Saturday, April 6, 2013

Tips for doing well in a science fair from a long-time judge, and long-ago participant

For many years, I have been a judge at the Ottawa Regional Science Fair. I was also once a judge at the Canada Wide Science Fair. From grades 7-12, I entered science fairs every year and won some prizes.

The following is a bit of wisdom for youth who want to do really well, impress the judges and win prizes.

1. Start really, really early. For example, if the science fair is in March, think about your project and get going in January, or even October. I am always sad when I am judging a project, notice a problem, point it out, and the student says, "yes, I know, I noticed that too, but it was too late, I was doing the experiment just a couple of days before it was due". Think about entering a science fair just like you would a sports contest: Plan to enter and take the time needed to get better and better at it. Don't treat it like a piece of homework. When I was a teenager, I actually worked on one project over three years, and entered different 'phases' of the project as I got better and better.

2. 'Know your stuff' well. Spend extra time reading books from the library, reading on the Internet talking to your parents (if they know about science), talking to your teachers, contacting real scientists by email, and so on. Look up things you don't understand.

3. Be imaginative and try out different things: The more creativity you show, the more you will impress the judges. This goes back to the first point: To be creative, you need time to try out the ideas you have, and maybe even to start again, or explore different approaches if the first approach doesn't work.

4. Avoid doing experiments that are exactly the same as others have done, or that come straight out of books and websites. Certainly it is good initially to try experiments that you copy from others, to learn how to do science. But for a science fair you want to change things a little and try different variations from what others have proposed.

5. Start small, and then add more and more to your project as you learn more and get better. When I was a teenager I learned how to make some electronic circuits from a kit and got pretty good at making them work. Then I got a book that told me how to design electronics, bought a bunch of components and made a very complicated system. It looked really impressive, but it didn't work properly. What I should have done would have been to start with something very small, get it working, and then repeatedly try something a little more sophisticated. By the way, I did win a prize for my system that 'didn't work', but I might have one a bigger prize of I had approached it more slowly, getting each new bit working as I added it. The same advice applies if your project is a computer program: Start with a simple program, and get it working. Add a little more and get that working. Keep doing this repeatedly. We call this approach 'agile'.

6. Make sure you learn key aspects of the scientific method if your project is an experiment. The following are some examples:

  • Test with more than one of each thing. So, for example, if you are growing plants with three different types of fertilizer, don't just grow three plants, see if you can grow 9 (three of each). If you don't do this, and one ends up being smaller or dying, you don't know whether it was because of the fertilizer, or because it caught a disease, or just was slightly different naturally.
  • Repeat your experiment. This is similar, to the ideas is that you try your whole experiment again to ensure you have the same result. You obviously need time to do this.
  • Make sure you have a control. In the above case, that would mean one group of plants has no fertilizer.
  • Make sure you keep everything else constant. In this example, that would mean that all the plants get the same soil, pot, sunlight, temperature, etc. Each plant should start out the same size as well (e.g. from seed).
  • Make sure you measure everything relevant. In the plant example, you might measure growth every day, but you could also measure the colour and shape of the leaves for example.
  • Use the right measuring tools and practice measuring so you know you are getting the right measures. For example, I judged a science fair where three different projects needed to measure the amount of salt in water (salinity). One of them measured pH (acidity) instead, another measured density instead, but the third got a kit for measuring salt in pools. That was by far the best choice. And report your results using the metric system: This is what scientists all around the world use. 

7. Don't get your parents to do the work for you. Use your parents for advice; have them help with tricky things, but don't let your parents take the lead. By all means do some projects with your parents, but for the science fair you need to show what you have done mostly independently. Judges can almost always see  'parents work'. It stands out as sophisticated stuff that the student can't really explain fully.

8. Make your display look really nice. Use graphs, photos, and diagrams. Give nice headings, organizing different aspects of what you are presenting such a  'Background', 'Hypothesis' (the main idea you are testing out, 'Method', 'Results' and 'Conclusions'. Emphasize key points and words using colour, bold type, etc. Where you are showing text, make sure it is in big print, big enough so somebody can read it who is standing a about 150cm away. Don't write paragraphs or even full sentences: Just right abbreviated points. If you want to also say things as paragraphs and sentences, put these in a separate report that you would show on your table.

9. When presenting, focus on what you did, your results, and your conclusions. Avoid taking too much time on the background (the judge can read that or ask you questions), and avoid talking too much time talking about unrelated topics. Several times I have judged environment projects where the students did a nice experiment, but they spent a lot of time in their presentation focusing on the bad state of the world's environment, rather than the details of their own project.

10. Don't ever read from a script: Presentations work best when you are talking freely (extemporaneously). If you find this hard, practice over and over.

11. Accentuate the positive. If you have had results that have partly worked, and partly not, be honest and admit that you were only partly successful, but emphasize your success. I had one case where a student said his experiment didn't work (he had expected water to be was completely desalinated) when in fact he could have said, "I reduced the salinity by 75%". In my own system I talked about in point 5 above, I focused on the bits that did work.

12. Learn the 'rules' of the science fair. For example, the chemicals, electrical devices and water you can have on display will be limited. You need to know this so your whole exhibit won't be rejected for safety reasons on judging day. Have photographs (printed or on a computer) of any equipment you cannot display. Make sure you also know how wide and high you can make your display; often you are allowed to make a higher display than you might think. That can give you more space to display interesting things. When I was a youth, I made a double-high display with pull-down 'blind' type additional information one year; I won a trop to the Canada Wide Science Fair. Next year at the Canada Wide Science fair, almost everybody had tall displays.

13, Practice presenting your project in front of others before judging day: Make sure you can describe it in the allotted time (e.g. 8-10 minutes). Have others ask you unexpected and challenging questions so you can practice giving answers 'on the spot'. The others could be parents, other teachers, cousins, uncles and aunts: Just ask people of they are willing to be an audience.

14. Remember that regardless of whether you win a prize you have won by learning a lot about you subject, learning how to do science, and learning how to work independently.

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