Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Scientific Method

It's Science Fair time around our neck of the woods (hoods?).

As I've said before, I despised science growing up.  I really despised the requirement to do Science Fair on top of our crazy busy schedules.  You see, for us, science fair was only a high school requirement and only for those in honors level science courses - those college bound students who were already trying to do everything to get into college.  My first year I only needed to do a scientific proposal.  I don't remember what I did my second year for the experiment (pretty sure it sucked), and my third, I ended up winning the first place in my category (botany) at the district level.  I grew alfalfa sprouts under different colored lights (cellophane).  Nowadays, I dabble a lot in the scientific method through being a researcher and writing papers and abstracts (and reviewing others' research papers and the like).  It really isn't so bad.

From what I have observed around here, elementary schools have optional science fairs.  I like it at the elementary level.  The kids are super excitable and the experiments should be easy enough for the parent to guide the kid (instead of doing it for the kid).

For all of you parents freaking out about science fair, it's really not that difficult.  Here's the run down for what should be included for a good science fair project:

Objective/Purpose(s) - Why did you do this experiment?  Why do you think it's important?  Where did you get your idea?  This is where you state your hypothesis (your educated guess/prediction) on what you think would happen when you did this experiment and why you thought that would happen.

Materials and Methods - What supplies did you use for your experiment?  How did you set up your experiment?  Where was it set up (closet, outside, sunshine/shade, up high, on the grass/level table, etc.)?  How long did your experiment last?  What did you do?

This is a great place for pictures of your experimental set-up.  Before anything begins experimentally, snap a few pictures so everyone gets the bigger picture of what you are doing.  Be as clear as possible.  You want others to be able to repeat your experiment (and hopefully your results!).

Results - What happened?  This is a matter-of-fact rundown of what went down with your experiment.  No need for interpretation here.  Just show what happened through pictures, pretty graphs, detailed descriptions.

Discussions - Why did the experiment turn out the way it did?  This is where your interpretation happens.  Support your statements and results by ideas others have shown or imperfections in your experiment and why certain things happened/didn't happen (ie. our 3 banana balloon experiment grew mold, so we don't know if the balloon could have grown bigger).

Conclusions - What is the take away message of your experiment?  Is there anything you would do differently if given a "do-over" or a "let's investigate further" opportunity?

Presentation is a good portion of science fair.  If you can't present your project in a logical way, many people will just walk on by and not even talk to you about your cool project.

Your best bet is to use a trifold for the poster board display.  It's great because it stands up on it's own.  You can also bring your experiment set-up and/or results and place it in front of your board for show-and-tell.  This is my example trifold set-up.

Tips and pointers for science fair display:
  • You'd want to use at least 36 pt font so people can read it from a comfortable distance.
  • Use a normal font, please, at least for the content/bulk of your poster (in the real world, chose a sans serif font, like Arial).
  • Don't use too many words.  Nobody wants to read paragraphs (there's a lot of science to get to!).
  • Size up and bold the headers (ie Objective, Materials/methods, possibly use all CAPITAL letters - it's up to you or the requirements set forth by your school/organization).
    • I used colored cardstock paper to give my headers an outline boarder back in my science fair day.  If you chose this route, please select complimentary/corresponding colors.
  • Bullets and/or numbered lists can be your best friend when it comes to organization.
  • At the elementary school level, most of the presentation will be methods and materials.  It's important for kids to learn what they did and how to express that logically in a step-by-step manner.  I gave it a whole 1/3 of the poster board.  Feel free to adjust as you see fit.  Most of my scientific posters have the materials/methods starting in the bottom of column 1, and the results start in the bottom of column 2 and go to top of column 3.
  • Possibly bold your main purpose and the main conclusion as your BAM! take away message.

Now for some fun science fair ideas:
  • Banana/balloon experiment -try the experiment in different areas (sunlight vs closet, warm vs fridge), maybe try to compare a decomposing banana to a different decomposing fruit, compare different sized containers? How big did your balloon get? Which condition made the balloon expand first?
  • Race car experiment - how far does your race car go on different surfaces? Use the same ramp and car on different surfaces (ie. tile/gravel/aspalt).  Measure the differences and come up with some conclusions on why cars travel further on certain surfaces.
  • Balloon race car experiment - buy a cheap balloon race car or make one of your own.  Compare balloons of different sizes/volumes and/or how far each travels on different surfaces. Does the size or shape of your race car matter?
  • If you have time, grow your experiments, try plants:
    • Grow plants in different pots filled with different materials (soil, soil with enrichment, dirt, gravel, etc).
    • Feed your plants different liquids (water, soda water, soda, juice, etc.).
    • Grow a plant upright and a plant on its side (tipped over pot)

This list is in no way inclusive, but hopefully can spark some easy to do at home experiments.

Science Bob also has some good science fair ideas if you want to look through some of those ideas.

Also, I'd love to have (young) guest bloggers writing about their science fair projects here!  It'll be like a mini science fair.  Email me if you are interested in guest blogging.

Related Post: Keeping a science lab notebook.

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