing this?", or "If I try different ways of accomplishing something, which produces the best results?" An example of a poor question is "If I do that, what happens?". A good Science Fair Project directs the student's efforts toward a particular result or expectation; undirected experimentation just to find out what happens is play, not science (although notable discoveries have been made in this manner, they are notable because they were "accidents").
After selection of a hypothesis, the most important parts of the scientific process are to:
- conduct background research
- develop an experimental apparatus or procedure to investigate the hypothesis or question
- operate the apparatus or conduct the procedure to collect experimental data
- perform iterations of data collection
- reduce or analyze the experimental data
- arrive at conclusions
The final step before coming to the Science Fair is to prepare a display and rehearse (but not memorize!) an explanation of how the display shows the means for conducting the experiment, developing the results, and arriving at the conclusions.
Students are advised that getting the right answer is NOT the purpose of a Science Fair project. It is the intent of a Science Fair project that you go through the process of asking questions and performing experiments in an attempt to find answers. Making the attempt without answering the question still satisfies the intent of your discovering knowledge on your own. At the Science Fair, the judges appreciate a display that clearly shows the intent and results of experimentation, and a presentation that concisely describes what was done and what was concluded. The judges want to feel that you are familiar enough with your project to discuss it comfortably and answer questions about it. Memorized speeches or rambling descriptions of minutiae (trivial details) are frustrating to judges, who need to be able to pose appropriate questions in order to thoroughly understand the project. If you work on a team project, the judges will expect more substantial science in your project, and every team member should be able to represent the project.
Teachers and Parents are advised to encourage students to develop a genuine interest in their projects. Judges will occasionally ask students why they chose to do a particular project, and it usually turns out that the best work is done by students who are motivated and inspired by their curiosity about what they are investigating. Students who developed a project simply because you expected them to do so will generally produce mediocre results.
Judges are advised that students are expected to have a thorough understanding of the work that they have done. The students must know why the experiments they have assembled and operated can provide the answers they seek. They must correctly interpret the data they have collected. As judges, you should expect a logical answer to any of your questions about the technical terms they use or the equipment they have employed. Some students will attempt to accomplish research that is beyond their understanding, skills, or the capability of their equipment; it is preferable that they complete projects they have the ability to thoroughly grasp.
County coordinators are advised that some types of poor attempts at Science Fair projects are relatively easy to identify. In order to maintain the integrity and excellence of projects entered in the State Science Fair, it is preferred that you NOT recognize the following types of projects with awards at the local level, and that you NOT invite them to submit an application to the State Science Fair:
- Artwork, photographs, or replicas (physical or computer-generated) that illustrate concepts but were not used or are not useful as experimental apparatus to collect comparative data; depictions of known scientific concepts are in this category
- Experiments that indicate the students have not done rudimentary background research (e.g., they could have seen the experiment described in a textbook)
- Displays of collections of things (unless the collections are used for comparative research that leads to scientific conclusions)
- Experiments that merely find out "What happens if I do this?", without having a scientific reason for performing the procedure
- Pontification of theories with no credible attempt at proof (e.g., using literature search of quotes to provide evidence for the theory)
- Experiments that present results without analyses that predict the results, quantify results, show why those results occurred, or explain how they occurred
- Experiments that do not check data points for repeatability or resolve widely divergent results
- Experiments using apparatus so crude that measurements could not be realistically acquired to show the intended results
This guide was written principally by Anita Gale with assistance from the California State Science Fair Judging Policy Advisory Committee.
Reprinted with the permission of the California State Science Fair.