Step #1 - Set Up Your Notebook
The first thing is to set up your research notebook. This is just like your class notebook in STEAM. It will need the following sections:
- Your name and Research Notebook on the front cover
- Starting on page 1 you will need a Table of Contents. Include a table that has the headings Date, Title, and Page. I would save 3-4 pages for this section.
- The remainder of the notebook will be used for all your information, notes, data, for each sections of this project.
- Number these pages beginning with 1. For now 20 - 30 pages should be enough. Remember, you can always continue numbering if you run out.
- You might want to consider adding section tabs to help you flip through the notebook quickly.
Step #2 - Topic Selection
The first thing is to come up with a topic that your project will be about.
- Begin by creating an entry in your Table of Contents titled Topic Selection and the page number where you will begin.
- Next, go to that page in your notebook and title the page Topic Selection.
- Now it is time to start brainstorming things that interest you. This could be hobbies, sports, things you wish you knew more about, etc.
- Write these ideas down in your notebook. You want to come up with at least 5 or 6 ideas.
- If you are having a hard time coming up with ideas talk with your family or friends. The Science Buddies website has a Topic Selection Wizard that may help you find project ideas. If you use this site to help generate ideas, do not pick a specific project. Instead, write down several ideas that interest you.
- Narrow down your list to the 2 ideas that you think are the best.
- The most important thing when selecting a topic is to consider the safety of both you as the scientist or engineer and the safety of the living organisms involved in your experiment, or those who use the object that you design.
- These are examples of project topics that you should avoid.
Project Topics to Avoid
Any topic that boils down to a simple preference or taste comparison. For example, "Which tastes better: Coke or Pepsi?"
Such experiments don't involve the kinds of numerical measurements we want in a science fair project. They are more of a survey than an experiment.
Most consumer product testing of the "Which is best?" type. This includes comparisons of popcorn, bubblegum, make-up, detergents, cleaning products, batteries, and paper towels.
These projects only have scientific validity if the Investigator fully understands the science behind why the product works and applies that understanding to the experiment. While many consumer products are easy to use, the science behind them is often at the level of a graduate student in college.
This is not an experiment, nor does it represent what happens in an actual volcano.
Any topic that requires people to recall things they did in the past.
The data tends to be unreliable.
Effect of colored light, different liquids, or amount of liquid on plants
This is a classic project that has been overdone. You can be more creative!
Mentos and soda
There are thousands of videos on YouTube of this reaction. In most cases it is a demonstration, not an experiment.
Effect of music or talking on plants
Difficult to measure.
Effect of running, music, video games, or almost anything on blood pressure
The result is either obvious (the heart beats faster when you run) or difficult to measure with proper controls (the effect of music).
Effect of color on memory, emotion, mood, taste, strength, etc.
Highly subjective and difficult to measure.
Any topic that requires measurements that will be extremely difficult to make or repeat, given your equipment.
Without measurement, you can't do science.
Graphology or handwriting analysis
Questionable scientific validity.
Astrology or ESP
No scientific validity.
Any topic that requires dangerous, hard to find, expensive, or illegal materials.
Violates the rules of ISEF.
Any topic that requires drugging, pain, or injury to a live vertebrate animal.
Violates the rules of ISEF.
Any topic that creates unacceptable risk (physical or psychological) to a human subject.
Violates the rules of ISEF.
Any topic that involves collection of tissue samples from living humans or vertebrate animals.
Violates the rules of ISEF.
Step #3 - Testable Question
Once you find a general topic that interests you, it is time to develop a question that you want to answer. This is one of the most important steps in this project and when done correctly will save you many headaches during the project. Write down your possible question ideas in your notebook starting on a new page. Don't forget your table of contents entry! Some things to think about as you develop your question include:
- A scientific question usually starts with: How, What, When, Who, Which, Why, or Where. For example, if you are interested in robots, your question might be "How much current does a robot's arm use to lift a weight?"
- Can you design a fair test to answer your question? A "fair test" requires that you change only one factor (variable) and keep all other conditions the same. If you cannot design a fair test, then you should change your question.
- Your science project question should involve factors or traits that you can easily measure using a number, or factors or traits that are easily identified, like colors.
- Once you have a question that you want to answer as part of your project, review it with your parents to make sure it is something that they will approve you doing at home. While we all would like to use dinosaurs for our experiment, they are big, noisy, and eat a lot so most parents will say no.
See the Examples of Testable Questions page for additional guideance. Examples Of Testable Questions
Step #4 - Research Plan
Your research plan will help you organize your ideas to begin your background research for your project. Background research is critical to your project as it will help you develop a good hypothesis, design an experiment to answer your question, and determine what materials you will need for your experiment. You can use either an outline, web, or other organizer that you feel will help.
- Begin by listing key words, phrases, things that you do not know about your topic.
- Next, use these key words to generate research questions (who, what when, where, why, how) to gather information. Use the sample question document on the right to help give you ideas.
- You should also plan to do background research on the history of similar experiments or inventions. This includes gathering definitions of important words and formulas for any math equations you will use in your experiment or to analyze your data.
An easy way to organize your ideas, questions, and answers is to create a graphic organizer. This could be a web or bubble map, a tree map, or even an outline. You can use anything that helps you organize like questions or topics together to help with research. As you start your research, you may need to add additional questions, as there may be new vocabulary or topics that you need to have more information about. Below is and example web organizer.
Please see the Background Research Question Guide for help in generating questions. Background Research Question Guide
Step #5 - Variables
It is important for an experiment to be a fair test. You conduct a fair test by making sure that you change one factor at a time while keeping all other conditions the same.
For example, let's imagine that we want to measure which is the fastest toy car to coast down a sloping ramp. If we gently release the first car, but give the second car a push start, did we do a fair test of which car was fastest? No! We gave the second car an unfair advantage by pushing it to start. That's not a fair test! The only thing that should change between the two tests is the car; we should start them down the ramp in exactly the same way.
Conducting a fair test is one of the most important ingredients of doing good, scientifically valuable experiments. To insure that your experiment is a fair test, you must change only one factor at a time while keeping all other conditions the same.
Scientists call the changing factors in an experiment variables. A variable is any factor, trait, or condition that can exist in differing amounts or types. An experiment usually has three kinds of variables: independent, dependent, and controlled.
The independent variable is the one you change as part of your experiment (ex. the type of soil your plant will grow in). The dependent variable is the one you are recording the data on to determine which of the independent variables worked best (ex. height of the plant). The controlled variable are those things you need to keep the same in the experiment to not affect the independent variable (ex. amount of soil, size of pot, amount of water, amount of light, temperature, etc.)
In your Project Notebook you should have an entry in the table of contents for Variables. On the Variables page you should list:
- Your Independent variable
- example - My independent variable will be the following soil types; Burn Scar Soil from Waldo Canyon, Burn Scar Soil from Black Forest, Non-Burn Scar Soil from Waldo Canyon, Non-Burn Scar Soil from Black Forest, and Potting Soil
- Your Dependent variable
- example - My dependent variable will be the growth of the Purple Coneflower plants as measured by their height in cm and the number of leaves.
- Your Controlled variables
- example - My controlled variables will include:
- Same size of pots
- Same amount of soil
- Same growing location to contol light and temperature
- Watering on the same day with the same amount of water
- Same number of Purple Coneflower seeds (2) in each pot from the same seed package planted at the same depth on the same day
- Same amount and kind of fertilizer
- example - My controlled variables will include:
See the Examples of Variables page for more samples. Examples of Variables
Step #6 - Hypothesis
A hypothesis is an educated guess based on your background research as to what you think the results will be based on what you do.
In most experiments a hypothesis is written as an if / then statement: "If _____[I do this] _____, then _____[this]_____ will happen." (Fill in the blanks with the appropriate information from your own experiment.)
Your hypothesis should be something that you can actually test. This is what's called a testable hypothesis. In other words, you need to be able to measure both "what you do" and "what will happen."
In you Project Notebook you should have an entry in the table of contents for Hypothesis. On the Hypothesis page you should have your completed hypothesis.
- Example: If I plant Purple Coneflower plants in different native soils from both the Waldo Canyon burn scar and non-burn scar areas, then those planted in non-burn scar soil will grow the best.
See the attached Example Hypothesis page for some more examples. Example Hypothesis
Step #7 - Materials
What type of supplies and equipment will you need to complete your science project? By making a complete list ahead of time, you can make sure that you have everything on hand when you need it. Remember, some items may take time to obtain, so making a materials list in advance represents good planning! Also, as you perform your experiment it is possible that you will discover additional materials that you need. Make sure that these extra items also get added to your list.
It is important that your materials list be very specific. This includes everything you used no matter how small. Make sure you also list the quantity, size, amount, specific type, etc. Here are some examples:
2 Bottles of Water
500 ml De-ionized Water
4 AA Alkaline Batteries
Meter Stick with 1 mm Divisions
In your Research Notebook you should have an entry in the table of contents for Materials. On the Materials page you should have a list of all the things you will need for your project. Remember, the list should include quantity and size of each item.
Step #8 - Procedure
Now that you have come up with a hypothesis, you need to develop an experimental procedure for testing whether it is true or false.
The experimental procedure is like a step-by-step recipe for your science experiment. A good procedure is so detailed and complete that it lets someone else duplicate your experiment exactly!
Repeating a science experiment is a necessary step to verify that your results are consistent and not just an accident.
- For a typical experiment, you should plan to repeat it at least three times (more is better).
- If you are doing something like growing plants, then you should do the experiment on at least three plants in separate pots (that's the same as doing the experiment three times).
All steps that require measuring must be done in metric units (example: millimeters, centimeters, meters, grams, kilograms, milliliters, liters, etc.)
If you are doing an experiment that involves testing or surveying different groups, you won't need to repeat the experiment three times, but you will need to test or survey a sufficient number of participants to insure that your results are reliable. You will almost always need many more than three participants, usually more than 50!
In your Research Notebook you should have an entry in the table of contents for Procedure. On the Procedure page you should have your detailed step by step procedure in the exact order you will conduct the experiment.
Step #9 - Conducting The Experiment and Collecting Data
With your detailed experimental procedure in hand, you are almost ready to start your science experiment. But before you begin there are still a few more things to do:
- Know what to do. Read and understand your experimental procedure. Are all of the necessary steps written down? Do you have any questions about how to do any of the steps?
- Make sure your notebook is ready for taking notes and collecting data.
- Be prepared. Collect and organize all materials, supplies and equipment you will need to do the experiment. Do you have all of the materials you need? Are they handy and within reach of your workspace?
- Think ahead about safety! Are there any safety precautions you should take? Will you need adult supervision? Will you need to wear gloves or protective eye gear? Do you have long hair that needs to be pulled back out of your face?
Prepare a data table in your laboratory notebook to help you collect your data. A data table will ensure that you are consistent in recording your data and will make it easier to analyze your results once you have finished your experiment. Review the Sample Data Tables document gives examples of how you might want to construct yours. Remember that the data table needs to be detailed enough to collect all your dependent variable information.
During the Experiment
It is very important to take very detailed notes as you conduct your experiments. In addition to your data, record your observations as you perform the experiment. Write down any problems that occur, anything you do that is different than planned, ideas that come to mind, or interesting occurrences. Be on the lookout for the unexpected. Your observations will be useful when you analyze your data and draw conclusions.
If possible, take pictures of your experiment along the way, these will later help you explain what you did and enhance your display. They also can help you document your data and observations.
Remember to use numerical measurements as much as possible. If your experiment also has qualitative data (not numerical), then take a photo or draw a picture of what happens.
Be as exact as possible about the way you conduct your experiment, especially in following your experimental procedure, taking your measurements (remember these must be in metric units), and note taking. Failures and mistakes are part of the learning process, so don't get discouraged if things do not go as planned the first time. You should have built enough time in your schedule to allow you to repeat your test a couple of times.
In fact, it's a good idea to do a quick preliminary run of your experiment. Often there are glitches in the procedure that are not obvious until you actually perform your experiment--this is normal. If you need to make changes in the procedure (which often happens), write down exactly the changes you made.
Stay organized and be safe! Keep your workspace clean and organized as you conduct your experiment. Keep your supplies within reach. Use protective gear and adult supervision as needed. Keep any chemicals away from pets and younger brothers or sisters.
In your Research Notebook you should have an entry in the table of contents for your Data Table and Observations. In this section you should have your data table, detailed observation notes, drawings, pictures, etc. that you take during the experiment.
Step #10 - Data Analysis
Take some time to carefully review all of the data you have collected from your experiment. Really think about what you have discovered and use your data to help you explain why you think certain things happened.
The use of charts and graphs can help you analyze the data and patterns. Ask yourself the following questions:
- What did you find out from your experiment?
- Did you get the results you had expected?
- Why do you think that you got the results you did?
- What data supports this assumption?
Calculations and Summarizing Data
Often, you will need to perform calculations on your raw data in order to get the results from which you will generate a conclusion. You should have performed at least 3 trials of your experiment. Think about the best way to summarize your data. In many cases you will want to calculate the mean or average for each group of trials. It may be necessary to summarize the results in some other way such as ratios or percentages? Or, is it better to display your data as individual data points?
- Make sure all formulas used for calculations are listed as part of your procedure.
- Pay careful attention because you may need to convert some of your units to do your calculation correctly. All of the units for a measurement should be of the same scale– (keep L with L and mL with mL, do not mix L with mL!)
Helpful Hint: If you use a spreadsheet program such as Microsoft Excel to create your data tables and perform your calculations, you can then later easily create your graphs to display the results. Be sure to label the rows and columns and don't forget to include the units of measurement (grams, centimeters, liters, etc.).
In you Research Notebook you should have an entry in the table of contents for your Data Analysis. In this section you should have your written analysis of your data. This is written as a paragraph. In many experiments this can be the longest section, as a good analysis fully summarizes what the data says to you the scientist.
Step #11 - Graphs
Graphs are often an excellent way to display your results. In fact, most good science projects have at least one graph.
For any type of graph:
- Generally, you should place your independent variable on the x-axis of your graph and the dependent variable on the y-axis.
- Be sure to label the axes of your graph— don't forget to include the units of measurement (grams, centimeters, liters, etc.).
- If you have more than one set of data, show each series in a different color or symbol and include a legend with clear labels.
Different types of graphs are appropriate for different experiments. It is important that you use the correct graph! These are the most common types of graphs used for elementary projects, and examples of when each should be used:
- A bar graph is appropriate for comparing different trials or different experimental groups. It also may be a good choice if your independent variable is not numerical.
- A line graph is most appropriate if your dependent variable is numerical and your independent variable is time.
Helpful Hint: Once these are created you can use the graphing tools to create your graph (in Excel they are called Charts). Remember, it is important that you select the correct type of graph for your data. Also make sure that your graph(s) have a title, x and y axis labeled, and that there is a key to help others interpret the data.
Step #12 - Conclusion
Your conclusion summarizes if your results support or contradict your hypothesis:
- Write a claim statement to support or contradict your hypothesis.
- Support your claim with evidence by summarizing your project results in one or two sentences. Include key facts from your background research to help explain your results as needed.
- Summarize and evaluate your experimental procedure, making comments about its success and effectiveness.
- Suggest changes in the experimental procedure and/or possibilities for further study.
If the results of your science experiment did not support your hypothesis, don't change or manipulate your results to fit your original hypothesis, simply explain why things did not go as expected. Professional scientists commonly find that results do not support their hypothesis, and they use those unexpected results as the first step in constructing a new hypothesis for future experiments. If you think you need additional experimentation, describe what you think should happen next.
Always remember, scientific research is an ongoing process, and by discovering that your hypothesis is not true, you have already made huge advances in your learning that will lead you to ask more questions that lead to new experiments.
In your Project Notebook you should have an entry in the table of contents for your Conclusion. In this section you should have written your conclusion. This is written as one paragraph.
Step #13 - Application
The application section is where you explain how your research results apply to the real world. In other words, how will what you found out in your experiment help humans now or in the future.
In your Project Notebook you should have an entry in the table of contents for your Application. In this section you should have written your application. This is written as one or two paragraphs.
Step #14 - Poster / Display Board
You will be creating a poster to display your project. Since this will represent you as a scientist, it should look professional. This means that all text must be word processed, and your data tables and graphs need to be created with a spreadsheet program.
To help viewers easily follow the process, your information needs to be put in specific locations on the board. However, you may be as creative as you want with your design of the board. This includes the choice of font style, color, borders, etc. Please keep in mind that it needs to be easily readable from about 3 feet away, so you should use a font size that is at least 16 point in size. The example board below shows the location of each part of the project.
Step #15 - Presentation
Finally, you will present your project to the public. You need to prepare a 2-3 minute summary of your project. Remember to include in your presentation the following:
- Your Name
- Project Title
- Your Testable Question and Hypothesis
- A summary of the Materials and Procedure
- A summary of your Data Analysis (It is good to point to the appropriate areas in your data tables and pictures so the viewer can see how you came up with your analysis, you can also show the viewer sections of your notebook)
- A summary of your conclusion and application
- Be prepared to answer any questions that the viewer may have
Helpful Hint: You do not want to read information directly off the board / poster. You should practice your presentation beforehand so that you know how to pronounce words and to sound confident. It is also important to speak loud enough and slowly so your viewer can understand you. You also want to make eye contact with your viewer numerous times during your presentation.