Spark Science-Fair Success
Participating in a science fair is not only an excellent method for your child to understand science concepts more thoroughly, but also an opportunity to boost other important skills and integrate other subjects into one wonderful learning experience. Your young scientist will use his creativity as he comes up with topics and theories, problem-solve his way out of experimental roadblocks, draw on artistic and writing skills to create a display, and feel proud and confident when he completes his project.
Picking a Project
Chances are, your child is full of questions about the world, and that's a great place to start. Make a list of what fascinates and interests her: Does she ask how plants grow? Is she is always taking things apart to see how they work? Or is she a rock collector? Any of these starts can yield a fantastic project.
If you're stuck for ideas, you and your child can go to the library and look through books about science-fair projects or search the Internet for ideas. If you're really stuck, look at what your student will be learning in science in the next two or three months and brainstorm a project based on the curriculum.
Planning and Research
Once your child has focused on a topic, it's time to get started — the earlier the better. Some projects may only take two weeks to complete, but most will require a month or more to carry out. The first step is to help her figure out a timeline for the project. For a project about the popular topic of mold, it might look something like this:
Week 1: Research
Week 2: Design experiment; buy supplies
Week 3: Set up and run first test of molds on bread slices
Week 4: Set up and run second test
Week 5: Analyze results; come up with conclusion
Week 6: Write report
Week 7: Build display and prepare for fair
You see how quickly the time adds up! Obviously, there are steps that can be condensed, but others cannot be rushed: you can't force seeds to sprout or mold to proliferate.
The Scientific Method
The heart of most science fairs is the scientific method, which has seven general steps:
1. Make observations
2. Ask questions
3. Form a hypothesis
4. Find a method of testing
5. Perform experiments
6. Gather results
7. Reach a conclusion
You and your child completed steps one and two by picking a project: looking at the world and wondering why something is the way it is. Narrowing those questions down to a single one that can be answered with a "yes" or "no" was the first step to forming a hypothesis, which is simply a guess to what the answer is going to be. So, if your scientist's narrowed question is, "Does heat make paint dry faster?" and he believes the answer is "yes," his hypothesis would be, "Heat makes paint dry faster."
Step 4 is probably the most crucial part of the process. The trick is to figure out an experiment that will answer the question and no other. Sticking with the paint example, to make sure that it was only heat that changed drying times, he would want to make sure all the paint was the same color, the same brand, applied at the same thickness and on the same surface, and even was exposed to the same amount of light before he heated it up. An important part of most experiments is the control subject: for every strip of paint he takes a hair dryer to, there must also be one that he lets dry naturally.
Next, he'll perform his experiments, taking notes at every step and then recording results. Finally, by looking at those results, he should be able to see if his hypothesis was correct. Don't worry if it isn't — that's just as valid a result. What's important is that by the end, he can explain how he found the answer and why he got his results.
The research has been analyzed, a conclusion has been reached, now all that's left is to present your child's new discovery to the world. Older children (grades 5 and up) will not only be expected to create a display for the fair, but also prepare a research paper detailing the experiment from beginning to end. Check with your child's teacher for specific requirements.
The display, typically, is a three-paneled poster board. You can buy premade ones or create it yourself with matte or foam-core board joined with tape or hinges. Typically, the center panel presents the title of the project as well as photographs, drawings, and diagrams. The left side presents the purpose and methods your child employed, and the right displays the results and her conclusion.
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