For students interested in the STEM fields, there are many extracurriculars to choose from. You might join the Math or Science Olympiad team, you could join the Computer Science Club, or you could even volunteer as a naturalist at a local conservation area.
If you are interested in scientific research, you might pursue the opportunity to secure a research assistant position or shadow various scientific researchers. But if you truly want to take the helm and guide your own research, your path may lead you to participating in the science fair.
The science fair is a traditional component of many high school science programs, with participation ranging widely from school to school and science fair to science fair. At some schools, the science fair might be a rite of passage expected of every student. At others, it attracts a handful of dedicated science die-hards.
Regardless, most science fairs feature presentations by students who have completed experiments, demonstrated scientific principles, or undertaken an engineering challenge. Participants are judged by a panel of experts who score each presentation according to a rubric. Traditionally, awards are presented for the top-scoring projects.
There are many science fairs beyond school-sponsored fairs, too. Regional, state, national, and even international fairs are open to students who qualify through their schools and work their way up through the science fair circuit. Others, like the Regeneron Science Talent Search, are open through an intensive application process.
If you are considering entering a project in the science fair, you will need to think carefully about your subject matter, your experimental design, and the relevance of your work before committing to a project. Many science fairs will even require that you complete a formal research proposal to demonstrate the level of thinking you’ve put into your experiment before beginning it.
In this post, we will outline the purpose of a research proposal for the science fair, the common elements of such a proposal, and how you can go about writing a comprehensive research proposal that is sure to impress.
What is the Purpose of a Research Proposal?
A research proposal has three primary purposes. The first purpose is to explain what you intend to do. This is essentially what you will do in your experiment or project, summarized into a basic overview.
The second function of a research proposal is to explain how you intend to accomplish this. You will give a brief summary of the methods and techniques that you intend to employ, and list the materials that you will need to do so.
The final point of a research proposal is to explain why this project should be done. Here, you will discuss the important or relevance of this study. Basically, in this portion of your proposal you’ll answer the question, “so what?”
Now that you know the aim of a research proposal, you can begin to prepare to write one.
Step-By-Step Guide to Creating a Research Proposal
1. Narrow down the subject area.
Before you go into your project in any sort of depth, you’ll need a fairly good idea of what your project’s focus will be. In order to narrow this down, you should consider a few different angles.
First, ask yourself what you’re interested in. You will be more likely to feel engaged and passionate about a project that is genuinely interesting to you, so take some time to carefully consider the areas of science that you find the most fascinating. Even if they don’t seem particularly well-suited to a science fair project at first, you never know what you might be able to come up with through some collaboration with mentors or through some background research. Keep a running list of areas of science that sincerely fascinate you.
Next, consider any specialized labs or equipment to which you might have access. Does your best friend’s mother work in a lab with highly specialized tools? Does your school have a state-of-the-art wind tunnel or fully equipped greenhouse? These are all possible resources you can utilize if you want your project to truly stand out. Of course, it’s completely possible to choose a project that shines on its own without any specialized equipment, but if you’re looking for every boost you might get, having access to specialized technology can be a great advantage to make your project truly unique.
Finally, consider if you know a teacher or other professional who might be willing to mentor you. You can also seek out a mentor specifically if you can’t think of anyone obvious. Having a mentor in your field will provide you with invaluable insight into practice and past research in the field.
In the ideal world, you would find a project that maximizes all of your resources, including your interests, access to equipment, and an enthusiastic mentor. Don’t worry if you can’t secure all three, though. Plenty of science fair participants go on to do quite well relying on only their own dogged determination and commitment to their subject matter.
2. Decide How Your Experiment Will Be Done
If you have a mentor, teacher, or adviser willing to consult with you, schedule a time to sit down with them and discuss what you’d like to do. If you can’t find someone more experienced than you, even discussing your ideas with a trusted classmate, parent, or older sibling is a good idea. Sometimes the outside perspective will help to fine-tune your design or identify areas for improvement.
You should also begin some research at this stage to learn how similar projects have been conducted in the past. Use the results and limitations from these experiments to help guide your own experimental design.
As you do so, keep in mind any limiting factors. Remember to consider what equipment you have at your disposal, the time commitment you’re able to make, and the materials that you’ll need to acquire.
In addition, be sure to check the rules of the specific science fairs you’ll be attending. Some have strict regulations designed to keep you safe, like limiting the ways in which potentially hazardous chemicals can be used. Other rules are designed to keep the environment safe, like placing restrictions on how you dispose of foreign substances or non-native species. There are also ethical rules that govern the use of human participants or vertebrate animals in your studies. Make sure to check which rules govern the fair in which you’re participating and how they might impact your ideas before you put any more thought into your project.
With the jam-packed schedules of today's families, why would either a student or a parent want to add one more major activity? Clearly, any school project assigned to a student should meet a stringent test for usefulness. Surprising to some, a science fair project is one of the best learning experiences a student can undertake. And, if it is taken seriously, it can be an excellent way to earn significant prizes, qualify for scholarships, and distinguish a college application.
Conceptually, a science fair project is very straightforward. A student chooses a scientific question he or she would like to answer. Then, library and Internet research on the question give the student the background information he or she needs to formulate a hypothesis and design an experiment. After writing a report to summarize this research, the student performs the experiment, draws his or her conclusions, and presents the results to teachers and classmates using a display board. Most students do their projects for a school science fair, but in many cases, students can enter that same project in fairs at the city or county level. This is the first step in competitions that lead up to the international level, where prizes total over $3,000,000 and the top winners take home $50,000 scholarships.
What makes a science fair project such a great learning experience is that it involves so much more than science. If the student is in middle school, the research report will most likely be the longest paper the student has ever written. Indeed, California curriculum standards call for papers of only 1-2 pages in length through the 8th grade, and any decent research report will be at least that long. The bibliography for the report will also be the first ever for some students. And, while library research is still important, these reports are a great way to hone computer research skills, as well as to learn the ins and outs of common office programs, such as word processors and spreadsheets. Most projects also involve a good deal of math, and all students get an opportunity to enhance their presentation skills when they prepare their display boards and discuss their projects with the judges.
A science fair project will also have a longer duration than any other assignment a student has done. In contrast to the typical school homework due the next day or perhaps a week hence, a science fair project requires a student to learn to plan over two or three months, a skill of immense importance in adulthood. Procrastination is definitely not rewarded.
Savvy students, especially those who work their way up to higher levels of competition, learn even more about communications skills. They learn the importance of selecting topics and fine-tuning their presentations in ways that will make them most likely to impress science fair judges. While some may bemoan this lack of purity in the pursuit of science, the fact is that even a professional scientist must compete for funds to continue his or her research. When better to learn how to persuade others than before your livelihood depends on it?
A science fair project even provides an opportunity for the discussion of ethical issues, such as plagiarism and falsification of data. Indeed, such a discussion is highly recommended. The ease of copying information from the Internet is hard to resist, and many students are far ahead of their teachers in understanding what is possible.
Of course, learning about science is at the heart of a science fair project. Our society relies more on science every day, and science fairs are a great way for students to become more knowledgeable about how the world around them works. Every citizen needs sufficient science literacy to make educated decisions about what he or she reads in the media, about health care, and about other every-day problems.
Preparing a science fair project is an excellent example of what education experts call active learning or inquiry (also "hands-on" learning). It is a very effective instructional method; indeed, it is recommended as a cornerstone of successful science teaching. Yet, according to the National Research Council, active learning is not employed often enough in the classroom and its absence is seen as one of the key factors behind kids losing interest in science and not performing to their potential.
Colleges want to see what students have done with the opportunities they had available to them, and science competitions are a fantastic opportunity. Typically, 2–4 percent of science fair entrants at the high school level move on to the top level of science fair competition, the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). While the competition is stiff, those odds are a lot better than the lottery. And clearly the state of New York is on to something. Students from Long Island came home from the 2003 International Science and Engineering Fair with prizes and scholarships totaling $114,500.
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