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Some last minute tips from a science fair judge

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This time of year, schoolchildren around the Philadelphia region, from elementary to the high school level, participate in science fairs.

Articles concerning science fair tips mainly discuss making a splash with the presentation board. Well enough. However, conscientious and knowledgeable judges take more than a flashy presentation into account. Some tips to make your or your child's project into a competitive entry:

  • The idea-- It's not unreasonable to ask middle school and high school students to plan ahead. From the time the student is aware that an idea is needed, he or she should try to jot down and discuss ideas over a period of time. Originality will be impressive to a judge, especially to those who have served a long time. Science teachers can gently remind students to start compiling possible topics well in advance. As Mrs. Jackie Gallagher, middle school science teacher at Holy Child Academy in Drexel Hill, PA says, "The students also learn time management skills."
  • The hypothesis- Your hypothesis should have an If...... then, construction. It should be clear and concise.
  • The abstract- Many students contribute too much to the abstract while leaving out important results. It should be tightly constructed, briefly summarizing the experiment, and briefly listing the most important results. Include some numerical data in the abstract. The student should not list the experimental steps in detail here. Perhaps students should be able to see examples of well-written abstracts before they write their own.
  • Background research- Be sure the background research included in your report is relevant. Judges will assess whether the background research really was helpful to the experimental design and development of the hypothesis.
  • Keep accurate records- Judges like to see if the logbook looks authentic. Does it appear to have been written as the experiment progressed or was it written as one entry just before the science fair? Entries should be dated and written in as data is gathered. Judges will look to see if the actual data matches the data on the presentation board and that the data supports the conclusions made.
  • Accurately list all materials used- List all materials used, even things like styrofoam cups and the brand of thermometer used. List quantities of materials used, preferably in metric units. At many schools, the students also need to list the cost of any materials.
  • Experimental design- One of the most frequent mistakes made is not having enough trials of the experiment to get a valid average of data. For chemistry or physics experiments, there should be at least three trials of an experiment that can be averaged. For biology experiments, the variability of living organisms may lend itself to five or more trials to be averaged.
  • Another problem in experimental design is not having appropriate controls within the experiment. Controls give the experimental data more validity. For example, when pharmaceutical companies are testing a new drug in humans or animals, there are some humans or animals that receive a pill or preparation with no real drug in it, a placebo. Then, the company can compare side effect complaints or positive effects among those that actually received the drug to those that did not. If you are performing an experiment that compares the rate of growth of plants vs. amount or direction of light, it would be good to have multiple controls of plants that receive no light at all. Or, if your experiment concerns oxidation of metals, have specimens that are untreated to compare to the experimental results.
  • Use numbers that can be averaged and graphed- If enough trials are performed of the experiment, the numbers can be arranged in a table, averaged, and attractively graphed. The graph should be easy to understand and should clearly demonstrate the results. A caption on the graph should briefly annotate what is displayed. Don’t forget to label your x-axis and y-axis and give each graph a title.
  • Discussion and conclusion - The discussion and conclusion should clearly articulate the implications and conclusions from the data. It should be solely based on the data gathered. If the question or hypothesis originally stated was disproved, say so. Experimental results can be like prayer; sometimes the answer is no.
  • Presentation board- The presentation board should be neatly constructed by the student and should include each of the elements listed above. Relevant and illustrative photos are of great value. Give the photos captions. The viewer should get a comprehensive idea of the experiment and the conclusions just from reading the board alone.

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If you or your child would like to have a science fair project featured in an upcoming Examiner article, contact the Biology Examiner at: apacitti@comcast.net.

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