CVRSF Teacher and Student Handbook

How to do a science fair project

The goals of the Champlain Valley Regional Science Fair (CVRSF) are not only to promote inquiry based scientific investigation at the high school level, but also to encourage junior level students to become more engaged in the process of scientific reasoning and investigation with continued interest through high school and beyond. The Champlain Valley Regional Science Fair has two categories of student investigation: Demonstration Project (Junior Level) and Research Project (Senior Level).

Project Categories

I. Research Projects: Students design research projects that provide quantitative data through experimentation followed by analysis and application of that data. Students pursuing grade-level 9-12 science coursework are considered Senior Level science fair participants. Seventh and eighth grade students not pursuing Senior Level coursework can carry out a research project if approved by the CVRSF committee. Students may choose to do an individual or team research project. No more than three students make up a team. The ISEF and Affiliated Fairs are research (data) driven. Only research projects qualifying at our fair will be eligible for the Tri Region Science and Engineering Fair. Winners from the CVRSF will be eligible to participate in TRSEF.

II. Demonstration Projects: Demonstration projects may include working models or demonstrations that can be used to clearly articulate a scientific concept. At CVRSF, only students in Junior Level 6-8th grade course work are eligible to present demonstration projects. Demonstration projects are not eligible to move on to the Tri Region Science and Engineering Fair. Demonstration projects provide opportunities for students to explore a particular topic of interest which in turn may stimulate further investigation at the Senior Level.

All projects must have an adult sponsor. Each student project must be registered with CVRSF. Completed Student/School Registration Forms are due by the indicated deadlines. Each student project registration will be reviewed by the Safety Review Committee. You will be notified of any concerns about the project or of project approval.

NO chemical or biological agents are allowed at the fair. Please see the SRC rules and guidelines for complete details.

Research Based Projects: Science Research and the Process of Science

Research is a process by which people discover or create new knowledge about the world in which they live. Questioning is probably the most important part of a scientific investigation and is often followed by an “if… then” statement. Students are encouraged to design ‘controlled’ experiments, ones that allow them to set up a standard and then change only one variable at a time to see how that variable might affect the original condition tested as the standard. Thus, questioning usually leads to experiments or observations.

Good scientists, both young and old, frequently use a process to study what they see in the world. This process has been referred as the ‘Scientific Method’ or more recently as the ‘Inquiry Cycle’. The following stages listed below will help you produce a good scientific experiment:

1) Be curious, choose a limited subject, ask a question; identify or originate/define a problem. It is important that this question be a ‘testable’ question – one in which data is taken and used to find the answer. A testable question can further be identified as one in which one or more variables can be identified and tested to see the impact of that variable on the original set of conditions. The question should not merely be an ‘information’ question where the answer is obtainable through literature research.

2) Review published materials related to your problem or question. This is called background research.

3) Evaluate possible solutions and guess why you think it will happen (hypothesis).

4) Experimental design (procedure). In designing the experiment, it is critical that only one variable – a condition that may affect the results of the experiment – is changed at a time. This makes the experiment a ‘controlled’ experiment.

5) Challenge and test your hypothesis through your procedure of experimentation (data collection) and analysis of your data. Use graphs to help see patterns in the data.

6) Draw conclusions based on empirical evidence from the experiment.

7) Prepare your report and exhibit.

8) Review and discuss the findings with peer group/ professional scientists

9) New question(s) may arise from your discussions. This sets the stage for another research project as new questions are raised from others and the process repeats itself. The hypothesis often changes during the course of the experiment. Supporting or not supporting your hypothesis is secondary to what is learned and discovered during the research.

Getting Started

1) Pick your topic: This is perhaps the most difficult part. Get an idea of what you want to study or learn about. Ideas should come from things in your area of interest. A hobby might lead you to a good topic. What is going on in the world that you would like to know more about? Most importantly, pick a question or problem that is not too broad and that can be answered through scientific investigation.

2) Research your topic: Go to the library or internet to learn more about your topic. Always ask Why or What if…. Look for unexplained or unexpected results. Also, talk to professionals in the field.

3) Organize: Organize everything you have learned about your topic. At this point, you should narrow your thinking by focusing on a particular idea.

4) Make a time table: Choose a topic that not only interests you, but can be done in the amount of time you have. Identify your ‘testable question’. Develop a time line to manage your time efficiently. You will need time to fill out the necessary forms and to review the Research Plan with your sponsor. Certain projects will require more time because they need prior Scientific Review Committee (SRC) or Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval. Allow plenty of time to experiment and collect data. You will also need time to write a paper and put together a display or ‘board’.

5) Plan Your Experiment: Give careful thought to experimental design. Once you have a feasible project idea, write a research plan. This plan should explain how you will do your experiments and exactly what will be involved. Remember you must design your experiment so that it is a ‘controlled’ experiment. This is one in which only one variable is changed at a time. The results are then compared to the ‘standard’ data you take originally before you change that one variable. Thus, you have designed an investigation with adequate control and limited variables to investigate a question. Also, in your experimental design, make sure you include sufficient numbers in both control ( if applicable) and experimental groups to be statistically valid. The experimental design should also include a list of materials. Once finished with the experimental design (called ‘procedure’) all students are required to fill out the appropriate forms.

6) Consult with Your Adult Sponsor and get Approvals: You are required to discuss your research plan with an Adult Sponsor and obtain a signature of approval. In reviewing your research plan, you should determine if additional forms and prior approval are needed.

7) Conduct your experiment: During experimentation, keep detailed notes of each and every experiment, measurement and observation in a log book. Do not rely on memory. Besides, judges love logbooks! Use data tables or charts to record your quantitative data.

8) Analyze Your Results: When you complete your experiments, examine and organize your findings. Use appropriate graphs to make ‘pictures’ of your data. Identify patterns from the graphs. This will help you answer your testable question. Did your experiments give you the expected results? Why or why not? Was your experiment preformed with the exact same steps each time? Are there other explanations that you had not considered or observed? Were there experimental errors in your data taking, experimental design or observations? Remember, that understanding errors is a key skill scientists must develop. In addition, reporting that a suspected variable did not change the results can be valuable information. That is just as much a ‘discovery’ as if there was some change due to the variable. In addition, statistically analyze your data using the statistics that you can understand and explain their meaning.

9) Draw Conclusions: Did the variable(s) tested cause a change when compared to the standard you are using? What patterns do you see from your graph analysis that exist between your variables? Which variables are important? Did you collect enough data? Do you need to conduct more experimentation? Keep an open mind – never alter results to fit a theory. If your results do not support your hypothesis, that’s ok and in some cases good! Try to explain why you obtained different results than your literature research predicted for you. Were there sources of error that may have caused these differences? If so, identify them. Even if the results do differ, you still have accomplished successful scientific research because you have taken a question and attempted to discover the answer through quantitative testing. This is the way knowledge is obtained in the world of science. Think of practical applications that can be made from this research. How could this project be used in the real world? Finally, explain how you would improve the experiment and what would you do differently.

Additional Requirements for Research Projects

I. Project Data Book

A project data book is your most treasured piece of work. Accurate and detailed notes make a logical and winning project. Good notes show consistency and thoroughness to the judges and will help you when writing your research paper. Data tables are also helpful. They may be a little ‘messy’ but be sure the quantitative data recorded is accurate and that units are included in the data tables. Make sure you date each entry.

II. Research Paper

A research paper should be prepared and available along with the project data book and any necessary forms or relevant written materials. A research paper helps organize data as well as thoughts. A good paper includes the following sections.

  1. Title Page and Table of Contents: The title page and table of contents allows the reader to follow the organization of the paper quickly.
  2. Introduction: The introduction sets the scene for your report. The introduction includes the purpose, your hypothesis, problem or engineering goals, an explanation of what prompted your research, and what you hoped to achieve.
  3. Materials and Methods: Describe in detail the methodology you used to collect data, make observations, design apparatus, etc. Your report should be detailed enough so that someone would be able to repeat the experiment from the information in you paper. Include detailed photographs or drawings of self-designed equipment. Only include this year’s work.
  4. Results:The results include data and analysis. This should include statistics, graphs, pages with your raw collected data, etc.
  5. Discussion: This is the essence of your paper. Compare your results with theoretical values, published data, commonly held beliefs, and/or expected results. Include a discussion of possible errors. How did the data vary between repeated observations of similar events? How were your results affected by uncontrolled events? What would you do differently if you repeated this project? What other experiments should be conducted?
  6. Conclusions: Briefly summarize your results. State your findings in relationships of one variable with the other. Support those statements with empirical data. (one average compared to the other average, for example). Be specific, do not generalize. Never introduce anything in the conclusion that has not already been discussed. Also mention practical applications.
  7. Acknowledgments: You should always credit those who have assisted you, including individuals, businesses and educational or research institutions.
  8. References/Bibliography: Your reference list should include any documentation that is not your own (i.e. books, journal articles, websites, etc.). All references must be cited in APA format

Resources for APA formatting:

APA (American Psychological Association) Style :

This resource, revised according to the 5th edition of the APA manual, offers examples for the general format of APA research papers, in-text citations, endnotes/ footnotes, and the reference page.

Works Cited page.

Citation Machine is an online tool that will be helpful when formatting but always check for any nuances of the particular type of citation that may not be recognized by this software. It can be found at

Douglas Library at Clinton Community College has excellent examples for online and print citations including media (video, motion picture, and sound). It can be accessed from this link

III. Abstract

After finishing research and experimentation, you need to write an abstract. The abstract needs to be a maximum of 250 words on one page. An abstract should include the a) purpose of the experiment, b) procedures used, c) data, and conclusions. It also may include any possible research applications. Only minimal reference to previous work may be included. The abstract must focus on work done in the current year and should not include a) acknowledgments, or b) work or procedures done by the mentor. See below for an example of an appropriately written abstract.

Sample Abstract

Effects of Marine Engine Exhaust Water on Algae Jones, Mary E.Hometown High School, Hometown, PAThis project in its present form is the result of   bioassay experimentation on the effects of two-cycle marine engine exhaust   water on certain green algae. The initial idea was to determine the toxicity of outboard engine lubricant. Some success with   lubricants eventually led to the formulation of   “synthetic” exhaust water which, in turn, led to the use of actual two-cycle   engine exhaust water as the test substance.

Toxicity was determined by means of the standard bottle   or “batch” bioassay technique. Scenedesmus   quadricauda and Ankistrodesmus sp. were used as the test   organisms. Toxicity was measured in terms of a   decrease in the maximum standing crop. The effective concentration – 50% (EC50) for Scenedesmus quadricauda was found to be 3.75% exhaust water; for Ankistrodesmus   sp. 3.1% exhaust water using the   bottle technique.

Anomalies in growth curves raised the suspicion that   evapora­tion was affecting the results; therefore,   a flow-through system was improvised utilizing the   characteristics of a device called a Biomonitor.   Use of a Biomonitor lessened the influence of evapora­tion, and the EC 50 was found to be 1.4% exhaust water   using Ankistrodesmus sp. as the test organism.   Mixed populations of various algae gave an EC   50 of 1.28% exhaust water.

The contributions of this project are twofold. First,   the toxicity of two-cycle marine   engine exhaust was found to be considerably greater than reported in the literature (1.4% vs. 4.2%). Secondly, the   benefits of a flow-through bioassay technique utilizing the Biomonitor was   demonstrated.

IV. Visual Display

You want to attract and inform. Make it easy for interested spectators and judges to assess your study and the results you have obtained. You want to ‘catch the eye’ of the judges and convince them that the research is of sufficient quality to deserve closer scrutiny. Most displays or boards have three sections and are free standing. For the most part, the displays are put on a table. Most judges get a chance to look at the board before the interviews. Make the most of your space using clear and concise displays. You never get a second chance to make a first impression!

Finalists’ projects inclusive of all materials and supports are limited to the following dimensions:

Depth (front to back) 30 in. (76 cm)
Width (side to side) 48 in. (122 cm)
Height (floor to top) 108 in. (274 cm)

The maximum height of your poster display (table to top) cannot exceed 72 in. (183 cm).

Helpful hints for display:

a) Current Year: Make sure the board reflects the current year’s work only. Prior year’s data books are permitted at your project.

b) Good Title: Your title is an extremely important attention-grabber. A good title should simply and accurately present your research and depict the nature of the project. The title should make the casual observer want to know more.

c) Take Photographs: Many projects involve elements that may not be safely exhibited at the Fair, but are an important part of the project. You might want to take photographs of important parts/phases of your experiment to use in your display. Photograph or other visual images of human test subjects must have informed consent. Credit must be given for all photographs.

d) Be Organized: Make sure your display follows a sequence and is logically presented and easy to read. Reach out to the ‘skim-reader’. A glance should permit anyone (particularly the judges) to locate quickly the title, abstract, experiments, results and conclusions. When you arrange your display, imagine that you are seeing it for the first time. Highlight your results using key graphs that show the relationships of the two variables tested. Use the graphs to give a ‘picture’ of the data for your viewers. These graphs will provide an easier method of viewing the data rather that just seeing the recorded quantitative data.

e) Eye-Catching: Make your display stand out. Use neat, colorful headings, charts and graphs to present your project. Pay special attention to the labeling or graphs, charts, diagrams, photographs, and tables to ensure that each has a title and appropriate label describing what is being demonstrated. Anyone should be able to understand the visuals without further explanation.

f) Correctly Presented and Well-Constructed: Be sure to adhere to the size limitations and safety rules when preparing your display. Make sure your display is sturdy, as it will need to remain intact for quite a while. You must also consider the weight of the project for shipping (if moving on to TRSEF). It can be very costly to ship a heavy board. Keep your materials light, but strong.

Please Note: The judges are judging your research, not the display. So don’t spend an excessive amount of time or money on the board. You are being judged on the science

V. Judging

Judges evaluate and focus on 1) what the student did in the current year; 2) how well a student followed scientific methodologies; 3) the detail and accuracy of research as documented in the data book; and 4) whether experimental procedures were used in the best possible way.

Judges look for well thought-out research. They look at how significant your project is in its field; how thorough you were, and how much of the experiment thought and design is your own work.

Initially, judges get their information from your board, abstract and research paper to learn what the project is about, but it is the Interview that will be the final determination of your work. Judges applaud those students who can speak freely and confidently about their work. They are not interested in memorized speeches or presentations – they simply want to talk with you about your research to see if you have a good grasp of your project from start to finish. It is important to start the interview off right. Greet the judges and introduce yourself. You want to make a good first impression. Appearance, good manners, appropriate attire, and enthusiasm for what you are doing will impress the judges.

Judges often ask questions to test your insight into your projects such as: “How did you come up with this idea? “What was your role?”, “What didn’t you do?”, “What further plans do you have to continue research?” and “What are the practical applications of your project?” Remember that the judges need to see if you understand the basic principles of science behind your project or topic area. They want to determine if you have correctly measured and analyzed the data. They want to know if you can determine possible sources of error in your project and how you might apply your findings to the ‘real’ world. Finally, the judges seek to encourage you in your scientific efforts and your future goals/career in science. Relax, smile and enjoy your time to learn from them and accept their accolades for your fine work.

Judging Criteria (points)

                                     Individual    Team

Creative Ability                  30             25
Scientific Thought              30             25
Thoroughness                    15             12
Skill                                    15             12
Clarity                                 10             10
Teamwork                           —              15
Total Possible Points         100           100

Explanation of the judging criteria can be found in the Judging Criteria document.

Demonstration Projects: Junior Level Students

Demonstration projects follow these guidelines:

1) Projects may be individual or team effort. Teams of no more than three students are allowed.

2) Projects of demonstration type include working models and demonstrations that can be used to clearly articulate a scientific concept.

3) Poster Presentation: Visual display size will follow the same dimensions as research projects. While the student may not have a research project in the strict sense, the display should still be appealing and informative. The guidelines outlined above will be helpful. The poster should support your understanding of the scientific principle or concept you investigated, but the judges will also be interested in how easily you can converse with them about your project. You may also consider displaying your science journal for the judges.

4) Poster Components should include the following elements:

a. Title

b. Introduction

What is the scientific objective?

What scientific principle is embodied by the demonstration?

What is the scientific significance of the demonstration? What are its current or potential applications in a specific discipline(s) or the applied sciences?

How does the scientific principle demonstrated contribute to scientific research?

Description of relevant historical background of the demonstration, if applicable, would also be appropriate.

c. Methods/Materials

Description of materials and methods necessary to perform the demonstration

Safety issues are noted within the description

d. Results

Include data (qualitative and quantitative) and relevant graphs or tables to clarify the results.

Video or photographs of the demonstration can be provided if they are useful and aid in telling the story of the demonstration. No chemical or biological agents are allowed at the fair. All projects will be screened by the SRC for safety.

e. Conclusions

Summarize results and restate the significance of this demonstration.

f. References

APA format is required. Resources can be found in the research section of this document.

5) Judging Criteria

Judging criteria for demonstrations parallels that of the research projects. Judges are looking at how well students demonstrate understanding of the science they are presenting. This can be accomplishing in part through your poster, but the judges will be asking questions and listening for students’ ability to verbally articulate understanding of the scientific concepts presented.

Judging Snippet


Additional research requirements have been modified from ISEF guidelines and retrieved on 7/28/07 from

Student Handbook information has been modified from ISEF guidelines and retrieved on 7/28/07 from

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