Science Fair Preparation

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Space Shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center during the 2019 California Science and Engineering Fair with presentation boards underneath it.

It is officially science fair season. A time of year dreaded by parents, children, and science teachers alike as the assignments are passed out and kids start researching what they will be presenting at local school fairs. For most kids who participate, it’s just another class assignment. For other’s though, it is a stepping stone to the college and job of their dreams, with literally millions of dollars in scholarships and award money passed out every year at the state, national, and international levels.

I strongly believe that serious participation in a science fair is a wonderful experience for any child. Always remember that the point of a science fair is to learn, and that many of the entry level qualifying fairs do not require that your child be entered from a participating school, this means that home schoolers and children whose schools do not participate can also have an opportunity to compete. But it can be stressful and some children and their parents just have no idea where to start. With that in mind, I’ve taken my tips for a successful science fair from my post 2019 California Science and Engineering Fair and given them their own post here.

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Decide how far you want to go and how far you can go.  There are national and international science fairs which high school and middle school students can compete in.  If a student wants to compete on an international level, then that student needs to know what the standards are for those competitions and make sure the project they pick is capable of meeting those standards by the time the project is done.  They need to make sure that their parents/guardians and academic advisors/research advisors are aware of what they want.  Parents/guardians will need to plan financially for those trips out of their local area.  They will also need to pay for any supplies the child will need for their science fair project boards and experiments.  Academic/research advisors will need to sign off on digital project journals and sign off on other forms for the student’s applications to larger fairs. 

Find out how to qualify.  The larger fairs require you to qualify for participation through smaller city, and county fairs.  Make sure you find out what fairs you need to win at first in order to go on to the next level.  Usually this information is available on the competition’s website.

Find whatever the competition’s parameters are and fulfill them.  Make sure the subject matter is going to be fair worthy.  Is the project original research or merely a redo of commonly known information?  Is it relevant to a known problem faced by society or science which needs to be solved?  Did it require specialized equipment, controlled factors, is it completely reproducible by someone else if they followed all your procedures precisely, or bear other earmarks of regular scientific research?  If not, it won’t likely score very high with judges at the fair.  Even if you do the best research a judge has ever seen, it won’t get seen if you don’t follow the required parameters on the application to be accepted to compete.  And your award-winning research won’t win any awards if it isn’t presented according to their judging standards.

Start early.  Like right now.  Science fair over in your neck of the woods and you/your student didn’t advance to the next level?  Start prepping for next year.  Get a project journal and start researching what to do a project on.  Determining what to research is as much of the process as the experimenting is. 

Journal everything!  The project journal is an integral part of most science fairs.  If handwriting is an issue, then use a digital journal or transcribe it to a word processing program and bring the original and printed copies to the fair with you.  Don’t be afraid to write in the journal.  Put everything in it.  What the project is.  Why the project was chosen?  Everything single step to get to the finished product.  Every failure, every success, every result, every single measurement, graph, and revision should be jotted down.  It is an amazing journey and it will all have to be documented so that it can be shared, and the results proven to be reproducible. 

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Learn.  The project selected is too advanced?  Learn.  Take classes.  Get tutoring.  Find people who know about what you want to learn and work with them.  The whole point of a science fair project is to learn new things about your project, not to take someone else’s research and regurgitate it.

Be passionate.  The more excited someone is about their project, the more likely that person is going to be to get other people excited about their project.  The more a project is talked about the more practice the student has presenting it to others and answering their questions.  More importantly, those different perspectives could show a student that their project is lacking in some aspect and they need to do more research or change the way that their project is presented.  The more questions from different perspectives the student must think about, will only be a benefit when it comes time to talk to judges at the fair.  This kind of practice can help keep shy science fair participants from seeming as if they didn’t legitimately do the project because they froze when the judges came around to interview them.

Lastly, practice wearing appropriate clothes.  What?  Yes!  Look at what past fair winners were wearing in their photos and practice dressing appropriately.  Never worn a pair of dress shoes before?  Don’t know how to tie a tie?  Not comfortable in a dress/skirt/suit?  Afraid to stain clothes going out to eat?  Practice, practice, practice.  No body ever got comfortable at new things by putting them off until the last minute.

Plan to have fun!  Some people traveled hundreds of miles to participate in the California Science and Engineering Fair.  For two days of non-stop frantic work.  Because that’s what presenting at a science fair is at its most basic.  It is work for those kids.  It is stress for the parents.  Yeah it is an incredible experience.  But it is terrifying, exhausting, and exhilarating all at once.  Take a camera to document memories.  Keep a journal/notebook and pen handy to take notes about what to be prepared for next time.  Research what restaurants to eat at beforehand and when in the schedule there will be time for breakfast and dinner.  Know where the gas stations are along the travel route so there is no frantically searching a strange area while fuel is dwindling, or bladders are filling.  Take in the local sites if there is time.  Reserve tickets in advance for paid activities.  Have a book to read or listen to on your travels. And understand that the two days of the fair are almost completely consumed with the fair.

Plan to win.  But don’t expect to win. The time is short between the completing of one level of competition and the application deadline for the next.  If the intention of a participant is to advance to the next level, then anticipate that is what is going to happen and plan for it.  Have applications and their required documents for all fairs to be attended that season printed and completed or saved online and ready to submit prior to qualifying for that fair if possible.  These applications are long and can be complicated.  Don’t wait until the last minute to start, thinking that it is something which can be done in a few minutes. Be aware however, that some fairs require you to be invited to participate upon your qualification from a previous fair.

Don’t be afraid to work on more than one project at once.  Some projects take weeks, some take months, some take years, it’s okay to have more than one research project going at a time. A project that isn’t ready for this year’s fair can always be submitted for next year’s. Did you have a multi-stage project which will take years to complete?  Some fairs allow for new research added onto the same project year after year as long as it is advancing the knowledge gained from said research and advancing the project but make sure it is going to meet the competition requirements before you put time into any research project.

Aircraft on display at the Californi ScienCenter
This plane is on display behind the California ScienCenter in Los Angeles. Several aircraft are located around the facility both inside and out either perched on pillars or suspended by posts and wires.

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