For students interested in the STEM fields, there are many extracurriculars to choose from. You might join the Math or Science Olympiad team, you could join the Computer Science Club, or you could even volunteer as a naturalist at a local conservation area.
If you are interested in scientific research, you might pursue the opportunity to secure a research assistant position or shadow various scientific researchers. But if you truly want to take the helm and guide your own research, your path may lead you to participating in the science fair.
The science fair is a traditional component of many high school science programs, with participation ranging widely from school to school and science fair to science fair. At some schools, the science fair might be a rite of passage expected of every student. At others, it attracts a handful of dedicated science die-hards.
Regardless, most science fairs feature presentations by students who have completed experiments, demonstrated scientific principles, or undertaken an engineering challenge. Participants are judged by a panel of experts who score each presentation according to a rubric. Traditionally, awards are presented for the top-scoring projects.
There are many science fairs beyond school-sponsored fairs, too. Regional, state, national, and even international fairs are open to students who qualify through their schools and work their way up through the science fair circuit. Others, like the Regeneron Science Talent Search, are open through an intensive application process.
If you are considering entering a project in the science fair, you will need to think carefully about your subject matter, your experimental design, and the relevance of your work before committing to a project. Many science fairs will even require that you complete a formal research proposal to demonstrate the level of thinking you’ve put into your experiment before beginning it.
In this post, we will outline the purpose of a research proposal for the science fair, the common elements of such a proposal, and how you can go about writing a comprehensive research proposal that is sure to impress.
What is the Purpose of a Research Proposal?
A research proposal has three primary purposes. The first purpose is to explain what you intend to do. This is essentially what you will do in your experiment or project, summarized into a basic overview.
The second function of a research proposal is to explain how you intend to accomplish this. You will give a brief summary of the methods and techniques that you intend to employ, and list the materials that you will need to do so.
The final point of a research proposal is to explain why this project should be done. Here, you will discuss the important or relevance of this study. Basically, in this portion of your proposal you’ll answer the question, “so what?”
Now that you know the aim of a research proposal, you can begin to prepare to write one.
Step-By-Step Guide to Creating a Research Proposal
1. Narrow down the subject area.
Before you go into your project in any sort of depth, you’ll need a fairly good idea of what your project’s focus will be. In order to narrow this down, you should consider a few different angles.
First, ask yourself what you’re interested in. You will be more likely to feel engaged and passionate about a project that is genuinely interesting to you, so take some time to carefully consider the areas of science that you find the most fascinating. Even if they don’t seem particularly well-suited to a science fair project at first, you never know what you might be able to come up with through some collaboration with mentors or through some background research. Keep a running list of areas of science that sincerely fascinate you.
Next, consider any specialized labs or equipment to which you might have access. Does your best friend’s mother work in a lab with highly specialized tools? Does your school have a state-of-the-art wind tunnel or fully equipped greenhouse? These are all possible resources you can utilize if you want your project to truly stand out. Of course, it’s completely possible to choose a project that shines on its own without any specialized equipment, but if you’re looking for every boost you might get, having access to specialized technology can be a great advantage to make your project truly unique.
Finally, consider if you know a teacher or other professional who might be willing to mentor you. You can also seek out a mentor specifically if you can’t think of anyone obvious. Having a mentor in your field will provide you with invaluable insight into practice and past research in the field.
In the ideal world, you would find a project that maximizes all of your resources, including your interests, access to equipment, and an enthusiastic mentor. Don’t worry if you can’t secure all three, though. Plenty of science fair participants go on to do quite well relying on only their own dogged determination and commitment to their subject matter.
2. Decide How Your Experiment Will Be Done
If you have a mentor, teacher, or adviser willing to consult with you, schedule a time to sit down with them and discuss what you’d like to do. If you can’t find someone more experienced than you, even discussing your ideas with a trusted classmate, parent, or older sibling is a good idea. Sometimes the outside perspective will help to fine-tune your design or identify areas for improvement.
You should also begin some research at this stage to learn how similar projects have been conducted in the past. Use the results and limitations from these experiments to help guide your own experimental design.
As you do so, keep in mind any limiting factors. Remember to consider what equipment you have at your disposal, the time commitment you’re able to make, and the materials that you’ll need to acquire.
In addition, be sure to check the rules of the specific science fairs you’ll be attending. Some have strict regulations designed to keep you safe, like limiting the ways in which potentially hazardous chemicals can be used. Other rules are designed to keep the environment safe, like placing restrictions on how you dispose of foreign substances or non-native species. There are also ethical rules that govern the use of human participants or vertebrate animals in your studies. Make sure to check which rules govern the fair in which you’re participating and how they might impact your ideas before you put any more thought into your project.
- As you do your research, follow your background research plan and take notes from your sources of information. These notes will help you write a better summary.
- The purpose of your research paper is to give you the information to understand why your experiment turns out the way it does. The research paper should include:
- The history of similar experiments or inventions
- Definitions of all important words and concepts that describe your experiment
- Answers to all your background research plan questions
- Mathematical formulas, if any, that you will need to describe the results of your experiment
- For every fact or picture in your research paper you should follow it with a citation telling the reader where you found the information. A citation is just the name of the author and the date of the publication placed in parentheses like this: (Author, date). This is called a reference citation when using APA format and parenthetical reference when using the MLA format. Its purpose is to document a source briefly, clearly, and accurately.
- If you copy text from one of your sources, then place it in quotation marks in addition to following it with a citation. Be sure you understand and avoid plagiarism! Do not copy another person's work and call it your own. Always give credit where credit is due!
- Most teachers want a research paper to have these sections, in order:
- Title page (with the title of your project, your name, and the date)
- Your report
- Check with your teacher for additional requirements such as page numbers and a table of contents
Year after year, students find that the report called the research paper is the part of the science fair project where they learn the most. So, take it from those who preceded you, the research paper you are preparing to write is super valuable.
What Is a Research Paper?
The short answer is that the research paper is a report summarizing the answers to the research questions you generated in your background research plan. It's a review of the relevant publications (books, magazines, websites) discussing the topic you want to investigate.
The long answer is that the research paper summarizes the theory behind your experiment. Science fair judges like to see that you understand why your experiment turns out the way it does. You do library and Internet research so that you can make a prediction of what will occur in your experiment, and then whether that prediction is right or wrong, you will have the knowledge to understand what caused the behavior you observed.
From a practical perspective, the research paper also discusses the techniques and equipment that are appropriate for investigating your topic. Some methods and techniques are more reliable because they have been used many times. Can you use a procedure for your science fair project that is similar to an experiment that has been done before? If you can obtain this information, your project will be more successful. As they say, you don't want to reinvent the wheel!
If these reasons sound to you like the reasons we gave for doing background research, you're right! The research paper is simply the "write-up" of that research.
Special Information to Include in Your Research Paper
Many science experiments can be explained using mathematics. As you write your research paper, you'll want to make sure that you include as much relevant math as you understand. If a simple equation describes aspects of your science fair project, include it.
Writing the Research Paper
As you read the information in your bibliography, you'll want to take notes. Some teachers recommend taking notes on note cards. Each card contains the source at the top, with key points listed or quoted underneath. Others prefer typing notes directly into a word processor. No matter how you take notes, be sure to keep track of the sources for all your key facts.
How to Organize Your Research Paper
The best way to speed your writing is to do a little planning. Before starting to write, think about the best order to discuss the major sections of your report. Generally, you will want to begin with your science fair project question so that the reader will know the purpose of your paper. What should come next? Ask yourself what information the reader needs to learn first in order to understand the rest of the paper. A typical organization might look like this:
- Your science fair project question or topic
- Definitions of all important words, concepts, and equations that describe your experiment
- The history of similar experiments
- Answers to your background research questions
When and How to Footnote or Reference Sources
When you write your research paper you might want to copy words, pictures, diagrams, or ideas from one of your sources. It is OK to copy such information as long as you reference it with a citation. If the information is a phrase, sentence, or paragraph, then you should also put it in quotation marks. A citation and quotation marks tell the reader who actually wrote the information.
For a science fair project, a reference citation (also known as author-date citation) is an accepted way to reference information you copy. Citation referencing is easy. Simply put the author's last name, the year of publication, and page number (if needed) in parentheses after the information you copy. Place the reference citation at the end of the sentence but before the final period.
Make sure that the source for every citation item copied appears in your bibliography.
Reference Citation Format
|Type of Citation||Parenthetical Reference |
MLA Format (Author - page)
|Reference Citation |
APA Format (Author - date)*
|Work by a single author||(Bloggs 37)||(Bloggs, 2002)|
|Direct quote of work by single author||(Bloggs 37)||(Bloggs, 2002, p. 37)|
|Work by two authors||(Bloggs and Smith 37)||(Bloggs & Smith, 2002)|
|Work by three to five authors|
|(Kernis, Cornell, Sun, Berry, and Harlow 183-185)||(Kernis, Cornell, Sun, Berry, & Harlow, 1993)|
|Work by three to five authors|
|(Kernis et al., 1993)|
|Work by six or more author||(Harris et al. 99)||(Harris et al., 2001)|
|Two or more works by the same author in the same year (use lower-case letters to order the entries in bibliography)||(Berndt, 1981a)|
|Two or more works by the same author||(Berndt, Shortened First Book Title 221) then |
(Berndt, Shortened 2nd Book Title 68)
|Two or more works in the same parentheses||(Berndt 221; Harlow 99)||(Berndt, 2002; Harlow, 1983)|
|Authors with same last name||(E. Johnson 99)||(E. Johnson, 2001; L. Johnson, 1998)|
|Work does not have an author, cite the source by its title||(Book Title 44) or |
(Shortened Book Title 44)
|(Book Title, 2005) or|
("Article Title", 2004)
|Work has unknown author and date||("Article Title", n.d.)|
|* APA Note: If you are directly quoting from a work, you will need to include the author, year of publication, and the page number for the reference (preceded by "p.").|
Examples of Reference Citations using APA Format
Below are examples of how reference citations would look in your paper using the APA format.
"If you copy a sentence from a book or magazine article by a single author, the reference will look like this. A comma separates the page number (or numbers) from the year" (Bloggs, 2002, p. 37).
"If you copy a sentence from a book or magazine article by more than one author, the reference will look like this" (Bloggs & Smith, 2002, p. 37).
"Sometimes the author will have two publications in your bibliography for just one year. In that case, the first publication would have an 'a' after the publication year, the second a 'b', and so on. The reference will look like this" (Nguyen, 2000b).
"When the author is unknown, the text reference for such an entry may substitute the title, or a shortened version of the title for the author" (The Chicago Manual, 1993).
"For reference citations, only direct quotes need page numbers" (Han, 1995).
"Some sources will not have dates" (Blecker, n.d.).
Credit Where Credit Is Due!
When you work hard to write something, you don't want your friends to loaf and just copy it. Every author feels the same way.
Plagiarism is when someone copies the words, pictures, diagrams, or ideas of someone else and presents them as his or her own. When you find information in a book, on the Internet, or from some other source, you MUST give the author of that information credit in a citation. If you copy a sentence or paragraph exactly, you should also use quotation marks around the text.
The surprising thing to many students is how easy it is for parents, teachers, and science fair judges to detect and prove plagiarism. So, don't go there, and don't make us try to hunt you down!
Research Paper Checklist
|What Makes a Good Research Paper?||For a Good Research Paper, You Should Answer "Yes" to Every Question|
|Have you defined all important terms?||Yes / No|
|Have you clearly answered all your research questions?||Yes / No|
|Does your background research enable you to make a prediction of what will occur in your experiment? Will you have the knowledge to understand what causes the behavior you observe?||Yes / No|
|Have you included all the relevant math that you understand?||Yes / No|
|Have you referenced all information copied from another source and put any phrases, sentences, or paragraphs you copied in quotation marks?||Yes / No|
|If you are doing an engineering or programming project, have you defined your target user and answered questions about user needs, products that meet similar needs, design criteria, and important design tradeoffs?||Yes / No|