Science fair fun (not frenzy)

Early start helps cut down on the stress of undertaking big projects


Madeline Binder


Ten tips It feels as though school has barely started. But if your child’s school hosts a science fair competition, it’s not too early to start planning the project. Most science fairs happen between January and March. A good science experiment can take as long as five months to complete, so now is the time to get started.

Remember, as a parent, your job is to offer guidance to ensure the project is safe and can be completed in a reasonable amount of time with a reasonable amount of work—not to do the project for him. The key is to make the project fun rather than stressful—for you or your child.

These tips will help you get started:

1 Research. Encourage your child to make a list of topics that interest her. If she needs help coming up with specific science fair project ideas, take her to the library or search the Web for books or lists of possible projects. Finding the right topic—one that will keep her interest for the next few months—is the key to success.

2 Turn the idea into a science fair project. Once your child has settled on an idea, the next step is to help her pose a scientific question and come up with a hypothesis, or theory, about the answer. For example, your child might be interested in how things grow. So she might plan a project that tests the effect of more or less light on a plant. Or different sorts of watering schemes—water one with water, another with coffee and a third with orange juice, for example, to see which grows better. Then get the teacher’s approval before moving on.

3 Make a list. You’ll need to know what supplies the project will require. Have your child list everything—from a notebook to record his observations to the seeds needed to grow the plants—and where you’ll find them. First, look around the house to see whether you already have any of the supplies you need. Any supplies you don’t have will have to be borrowed or bought. Science fair projects don’t have to be expensive, but it’s easier to keep the costs down if you encourage your child to design the project to use supplies you already have. This is the point in the planning where you want to help your child ask questions to ensure he has thought of everything: Will you need to photograph the experiment in process? Make graphs?

4 Create a timeline. Help your child think about the amount of time her project will require. Will it be a defined period—checking the growth of the plants over two months, for example—or will the experiment last until there is a result? She’ll need to know so she can be sure to finish in time to present her findings at the science fair. Be sure she has thought about how much time the experiment will require—from watering the plants to documenting the daily results—and whether she’ll still be able to keep up with her homework, soccer practice and music lessons.

5 Designate a space. Help your child choose a space in your home for the project where he can control for any variables that will affect the outcome of the experiment (light exposure to the plants, for example).

6 Document. This is a key component to the success of the project. Your child must spend time observing and recording her findings in her science log. The judge will be looking for good note taking with thought-provoking observations. To lend more credibility to the project, encourage your child to check out other scientific resources and compare her findings with similarly recorded experiments. The judges will be impressed with the extra work.

7 Create a display. Madison Avenue understands that good packaging sells products. It’s true at the science fair, too. A good display makes a difference. Some things to consider: Bright colors draw people to your booth (limit it to three, including the background, to keep it from appearing too busy); clear and simple language works best; project results should be displayed prominently in the center of the board; documentation should be easy to understand; and computer graphics with bar charts and pie graphs always impress.

8 Prepare. Judges at the science fair will quiz the young scientists on their research. Your child needs to be able to answer the questions with confidence. The best way to do that is by having him test his knowledge. Line up friends and family members to look at the project, listen to his presentation and ask questions. This isn’t a way to memorize answers, it’s just a way to practice and be sure your child feels comfortable talking about his project.

9 Relax. It’s time for the science fair. Encourage your child to take a deep breath, relax and have fun. This is where her hard work and commitment really shines. She lived this experiment. She should be basking in the glory of it.

10 Deal with the aftermath. Like life, science fairs have winners and losers. And losing can be tough for kids who worked really hard on a project. Tell them you are proud of how hard they worked and remind them that the judges were evaluating the project, not the child. Consider taking your child out for an ice cream or some other treat to celebrate her having done her best.

Madeline Binder has master’s degrees in both human service counseling and education. Visit her Web site, She also writes a free monthly e-zine newsletter, Science Fair Enthusiasts,

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