Where Do You Start?

Science vs. Engineering

Selecting a question for research can be the most difficult step in the project. Students should begin by looking at their own personal interests. If they have a love of football, looking at questions involved with handling the ball, the texture of the football, or physical properties of the gear may spark an interest. Student interested in dance might concentrate on how position of the body affects spin,factors affecting the wear and tear on the toes of shoes; the possibilities are endless! All areas of a student’s life have questions that can pique the interest of the student and make that first step an exciting one. 

Avoid projects that are demonstrations of a scientific principle or event, such as model volcanoes or tornadoes in a bottle. Steer clear of books and websites that offer “cookbook” experiments. Independent research demands that students determine what procedures and materials should be used to answer a question. The following is a review of a Scientific Method with some key questions/directions on how to design and conduct an experiment to use for a science or engineering fair project.

For Science Projects

Problem/Purpose:
  • What idea are you trying to test?
  • What is the scientific question you are trying to answer?

Hypothesis:

  • Make a prediction regarding the outcome of your experiment and explain your thinking. For example, “My hypothesis is …... because …....
  • State the results you are predicting in measurable terms. For example, “If ………., then ……….” “My hypothesis was supported by ….....

Materials:

  • List all materials and equipment that were used.
  • Your list of materials should include all of the ingredients of the procedure recipe.

Procedure:

  • Your procedure should be like a recipe – another person should be able to perform your experiment following your procedure. Test this with a friend or parent to be sure you have not forgotten anything. This is an important part of doing good science.
  • Be clear about the variables (elements of the experiment that change to test your hypothesis) versus your controls (elements of the experiment that do not change).
  • Be very specific about how you will measure results to prove or disprove your hypothesis. You may want to develop a regular timetable for measuring results or making observations (i.e. every hour, every day, every week).
  • Sample size should be as large as possible and/or the experiment should be repeated a large number of times (with each repetition considered a “trial”).

Observations/Data/Results:

  • Keep a detailed journal (laboratory notebook) of observations, data and/or results of your scientific process. This information can be data measurements and written notes about what you are sensing (hearing, seeing, or touching) about your experiment. Always utilize the International System of Units (metric system) when measurements are required.
  • Where appropriate, have both Control and Experimental groups.
  • When possible, collect enough data for a statistical analysis.
  • Photograph your project results or phases of the project if appropriate to help your analysis and possibly to demonstrate your experiment on your exhibit board. Only the student doing the research can appear in photographs.
  • Use charts, graphs and tables to summarize your data.
  • A thorough project includes an additional one page, hand written or typed, research report/expository essay to support learning.

Analysis:

  • Explain your observations, data and/or results. This is a summary of what your data has shown you.
  • List the main points of what you've learned.
  • Why did the results occur? What did your experiment prove?

Conclusion and Communication:

  • Answer your problem/purpose statement.
  • Was your hypothesis supported by the evidence found in the results of the experiment? Explain why or why not.
  • What further study do you recommend given the results of your experiment? What would be the next question to ask?
  • If you repeated your project, what would you change?

For Engineering Projects

Problem/Purpose:
What is a problem that needs to be solved?

  • Ask:
    Ask:  How can I improve something or solve the problem?
  • Imagine:
    Sketch several different options to solve the problem.  Make sure to label the materials you are using and write a shot description about your different ideas.
  • Plan:  
    Sketch a final plan using ideas from your Imagine drawings.
    Write the procedure you plan to follow to create your design.  Your procedure should be like a recipe – another person should be able to duplicate your design by following your procedure. Test this with a friend or parent to be sure you have not forgotten anything. This is an important part of doing good science and engineering.

Materials:

  • List all materials and equipment that were used.
  • Your list of materials should include all of the ingredients of the procedure recipe.

Design:

  • Build a model or prototype of your design. 
  • Take pictures and tell about your observations during this process in the engineering notebook. 

Test/Retest:

  • Most engineers change materials or the placement of materials on their design.  As you test, keep a record of what happens.   If you make a change, record the change, and retest.  Record your data and observations as you improve your design. 
  • Keep a detailed engineering notebook of observations, data and/or results of your scientific process. This information can be data measurements and written notes about what you are sensing (hearing, seeing, or touching) about your experiment. Always utilize the International System of Units (metric system) when measurements are required.
  • Where appropriate, have both Control and Experimental groups.  Design a way to know if your model or prototype works and actually solves the problem.
  • When possible, collect enough data for a statistical analysis.
  • Photograph your project results or phases of the project if appropriate to help your analysis and possibly to demonstrate your experiment on your exhibit board. Only the student doing the research can appear in photographs
  • Use charts, graphs and tables to summarize your data. 
  • A thorough project includes an additional one page, hand written or typed, research report/expository essay to support learning. 

Analysis:

  • Explain your observations, data and/or results. This is a summary of what your data has shown you.
  • List the main points of what you've learned.
  • Why did the results occur? What did your experiment prove? 

Conclusion and Communication:

  • Answer your problem/purpose statement.
  • What did you discover about your model or prototype?  
  • Was your design successful?   Explain why or why not.
  • What further study do you recommend given the results of your experiment? What would be the next question to ask?
  • If you repeated your project, what would you change?