Science Fair 101: How to Pick the Perfect Project

Don your lab coat and help your child choose a topic that will bring out his best work.
By Debbe Geiger



Often the hardest part about doing a science project is picking the right experiment. Sure, you can comb Web sites that list ideas that have already been done. But the best projects often come from your child's simple, everyday observations.

When Claudia Meyer of Raleigh, NC, set out to participate in the science fair at her school, she wanted to find out why her instrument, the oboe, tunes the orchestra. "She started playing the instrument this year after years of playing the clarinet," says her mom, Carol. "That prompted her question."

Making a personal connection to a science experiment like Claudia did is often what sustains children's interest, says Dana Ward, an elementary school teacher who coordinates the science fair at Ocean Avenue School in Northport, NY.

"The experiment can be as simple as ‘how come I feel hotter when I wear the red side of my jersey instead of the white when I play soccer?' or ‘Do I really need to go to bed at 8:15?'" says Ward. "I've seen kids do projects that look at whether playing computer games will help them do something better. Kids need to look around their life and see what kinds of questions they have. These kinds of questions make great experiments. And, if she has her own idea, it's more rewarding."

Since many schools hold voluntary science fairs, kids, and their parents, often shy away if they don't feel they have a good experiment. But that's a missed opportunity. Science projects are terrific learning experiences because the end result isn't so much what the child finds, but the process by which they find it.

"The science fair gets them thinking in a scientific way," says Ward. "It teaches them to use a scientific method to solve problems. You come up with a hypothesis, then a way to test your hypothesis, then do the experiment to test it, analyze your data and make a conclusion. That method can be used to solve any problem."

The most important lesson kids may walk away with is that there is no right or wrong answer. "It may not have done what they thought it would do, but that doesn't make it wrong," says Ward.

To help your child come up with his own science project, use these question-starters:

  • Think about things that puzzle you. When was the last time you wondered why something happened or how something worked? Look at categories that interest you, such as sports, gardening, or even video games. Look at television commercials and question their claims.
  • Ask open-ended questions such as, "What is the effect of x on y? How does x move? How does y react when you blow on it?"
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