Planning and Conducting Your Science Fair Experiment (page 3)
The experiment can either make or break your science project. This is the backbone of the project, and you must put sufficient thought and preparation into it. You should plan to spend most of your time on a feasible experiment after researching. Your research should involve a practical application that includes measurements, analyses, or tests to answer a specific question. Judges look for these individual qualities and will be distracted if your project contains irrelevant facts and data.
Above all, make sure that the work you do follows the scientific method. Judges often see projects that are researched thoroughly and presented in a neat, attractive manner, only to find that they merely present a wellknown idea, model, collection, or display that the public has seen too many times. Such exhibits are not experiments but mere demonstrations that do not merit high marks as science fair projects at the state and regional level. Note however, that when working on an engineering project, you may in fact be constructing, designing, building, troubleshooting, or demonstrating a working model of a new product, a device to improve on an existing model or product, or an inventive model or device that addresses or solves an existing problem. This is the nature of an engineering project and the judges expect it. However, even at the core of an engineering project there is a question or problem that is asked and addressed by the model, design, or device built.
In general, while preparing your project, try to present a question or problem and then prepare a series of tests to solve the problem or support a proposed hypothesis. If you follow the scientific method, your project should be easier to complete and will provide more meaningful results than if you do not use this method.
Because you want your results to be absolutely accurate, you should record all your data in your journal, regardless of whether or not they support your hypothesis. Your project will not be scored low or disqualified simply because your results did not support your hypothesis. You may develop your project by interpreting your end results and explaining why they were different from what you expected.
Keep in mind that judges do not expect you to come up with a revolutionary idea. They are more interested in seeing how much ingenuity and originality you applied to an existing problem you are studying and the approach you took toward your problem. Most projects have been done before in one form or another. They usually differ to the extent that they are different approaches or applied techniques of an original idea or a confirmation of a conclusion under varying circumstances. Some contestants even submit the same project the following year at the same science fair because they have made significant progress in their topic since their first entry. Judges are mainly interested to see whether you chose the best method possible in your investigation, whether you have made the most effective use of materials, equipment, and techniques pertaining to your topic, and whether you have recorded and analyzed your data accurately and effectively.
Step One: Define Your Objective
Before you begin, streamline your proposed question. Decide what you want to prove, and try to attack the most important aspect of your topic. For example, if you chose oil spills as your topic, you would probably research its hazardous byproducts, cleanup solutions, and long-term effects on the environment. Such a broad topic would yield a variety of details without a specific focus or purpose. You must confine your topic to a single purpose or question. You can do this by listing all the different approaches that may be taken in your project through experimentation. Some of these might include:
- Determining the effects that oil spills have on the growth of organisms.
- Comparing health and disease statistics between different oil spill sites.
- Determining the efficiency of a proposed solution such as bioremediation to neutralize and clean up oil from a spill.
After you have listed various approaches to your project, choose one that you think will produce a reasonable and practical experiment.
Given these choices, the first and second alternatives would probably be too broad to work with. Such experiments would require several years for you to compare the growth, health, and disease characteristics of several sites. The work would involve periodic studies of people, animals, and plants, in order to measure their overall health, function, endurance, immunity, and quality of vital functions. Although these are very challenging objectives that would make great long-term studies, they might be too much to satisfy your immediate objective within the time frame you have. However, the third alternative would be a great experiment because it focuses on a central idea, namely, it would study the efficiency of bioremediation (a natural means of using various microorganisms to consume fuel-derived toxins and turn them into carbon dioxide). You could measure the efficiency of various microorganisms in order to find out which one best eliminates oil in seawater. A procedural plan could easily be developed to parallel your purpose.
Step Two: Obtain Scientific Review Committee (SRC) Approval
Since many local, state, and regional science fairs are affiliated with the Intel ISEF, the format and instructions in this book are designed to help you create and present a science fair project that complies with Intel ISEF rules and guidelines. As such, it is important to provide a summary of Intel ISEF science project research and experimental guidelines that may affect your project. As soon as you have narrowed in on a project topic and defined your objective, you should consult with your science teacher or mentor about receiving Scientific Review Committee (SRC) approval before starting your project. Many local, state, and regional science fairs establish SRC approval deadlines long before the deadline for even entering your project in a science fair. Often this deadline is in November or December prior to the date of the science fair. The purpose of the SRC is to ensure the safety of the student performing the research and experiment as well as the subject being tested. The SRC also functions to disapprove research that may be inappropriate or illegal. Projects involving humans, vertebrate animals, pathogenic agents, or recombinant DNA must have SRC approval prior to the start of research. Your science teacher or mentor is likely to be familiar with the rules and guidelines concerning SRC approval and probably has all the forms and paperwork you need in order to be in compliance. If not, contact your local, state, or regional science fair administrator to obtain SRC deadlines and the appropriate forms. For a complete listing of all current Intel ISEF–affiliated science fairs, please see Appendix D at the back of this book.
Step Three: Organize Your Experiment
Once you have reduced your topic to a single purpose or question, you must organize your experiment. In the example regarding bioremediation of oil spills, you must organize an experiment that will allow you to measure the efficiency of various microorganisms in neutralizing the presence of oil in seawater. It would be difficult (not to mention illegal) to add home heating oil to a body of water for the purpose of testing bioremediation over a short time period, so a more practical thing to do would be to collect several large buckets of natural seawater that you can add home heating oil to along with your microorganism variables and test in an environmentally safe area. Your objective would then be to study the effects of various microorganisms in the bioremediation of home heating oil. After you have organized your experiment, you must develop a procedural plan.
Step Four: Create an Experimental Procedural Plan
An experimental procedural plan is a uniform, systematic approach to testing your hypothesis. When you begin this phase you should make a step-by-step list of what you will do to test your hypothesis. To start, first correlate (i.e., bring one thing into a reciprocal relationship with another) what you want to prove. You begin by selecting one thing to change in each experiment. Things that are changed are called variables. You want to be able to correlate two or more variables— the dependent variable and the independent variable. The dependent variable is the one that is being measured; the independent variable is the one that is controlled or manipulated by the experiment. For example, you may want to see whether the health and growth of a tomato plant (the dependent variable) is influenced by the amount of light the plant is exposed to (the independent variable). The correlation here is between the health of a plant and light exposure. Several other independent variables may be used instead, such as water, oxygen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen levels, and so on. However, for the sake of clarity we will use only light as a variable for this example. You should then state how you will change your independent variable and how you will measure the amount of change in the dependent variable.
Establish a Control Group
Next, an experimental group and a control group must be established. The control group provides you with a basis for comparing the experimental group. For example, you may have an experimental group of tomato plants, which is placed in a sunny window for two weeks and watered periodically. At the end of the period, the plants have grown three inches and are very green. At this point, you may conclude that sunlight does indeed increase plant growth. But before you draw this conclusion, you should determine whether the tomato plants would have grown and become green without any sunlight at all. This is where a control group of plants is needed. A control group is used for purposes of comparison with the experimental group so that you can see what occurred by changing your variables.
The control group of plants in our example would be those plants that are given the same treatment as the experimental ones, with the exception that they would not be exposed to sunlight. If the outcome of the experiment were a significant difference between the two groups, then you probably would be justified in concluding that tomato plant growth is influenced by the amount of sunlight the plant receives.
The procedural plan in this example is very simple, but it gives you an idea of the process of an experiment. In essence, the procedural plan advances from one stage to another in an organized fashion. Remember, however, that most experiments are not as simple as the one described here. Often obstacles arise and other interesting characteristics of the subject are revealed in the process. You may even discover existing differences in several trials with only one variable. In fact, this is a frequent occurrence, and it is an important reason why you must keep accurate data records.
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