By Mark Dahmke

My experience with science fairs goes back to 1972 when I first attended the Greater Nebraska Science and Engineering Fair. In my sophomore and junior years I made about every mistake possible in the way I chose a topic for a science project, and in my approach to implementing the project. In my senior year (1975), thanks to the help of my high school English teacher, my science teachers and several professors at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I designed a project that one first place in Engineering, second place overall, and first in Engineering at the International Science and Engineering Fair.

The reasons why my earlier projects didn’t win awards were obvious after the fact. Part of the problem was that after going to GNSEF as a freshman, I saw projects developed by students from much larger schools, and I attempted to emulate their approach. My projects lacked focus, and in one case, lacked purpose. My hobby was electronics, and I made the mistake of thinking that building a circuit from a kit would make a good project. Also my understanding of the basic concepts of how the circuits worked was limited, so I wasn’t able to answer questions adequately.

I succeeded in my senior year by putting in more time on research, and by thoroughly understanding all the material I presented in my project. My abstract and project report were better organized and stated the purpose and conclusions of my project. My English teacher was as much responsible for my success as my science teachers, because he taught me how to write a research paper and how to document references.

Since 1976 I’ve been a judge at GNSEF. I’ve judged over 100 projects in both junior and senior categories, and have reviewed perhaps another hundred over the past 30 years. Based on this experience, here are my suggestions for a successful project:

  • Pick a topic that has scientific value. Building a kit or presenting a “book report” project is not going to impress your judges.
  • Be able to explain your sources of error. Depending on the type of project, this is one of the first things a judge will ask. For example, if you’re taking measurements and there are several variables (such as temperature, pressure, humidity) and you didn’t measure all the variables, your data and conclusions may be incorrect. You should be able to explain why (or why not) these other variables would affect the outcome of your experiment.
  • If your project uses a computer only to gather or analyze data, your project should not be in the Computer Science category. You should be in Computer Science if and only if your project has something to do with computers (i.e., a new sort algorithm, or a hardware modification to the computer).
  • Don’t include irrelevant information in your abstract. Here’s an example of a poorly written abstract:“The purpose of this project is to see if a wheelchair can be hooked up to a computer so that some day it can control the chair for a handicapped person. First I got a computer and read books. Next after I had all the parts I had to solder wires together and figure out what went where. I typed in commands on the computer to control the wheelchair. After fixing a few wires, it worked. I wrote the program in Basic. My conclusion is that the wheelchair can be controlled by a computer.”

    A better way to write this abstract would be:

    “The purpose of my project was to see if a wheelchair could be controlled by a computer, to allow a handicapped person to have better control and greater mobility. I decided to limit my project to the design of a program that would allow a person to control the speed, direction and acceleration of the chair using a single switch and a joystick control. The computer used in this experiment was an IBM-compatible with Pentium processor and an Acme digital/analog interface card. The software was developed using Visual Basic. Using a scanning technique, the software design allows the user to select direction and speed (from three settings) with audible feedback to indicate that the desired option had been selected. Using two analog inputs on the Acme I/O card, the X-Y position of the joystick could be determined. By comparing previous values with new values, the I/O card could be used to activate relays, causing the chair to move in the right direction. In conclusion, it is possible to control a wheelchair, but the computer would have to be miniaturized and mounted on the chair. I plan to develop a new controller using an 8052 microcontroller that could be chair-mounted.

    In the second abstract, the student included only useful information about the design of the hardware and software, and demonstrated a good working knowledge of the subject matter, and the equipment.

  • Prepare and rehearse. Work with your English or Speech teacher. Present your project to your teachers or parents, or other students. Ask them to ask questions (your judges will).
  • It’s ok to use note cards when presenting your project, but don’t READ from them. They should only contain an outline of your project, so you don’t forget important points.

Don’t be put off by this list, or start thinking that it’s too difficult to design a good science project. I’ve seen many outstanding projects that were based on simple ideas or questions that we all thought had been answered already. There’s always something new to discover, if you ask questions and challenge conventional thinking. That’s what makes a good scientist or engineer.