Science fair is an opportunity for students to apply the scientific method to conduct independent research. The results of each student's research is presented in a school wide science fair--or sponsored local science fair-- where the student's efforts are displayed and where students are interviewed to determine scientific merit. Students who have been judged to have used the scientific method properly and who have demonstrated thoroughness in their studies and effort are awarded prizes and are advanced to compete in regional, state, national and international science fairs.
Preparation for a science fair should begin early in the fall semester with the selection of a topic which will lead to a problem that the student will wish to research. The student should explore various sources of information in order to gain a thorough understanding of the topic that he or she has chosen. Besides traditional sources such as library books, the student should research current periodicals, journals, Internet sources and interview professionals who are working within the same field of study. The student should learn what research has already been done and what has been concluded regarding [the student's] question and also something about the procedures and rules of evidence in [the student's] particular field (Manning-Schwartz, 1997). In other words, a complete study of the topic so that the student can design an intelligent and meaningful experiment. The research--or literature review--should account for at least half of the student's effort on the project; incomplete research on the selected topic is the most common grounds for science fair judges to disqualify projects for advancement.
The next task for the student is to form a hypothesis which tentatively answers his/her problem. Students should begin the experimental portion of their projects no later than the beginning of the spring semester so that they can be prepared to compete in local science fairs which usually begin in late March. The hypothesis should be testable in such a way that the student can design an experiment which will support or reject it. Once the student designs the experiment, data are collected and analyzed according to their procedure which will be presented in a written report. As recommended by Tant (1992), the most universally used format includes:
1. Title page
4. Literature review
5. Experimental procedures
7. Discussion of results
8. Acknowledgment of assistance
Generally in March, schools and/or sponsors of local science fairs hold competitions where students have the opportunity to present their projects. The students' presentations consist of their written reports, a display board and interviews of the students by science fair judges who ultimately decide which students will receive prizes and advance to regional science fairs such as the one sponsored by the Los Angeles County Office of Education. The student report was explained previously and the display board is a graphical overview of the project. A standard display board--available at most office or art suppliers--should be decorated so that it communicates a summary of the project; it should be clear, concise and visually pleasing (Manning-Schwartz, 1997). The display board must prominently state the title or purpose of the project, include the abstract, use charts, graphs, diagrams and photographs, and be put together in such a way that your audience should be able to tell at a glance what your project was about; what your hypothesis was; what you did to test it; and what the outcome was (Manning-Schwartz, 1997). The interview gives the student the opportunity to present his/her research, experiment and conclusions to the judges, and allows the judges to look over the student's written report and to briefly question the student to clear up unanswered questions, suggest shortcomings, discuss alternatives, and provide encouragement for further research. The California State Science Fair (1997) suggested that its judges ask students the following questions:
Once the interviews are completed, there is an award ceremony where students receive first place, second place, third place and honorable mention ribbons for each category, i.e., astronomy, botany, computer science, etc. There are also awards for best in fair which go to the very best projects regardless of category. Students can also win prizes such as cash awards, scholarships or educational merchandise such as computers and software. It is at this time that students are informed who will advance to the regional science fair.
Local science fairs are usually held and sponsored by public and private primary and secondary schools to give the students within those schools the opportunity to do independent research and to decide which of their students' research is good enough to represent their school at the regional fair. The judges for local science fairs can be teachers, parents or volunteers from the community.
Most regional fairs have a junior division (grades 6-8) and a senior division (grades 9-12), and include participants from public and private schools as well as science clubs from within the regional boundary--usually county wide. Science fairs, such as the Los Angeles County Science Fair, can have nearly 1000 participants competing in 16 categories of science: Behavioral and Social Science; Biochemistry; Botany; Chemistry; Computers; Earth Science; Engineering Applications; Engineering Research; Environmental Science; Mathematics; Microbiology; Pharmacology; Physics and Astronomy; Physiology; Zoology; and Team Projects. Medallions are given for first through third place in each category along with $75, $50 and $25 respectively; there are also best in fair awards and thousands of dollars in scholarships specially awarded by sponsors. The first place winners of each category are advanced to the state fair (Los Angeles County Office of Education, 1997).
State science fairs are conducted in exactly the same manner as most regional fairs. The California State Science Fair (CSSF) held its first competition in 1951 and was the first state science fair west of the Mississippi River; it was inspired by the National Science Fair. Competition begins with nearly 1000 participants and awards are given for first through third place and honorable mention in each category as well as $30,000 in scholarships from sponsors. Like the regional Fairs, there are also awards for best in fair (CSSF, 1997, http://www.usc.edu/CMSI/CalifSF/History/BriefHistory.html). If a state fair is affiliated with the Intel National Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF), it is entitled to advance its three best projects; the CSSF is not an Intel ISEF affiliate (Gould, 1998).
The Intel ISEF is unique in the way it gets its participants. Rather that taking students only from the state fairs across the country, the Intel ISEF takes up to two student projects and one team project from each of its Intel ISEF-Affiliated Science Fairs. The Intel ISEF-Affiliated Science Fairs range from local, regional, state and national science fairs. The requirements to become an Intel ISEF-Affiliated Science Fair are to be registered with the Science Service and to include as participants at least 5 high schools and/or 50 students in grades 9 through 12 (Science Service, 1998). The Intel ISEF was called the National Science Fair when it was established in 1950. Today it has grown to include participants from all 50 states and 40 countries. Awards of $3,000, $1,500, $1,000 and $500 are given to first through fourth place respectively for each category (similar to the categories mentioned above with the addition of Gerontology). There are also $1,500,000 worth of special awards from sponsors including the Intel Young Scientist Award which gives the three most outstanding competitors a $40,000 scholarship to the university of their choice (Intel Corporation, 1998). The best in fair award is an all expense paid trip to attend the Nobel Prize Ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden (Science Service, 1998).
The Westinghouse Science Talent Search is the most prestigious science fair in the United States; however, it does not accept any participants from any science fair. Rather, students submit applications to Science Service which is a non-profit organization in Washington, DC whose purpose is to increase public understanding of science (Westinghouse, 1998, http://www.westinghouse.com/found/process.htm). The application consists of the student's research as well as recommendations from science mentors and teachers. Three-hundred of the applicants (semifinalists) are narrowed down to 40 finalists who are selected by a panel of distinguished scientists to go to the Science Talent Institute in Washington, DC; all expenses are paid by Westinghouse and the Science Service. The 300 semifinalists are recommended to colleges and universities by the Westinghouse Science Search and the 40 finalists compete at the Science Talent Institute for over $200,000 in scholarships. The Westinghouse Science Search is restricted to high school seniors only (Westinghouse, 1998, http://www.sciserv.org/stsent98.pdf).
There are a number of reasons why students are not completely satisfied with traditional science fairs. Many students are left feeling overwhelmed with the task of finding sources for their research as well as solving technical problems concerning the experimental phase of their projects. A single science teacher does not have the time nor the expertise to mentor every student in his/her class--especially if the projects are to be of a high caliber with the expectations to advance to the county or state fairs. In addition, students express frustration with the science fair deadline. Often students procrastinate and do the bulk of the work near the deadline, yet discover that they enjoyed the project and wished they had more time to go further. Also, the process of elimination in the competition phase of the science fair leaves weaker students feeling discouraged when they are not advanced or when they do not win a ribbon. This is especially true when these students were particularly enthusiastic about their project. One cannot wonder how many of these students would go on to become scientists if they had experienced more success--a little confidence can go a long way for students. Finally, the classroom and science fair competition presentations are given only to a relatively small audience and seem to be the end of the line for most of the projects.
With access to a search engine and an email account, students can find experts on their topics to serve as mentors. These mentors are invaluable to students for finding sources that are not readily available to students and for guiding students through the experiment. In the article Online assignments, Nadelson (1997) pointed out that publishing students' work on the Internet allowed his students to update and modify their research over time--well beyond the conclusion of the local science fair; thus work published on the Internet can be viewed as being dynamic (p. 24). Allowing all students to publish their science fair projects on the Internet entitles students to write to a much larger audience and gives every student a feeling of accomplishment and self worth. Nadelson (1997) wrote,
Having students publish on the Internet gives them a clearer idea of the importance of their final products because they realize that their work can become a resource for others; it also allows them the opportunity to do something meaningful with their acquired knowledge. Realizing that this potential exists, students will have added incentive to produce quality work (p. 23).