It's a scenario many parents dread: your child comes home from school and announces that he has a science fair project due – in three weeks! With little or no guidance on how to get it done, students and parents often leave the project until the last minute. And we all know how the results of that experiment work out.

“This type of scenario can send a parent into panic mode, especially someone who does not have a science background,” says Tina Lanese, director of Science Buddies, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting hands-on science learning. But, she says, with some advance planning and perseverance on the part of your child, the science assignment can be a boon for independent learning.

The first step in the process is to choose a project – no easy task when you consider the sheer volume of options out there. Will your child be exploring genomics? Mammalian biology? Applied mechanics? Before you get ahead of yourself, take a step back. Discuss with your child what interests her the most. Is it animals and plants? Or machines and computers? Once you have a sense of the direction that your child wants to go in, Lanese recommends asking these questions:

  1. Is the project interesting enough to work on for the next couple of months?
  2. Are there at least three sources of written information on the subject?
  3. Is the experiment safe to perform?
  4. Are all of the materials needed for the experiment readily available or can they be obtained to the complete the experiment?
  5. Is there enough time to complete the project by the due date?

Choosing a project is hard enough, but once you get to the science fair floor, just what are the judges looking for? Heidi Black, Science Fair Coordinator for the East Side Union High School District, says that there are certain kinds of projects that tend to take home the blue ribbon:

  • Innovative and new. “Judges have seen colored lights on plants and rust so many times that they get a little tired of that,” says Black. Using creativity will not only catch the judge's interest, it may also reveal new discoveries in the process!
  • From the heart. Students who are inspired by a favorite hobby or specific interest really care about their projects, and it shows. One winner of the International Science Fair, says Black, designed a tracking device for his model airplane.
  • Solid science. You don't have to go crazy to take home top honors. Doing a simple project, but researching, analyzing, and presenting it thoroughly, can be just as impressive as a complicated project.
  • Just plain cool. If you can make the judges say “Wow!,” you're on to something. Doing your research and finding a project off the beaten track will help knock their socks off.
  • Serves a need. Things that can be used are universally liked, from wheelchairs that can climb stairs to devices for water filtration. These projects tend to follow current events, says Black. “This year we had a lot of oil cleanup projects, last year it was 'how do you make a better levy?'.” These types of project show that you are interested in using science to solve world problems.

Still stumped for a project that your child can sink his teeth into? Check out's Science Fair Ideas page or some great videos from The Archimedes Initiative for inspiration.