MiddleSchoolPortal/Science Fairs

From NSDLWiki

<keywords content="middle school science fairs projects ideas citizen real data expo best practices logistics" /> <metadescription content="This free online publication developed for middle school science teachers features really good ideas from teachers that are currently running very successful science fairs as well as resources to help you with logistics." />

Science Fairs 2.0 - Introduction

I have a confession to make: I hate science fairs. I’ve never, ever liked them – not as an elementary or middle school student, and not as a teacher. As a student, the entire process was an excruciating process that started early in the school year with topic selection and continued with day after day of my parents nagging me to start my experiment, collect the data, write my research report, and so on. The process didn’t end until February or March, when we’d present to the class and sit through a Saturday science fair. It was long, tedious, and prescriptive work, and I honestly don’t think I learned much in the process. And I was a student who, for the rest of the school year, loved science.

Flash forward to my first year as a middle school science teacher in a K-8 school. I was told early in the year that I was responsible for organizing the school science fair. The primary grades conducted class projects; upper elementary and middle school students were responsible for individual ones. I hadn’t been prepared for this possibility, so I automatically reverted back to the science fair model I encountered as a student. Long, drawn-out process? Check. Formal research paper? Check. Did my students hate it as much as I did? Without a doubt.

I avoided science fairs for many years, only incorporating them into my class when it was required. But the research and discussion of the importance of inquiry-based learning kept drawing me back to the topic, whether I liked it or not. I began to realize that the essence of the fair – the focus on the nature of science and open inquiry – was very positive. Maybe the mechanics just needed revamping.

Now, since I’ve discovered citizen science and real data projects, I’ve expanded my notion of a science fair to encompass a much wider and more flexible range of possibilities. I can envision students collecting data about some real-world phenomenon and developing their own questions and investigations as a natural extension of the activity, as opposed to the artificial and contrived scenarios that often come with the requirement of a science fair project. I can imagine students completing data collection in class, perhaps without any additional materials save pencil and paper. Or conducting studies in their own neighborhoods about issues that matter to them.

Let’s move past the volcanoes and studies of plants in light and darkness to real kids, real data, and real questions. Just don’t tell them it’s a science fair project!



Looking for some really good ideas from teachers that are currently running very successful science fairs? We've captured a few of the conversations that are happening on the MSP2 social network. You can contact any of our "guest speakers" by posting a comment on their MSP2 wall.

In addition, we've highlighted some resources that will provide other great ideas for you and your students. Please add to the list if you have other resources that have been helpful to you. Click on NSDL Login in the upper right hand corner of this page and register so you can share your knowledge with other teachers!

If you want substantiated justification for making your students participate in science fairs, have a look at the NSDL Strand Map Service. These maps illustrate connections between concepts and across grade levels. Several contexts are associated with science fair including Nature of Science, Nature of Technologyand Habits of Mind. An image of the middle grades (6-8) only part of the Scientific Investigations map appears below. This map is one of sevne under the heading Nature of Science. Clicking on a concept within the maps will show NSDL resources relevant to the concept, as well as information about related AAAS Project 2061 Benchmarks and National Science Education Standards. Move the pink box in the lower right hand corner of the page to see the grades 6-8 learning goals.

Scientific Investigations

View individual map Printable view of map

From Sandra Bureau

Leave a comment or question for Sandra on her MSP2 wall

For the past three years I have done a science fair for my entire middle school. It's a small school and I am the only middle school science teacher. Any way I teach the scientific method over the course of the year and I use the science fair as their final exam. We start in earnest working on it full time in May. I like the science buddies web site and use their materials for the most part. Each student chooses their own question, for the past two years we have concentrated on environmental themes. They read the literature, develop the hypothesis and research method then conduct it and present the results at the fair. I give them a grade and then I have science people come in from the community to judge. The PTSO donated trophies and savings bonds for winners.

I think this it is incredibly worthwhile. Since we do it at the end of the year as a summative assessment of their understanding of science, oh yes, I work with the English teacher too so kids are assessed in public speaking, presentation and writing, we generate a list of questions as we complete material through out the year. The students usually use these questions as the basis for their research. So we end up with real experimental investigations. This year my 7th and 8th graders added some statistical analysis to evaluate whether their were truly differences between controls and experimental results. It was great!

From Karolee Smiley

Leave a comment or question for Karolee on her MSP2 wall

I have been doing school science fairs for many years. It sounds like ours is similar to Sandra's, just on a larger scale. This year, we are looking at four full-time teachers coordinating our fair with over 600 students.

Over the years, our department has tried several minor tweaks and changes. Each year we review what we want to do differently for the next year. This helps improve our fair by keeping everything standardized, communicating our vocabulary and expectations consistently, setting up timelines and spreading out the workload.

From the teacher end, the big thing I have learned over the years is that it really helps to be open-minded and be be able to customize to your sites needs. What works at one school just doesn't stand a chance at another. If it doesn't feel right, it may not be the right fit for your school so feel free to flex things. For example, at our school just booking the gym can be a major hurdle. I have had years where each teacher had all their displays in their own rooms because there wasn't any facility open to accommodate the fair. That gets to be very difficult, but its better than canceling the event due to facilities issues.

One of the most important steps I have found in class management is student planning of the project. I let students chose their own project, but this is the hardest part for them. They love being in control of their project, but they often do not know where to begin. They also may not think through all the steps or consequences of the project. I have students develop and submit their experiments for approval to make sure that it is 1) ethical and 2) safe, and 3) scientifically sound. One and two are obvious points and necessary to make sure that kids aren't doing anything inappropriate. But three ensures that students have a design that will work and not cause frustration later. Simple problems that arise is a method of data collection. I do require students to make a graph of their data. If they are testing which soap removes stains better by washing it once and seeing which looks better, there isn't any data to graph. We can plan ahead with some quantitative data they can collect for analysis in advance.

For those kids who do not know where to start, Science Buddies has a "topic selection wizard" that asks kids questions about what they like. It has a variety of science fair ideas grouped into branches of science. It also has an "Ask and Expert" where students can get some additional help.

Its a great non-profit program, using volunteers and donations to provide support for kids and try to motivate them to get involved in the Intel International Science Fair. There is also teacher advice including timelines, grading rubrics, and resources and worksheets.

This is a great time to think about it. My timeline is usually around 13 weeks. So, I am kicking off my discussion of Science Fair when we return from winter break in January. I always allow a large amount of time to experiment since plant related projects take several weeks for the plants to grow enough for useful data.

From Debbie Silver

Leave a comment or question for Debbie on her MSP2 wall

I have a suggestion about science fairs. There is a book available from NSTA called Science Fairs Plus: Reinventing an Old Favorite, Grades K-8. It has some great ideas. It is available from the website. There's even an article in there I wrote several years ago about science fairs.

At our school we turned the science fair idea into a Science Expo so that the traditional ISEF-ruled fair was only a small part of an all-day event. We also included a demonstration component for students who just wanted to demonstrate and explain a scientific phenomenon. In the demonstration part students could invite parents or grandparents to participate with them if they chose.

The 8th graders did a Family Fun Physics Room; they designed games based on physical science concepts and wrote questions in varying degrees of difficulty. Students and parents participated in the games and answered questions to win small prizes.

In a separate area the math department held a Metric Olympics. Each department sponsored a booth demonstrating how science is related to its particular discipline. We invited local businesses to set up booths that explained how science was important to their enterprise.

We had a helicopter from a local hospital land on the school yard; the attendants conducted tours of their equipment. The fire department brought in a fire truck and did the same thing. A group of ham radio operators came and set up stations for students learn about the old ham radios. Representatives from A T & T set up a display of the latest communication technology they had (they even debuted a device that had never been seen before the day of our event). There were other things going on all during the day -- all related to science.

We did it for each of the four years I taught at Keithville Elementary/Middle School in Shreveport, LA. It was a real community-relations builder, and it got everyone involved. I just thought my ideas might inspire some even better things from some of you!!


Science Fair Activities from Energy Kids Here are a bunch of science activities that deal with energy in all its forms. There is also a Guide to Planning a Science Fair Project.

Science Buddies For those kids who do not know where to start, Science Buddies has a "topic selection wizard" that asks kids questions about what they like. It has a variety of science fair ideas grouped into branches of science. It also has an "Ask and Expert" where students can get some additional help. There is a step-by-step guide to help you do a science fair project and information on how to prepare for advanced science fair competitions.

DragonFly TV Science Fair PBS provides students in grades 4-7 with oodles of science fair ideas and a science fair tip sheet in this section of the DragonflyTV web site. Overviews of investigations from the television show are offered to help students hone in on an interesting topic and create their own science fair project. Each overview relays a question that a child asked on television, the main steps in his or her experiment, and the results. The overviews also include ideas for further investigations that build on the topic. To locate these investigation overviews, students can either twirl the Super Science Spinner to randomly select an investigation or browse through five topical categories: body and brain, earth and space, living things, matter and motion, and technology and invention.

Our Science Fair Our Science Fair is a free online tool that helps you organize a science fair event for your school. When you create an account for your school, you get a free website that is all about your school's science fair. The website will have an address (URL) such as, and it will include several professionally designed, but customizable pages. It has a home page is where you can publish general information about your science fair, such as date, time, requirements, volunteering information, etc. The website also includes a registration page for students and parents to enter a project for your science fair, an order form for them to purchase supplies such as display boards, and a photo upload page for them to submit photos to be included in the slide show.

California State Science Fair List of Resources The State of California has pulled together a comprehensive list of web sites that provide information and help on running a science fair. If after looking at the above links and you still can't find what you are looking for - you might want to see what is here.

Intel International Science and Engineering Fair The Intel International Science and Engineering Fair is the world's largest pre-college science fair competition, with more than 6 million young scientists from around the world entering. Only 1,500 participants are selected as finalists to compete and be judged by industry professionals for awards and scholarships. The site provides information on upcoming and previous fairs, including videos, all forms necessary for entering, and links to resources. There is information for dates and locations for regional affiliate fairs.

To find an affiliate fair for your region, go to

Discovery Education's Science Fair Central Discovery Education supports parents and teachers with this website that guides the user through the science fair process. The site provides guidance to the parental role in assisting the student and ideas and handouts to assist coordinators in developing their own science fair.

Understanding Science The University of California Museum of Paleontology has undertaken the task to explain the complexities of the scientific method in modern life. Rather than a simple six step linear process, in reality, science is creative, multi-dimensional and dynamic. The site provides teacher resources for a variety of grade levels - from elementary through college. There are tips and strategies to teach scientific methods and evidence, how to design a fair test, and addressing misconceptions. Resources available for download include a "The Science Checklist" which provides criteria to science and a flow chart of the scientific process.

SMARTR: Virtual Learning Experiences for Students

Visit our student site SMARTR to find related science-focused virtual learning experiences for your students! The SMARTR learning experiences were designed both for and by middle school aged students. Students from around the country participated in every stage of SMARTR’s development and each of the learning experiences includes multimedia content including videos, simulations, games and virtual activities.


The FunWorks Visit the FunWorks STEM career website to learn more about a variety of science-related careers (click on the Science link at the bottom of the home page).

Author and Copyright

Jessica Fries-Gaither is a science resource specialist and the project director of Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears, a NSF-funded project that helps elementary teachers integrate science and literacy. Post a comment on Jessica's MSP2 wall - Kimberly Lightle is director and science resource specialist for the MSP2 project. Post a comment on Kim's MSP2 wall -

You can also email comments to

Connect with colleagues at our social network for middle school math and science teachers at

Copyright January 2010 - The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation Grant No. 0840824. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.