Science fairs and other science-based competitions provide opportunities for students to explore topics of personal interest. Curiosity, organization and tenacity help to complete these projects. Looking at previous winning projects, whether local or international, may suggest first-place science project ideas as well as provide insights into what makes a first-place project. No project idea is guaranteed to be a first-place project idea, but you can improve your odds of winning by following guidelines.
Finding Science Competitions
Find a project and competition that appeals to you. Science fairs may be familiar science competitions for many people, but other science-based competitions also exist. John Hopkins Center for Talented Youth lists Gifted and Talented Science Competitions (see References). Each competition has its own rules and requirements. Some competitions allow teams to compete while others require students to work individually (which doesn't mean you can't ask for help from experts). Some competitions require all submissions be online while other competitions take place at physical sites at local, regional, state, national and even international venues.
Review Past Winners
Reviewing past winners helps understand the competition in terms of types of projects and the judging perspective. For example, the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair 2018 Grand Award Winners list shows that the majority of winning projects benefit people in some way. A logical inference, therefore, suggests that projects that positively impact people have an advantage in this competition.
Building a Project: Start With a Question
Science fair project ideas don't always start out as fancy as their final titles sound. Starting points for most projects come from a simple question. News articles, current events, even an idea from a teacher's list of suggestions may turn into a winning project.
For example, a project starting with a question about which foods do black-capped chickadees like best may become, “The food preferences of Parus atricapillus.” In the course of researching the bird, a different project may suggest itself. For example, black-capped chickadees' brains enlarge at the beginning of mating season to allow them to make more sounds, according to Washington State's NatureMapping website. This suggests a project collecting and monitoring their songs and sounds, including recording and using a computer program to detect changes in songs and song patterns. Cornell University's All About Birding website provides information regarding bird calls and songs.
Many 1st-place high school science fair projects develop over several years. A project about pollution around a local pond or along a stretch of beach may develop in stages from collecting, sorting and weighing trash (middle school) to the effectiveness of public education programs or signs and adding trash cans (middle to high school) to chemical analysis of water quality (high school) to testing algae or bacterial growth in relation to changes in water chemistry (high school). The final project, despite its complexity, developed over time.
Details Make a Difference
Even the best science fair project ideas won't win if the details are ignored, and the same is true for any other competition. For a winning science fair project, the project must be an original design rather than a "canned" project, must not have an already researchable answer, must be testable and must have measurable test results. Demonstrations, models, surveys and pure research projects typically do not win middle school or high school science fairs. In general, experimental methods should match the methods used by professional scientists. Since geologists use models to simulate earthquakes, for example, using a model to perform tests (or demonstrate results of experiments) is acceptable while just building a model is not acceptable.
Fill out the paperwork accurately. Read the rules and ask for help if something in the rules or paperwork doesn't make sense. Many competition websites contain tips and hints. People involved in these competitions want students to be successful.
Don't wait until the last minute, either. First-place science fair projects require testing many samples and then repeating the testing to check the results. Teachers who assign science fair participation usually provide a schedule for each step of the project. Following the schedule (or even working ahead of schedule) should bring the project to completion with all the details required.
While not all competitions require completing an experiment, middle school and high school science fair projects require experiments. Accurate records of these tests and their results are critical. Little details can make a big difference in accurately interpreting the results.
Not 1st Place Science Fair Ideas
Although no one can guarantee any idea will be a first-place idea, some science fair project ideas and topics have more potential than others. The Greater San Diego Science and Engineering Fair (GSDSEF) even provides a list of projects to avoid. These projects, while commonly done, generally lack originality, adequate controls, experimental challenge, scientific basis or potential purpose.
Keep in mind that age and experience impact potential projects as well. Taking ideas that were winners at your 3rd-grade science fair and recycling them for an 8th-grade science fair requires greatly increasing the level of scientific sophistication. Many 3rd-grade science fair projects involve demonstrations of known principles while middle and high school science fair projects require originality and creativity.
Upgrading Science Fair Projects
In elementary school, science fair projects can be demonstrations. Upgrade the demonstration, however, to increase the complexity and improve the quality of the project. Consider the following example of how to upgrade a common (and less likely to win) project from a demonstration to a real-world and potentially winning project.
The classic elementary school "volcano eruption" using vinegar and baking soda (with red food coloring for extra impact) erupting from a volcano model can be upgraded to an upper elementary or middle school project by comparing flow patterns between shield and composite volcanoes. Build models of shield and composite volcanoes, and then mark the flows as the vinegar-baking soda solution flows out and down. Be sure to use the same amount of vinegar and baking soda each time. Upgrade even more by changing the thickness (viscosity) of the "lava" to compare the flow patterns on the models. Upgrade to a superior middle school or high school project by modeling an actual dormant volcano (for example, Mount Shasta, California, or Mount Rainier, Washington) and the surrounding area. “Erupt” the volcano and evaluate damage paths for a real-world risk assessment. Use the data to design escape routes and develop evacuation plans.
Finding Science Fair Ideas: Follow Your Passion
The best projects show the passion of the scientist. For ideas and suggestions, look at websites related to topics you find interesting. But don't overlook general topic websites, either. (See Resources.) When you see a topic that interests you, explore further. Don't let seeming complexity prevent you from exploring a topic. Discuss the topic with your parents and teachers. They may have access to or suggestions for resources you don't expect.
To have a winning project, especially 1st-place high school science fair projects, go beyond the websites and design or redesign a project to make it your own.
- John Hopkins Center for Talented Youth: Gifted and Talented Science Competitions
- Society for Science and the Public: Intel International Science and Engineering Fair 2018 Grand Award Winners
- Nature Mapping Foundation: Black-Capped Chickadee
- Cornell University: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Songs & Calls
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Community Service Environmental Project Ideas for Students and Educators
- GSDSEF: Science Fair Projects to Avoid
- GSDSEF: What Screeners Are Looking for in a GSDSEF Project
- Oregon State University: Cardboard Shield Volcano
- Oregon State University: Homemade Lava Lamp by Sunflower
- Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology: Seismology Science Fair Projects