GrouchyOldMan gives excellent advice for parents trying to survive a science fair (advice I certainly couldn't give, but sure could use); but what about for the guinea-pig-in-a-maze-puppet-master? What about the kid whose Baking Soda powered Mount St. Helens showed none of the fury of the volcano gods? Never fear. I did my share of science fairs beginning in Fifth Grade and learned from my mistakes, enough so that by my senior year of High School, I had won three computers, a handful of trophies, and trips throughout the United States. Later I became a judge for a lot of science fairs, including becoming an executive member of the Physics Committee for Science Olympiad.

My first piece of advice to you is simple: Don't Worry. Science is supposed to be fun. The purpose of the science fair is not to punish the kids, but to let them discover science on their own terms.

Now that we have all the worrying out of our system, let's decide how we want to approach this science fair. Do we want to survive the science fair, learn something, have some fun, and maybe win a ribbon, or do we want to thrive at the science fair, trying to win the Best of Show category? Both are admirable goals, which is why I love science fairs. The only loser of the science fair is the kid who has dad build the entire project the night before, has no fun, and doesn't learn anything.

Tips for surviving at a Science Fair:

  • Choose a project that has a question that has been bugging you lately. Make sure you can express the problem as a question. This will make your life easier. Even better is a problem where you can measure something. If you choose a question that interests you, you will find it's easier to carry out your experiment because you will want to know the answer yourself. Some websites will have project ideas. If you find a question that interests you, and you don't have an answer, you're halfway home with the scientific method according to Feynman.
  • Learn what the scientific method is, then follow it. The condensed version is:
    1. Define a problem, and ask a Question
    2. Make a hypothesis
    3. Create an experiment to test the hypothesis and repeat it many times
    4. Collect the data, then interpret it in terms of your hypotheis.
    5. Confirm or refute your hypothesis
  • Start early, plan ahead and stick to the plan. To do your experiment well you need many trials. To perform many trials takes time. Additionally, some experiments require lots of time, like running out batteries, herding rodents for intelligence tests, and growing plants. Finally, you will need time to make your presentation. If you wait until the last moment, you will not be having fun, and your final product will show this. Enlist the help of mom and dad to stay on schedule if you must, but...
  • Don't let Mom and Dad get too involved with your project. Certainly, there will be some things with which you need help. Operating workshop machinery (especially unsupervised) is a no-no for kiddies, for example. But if your parents build your machine, the judges will know, your grade will drop, and you won't be the one having the fun with the project.
  • What if the project doesn't work?! I thought we worked out all of the worries earlier. If it doesn't work, don't sweat it. I got a Distinguished Project award (the highest award at the New York State Science Congress on a project that was knackered. The key is to be able to explain why it didn't work, and how you will alter the project the next time so it does work. No one expects you to always guess right on your hypothesis every time. Failure is part of eventually getting to a successful experiment, and many times teaches more than a lucky guess.

Tips for thriving at a science fair:

  • Know the scientific method inside and out, and be able to define your control, dependant and independant variables, as well as a conclusion. Stick tightly to the method in your project, and during the presentation, emphasize things you did to follow the method.
  • Consider about reading up on statistical analysis. Of course you will need to know averages and graphing. Everyone will have averages and graphs. You will too as part of your data section. But you also need to consider the relevance of your data. And nothing impresses the judges like a kid who knows how to do Chi-square tests and ANOVA tests, and uses them in the project when appropriate.
  • Practice delivering the presentation to everyone and anyone. Practice in front of the dog and the mirror. Practice answering unexpected questions about minute details because the judges want to see how well you can think on your toes, not just repeat a script. Oh yeah, and don't worry. Judges are nice guys who just want to see how much you learned. And you learned a lot, right?
  • Make eye contact with the judges. It makes them feel like you feel confident. Staring at the lights above makes them feel like you're trying to remember the script that dad wrote for you last night.
  • Make your presentation interesting, and attract attention. How do you do that? Simple. Make the presentation neat and proper. Make it easy to read. Use colored graphs. Don't use small type size. Use a computer as much as possible in construction of the presentation. Glue or tack it neatly. Make borders and bold, large labels for each step of the scientific method. And most importantly, try to have something hands-on for your presentation, especially something that your fellow students can try out. Your apparatus works well. Models are nice. Demonstrations of the experiment are really nice. The one thing that is not a good idea is live animals. For some reason they get really nervous, make a mess, and never perform when you want them to. Most importantly, your fellow students are not likely to treat your pets with respect.