Roadmap: How to Get Started on an Advanced Science Project
An advanced science project is science research where you produce a novel scientific contribution. It can come in the form of either new data that helps address an open question in a particular scientific field, or a new technique that improves upon methods currently being used in a scientific field. Advanced science projects can also be done in the engineering field (see sidebar). Most advanced science projects are undertaken with the goal of competing at a top science competition or, if you have a mentor who is in academia, publishing the findings in a scientific journal. There are many good reasons to do an advanced science fair project, but before you start, you should understand the scope of the time and energy commitment you’re making. This roadmap will help you understand the steps needed to tackle an advanced science project. You can find out additional details by reading through the articles and personal blogs in the Advanced Science Project Guideand by taking a look at Sample Projects from Advanced Competitions.
Step 1: Decide On an Area of Interest.
An advanced science project isn’t something you can do in a weekend, or even in a month! It takes many hours of thought and work, so the topic needs to be something in which you’re interested and it needs to be fairly specific. The first step in coming up with a topic is to pick an area of science in which you’re interested. You can start with something general like “biology,” but from there you need to refine your interest to a sub-area, such as “the biology of aging,” or a question in which you’re intrinsically interested, like “How do people’s cells change as they age?”.
There are many ways to arrive at an area of interest. Perhaps you’ve already done a science fair project that you want to significantly expand and take to the next level. Or maybe you have an intrinsic interest on which you’d like to build. Do you have a hobby, like building model airplanes, astronomy, or setting up aquariums, from which you can draw inspiration? Maybe there’s a question that’s always stuck in your mind that you’d really like to get to the bottom of. Other people, especially mentors, as discussed in the next section, can also be a great source of ideas. For a glimpse into how six different award-winning students found their science project topics, check out the roundtable discussion about Finding an Idea for an Advanced Science Fair Project.
Step 2: Seek Out a Mentor.
This step may be reversed with Step 1, depending on your personal circumstances. If you already have a mentor from a previous experience (either from another science fair, a summer internship, or some other interaction), then that mentor would be a great resource as you decide on an area of interest.
If you don’t already have a mentor, it is highly recommended that you seek one out! Who makes a good advanced science fair project mentor? Generally speaking, a mentor can be any science professional who is: in the field of science you’re interested in researching, and who is willing to (and has the time to) speak with you, give you regular feedback about your ideas, and/or provide you with resources. The How To Find a Mentor guide has more details about the role of a mentor and how to find one, but the bottom line is that a mentor can be instrumental in helping you navigate the intellectual side of your science project and even offer physical resources, like lab space and equipment.
Step 3: Narrow Your Idea Down to a Testable Question and Hypothesis.
Once you have selected your general area of interest and you have your mentor lined up, it’s time to narrow your topic down to a testable question and to formulate your hypothesis. Ultimately, the goal for the national high-school-level top competitions is to make a novel scientific contribution. In order for your contribution to be novel you need to know what has already been tried in the field and what the outstanding questions still are. You can do this by speaking to experts in the field (like your mentor) and by reading the scientific literature. To have the best possible science project, you will need to do both!
You should first get an overview of the scientific papers already published in your area of interest. Reading review articles, which are papers that sum up and examine the results of many previous publications in the field, is a good place to start. The How to Read a Scientific Article guide explains what a review article is in more detail, and how to effectively read both review and primary research articles. Consult the Resources for Finding and Accessing Scientific Papers guide for an overview of how to get your hands on scientific papers.
Once you’ve gotten a better overview of the field, you’ll want to delve into the primary literature, papers that originally reported the experimental methods and data. It is especially important to read the papers that are seminal in the field. A seminal paper is the first article to present an influential or important experiment or theory in the field. Experts in the field, like your mentor, are the best people to inform you about which are the seminal papers in a specific area of science. Ask for recommendations. In addition, because of their ground-breaking content, seminal papers are cited frequently by subsequent publications. So, as you’re reading the scientific literature, if you see an article that is cited frequently, it is likely to be seminal and you should read it, too.
The majority of students, as you can see by reading the Finding an Idea for an Advanced Science Fair Project roundtable, find that the question on which they want to concentrate becomes obvious as they read the literature. Once you settle on the question you want to research, you should refine the question by delving into the fine points of previously published experiments, as well as talk your ideas over with an expert in the field (like your mentor). The expert serves as a double-check to make sure you aren’t working on a problem that’s already been resolved, and that the experiments you’re suggesting are logical and feasible. As you refine your question and think about the experiments you’ll need to do, keep limitations in mind—such as equipment, cost, and time—and actively brainstorm ways to circumvent those limitations. For example, if you need a piece of equipment that is only available at a particular university, contact researchers there, explain your situation, and see if there is a way you can use their equipment or collaborate with them in some way.
Step 4: Write a Project Outline.
After you’ve settled on the question to research, it is time to write a project outline. The project outline is a way to focus your ideas, questions, experimental priorities, and “to-do list” all in one place so that you can evaluate and improve it. This is a step that all scientists and engineers take. For academics, it often happens in the form of grant writing, and for engineers, particularly at companies, it is part of creating a design specification.
Once you’ve written your project outline, show it to your mentor or any other person (parents, teachers, etc.) who can give you feedback. The most specific feedback will come from someone who is doing active work in the field. He or she may be able to offer insights into the likely outcomes, help strengthen your experimental procedures, or offer other crucial advice. Parents, teachers, and other proofreaders can help you with overall structure, logic, and clarity. Remember that your first draft isn’t likely to be your final plan! Take feedback into account and adjust as necessary. This will be an iterative process.
Your project outline should include these five sections, further explained below: Introduction, Methods, Predicted Results, Relevance, and Bibliography.
The introduction describes what is already known about your research topic and the questions that are currently unanswered in the field. Your summation of these things should be based on the science papers you’ve been reading. The exact number of science papers you need to read in order to write a good introduction varies depending on the area of research, but by the time you’re done investigating all the in’s and out’s of your science project, including the methods, the number will definitely be in the double digits.
The introduction should also describe the species or system you’ll use to address your research question. Include why that species or system is the most appropriate basis for your inquiries. At the end of the introduction, briefly state what your specific question is, how you’re going to address it, and what your hypothesis is. In this case, your hypothesis is the experimental result(s) you expect to find based on your background research. Remember to cite your references as you write, and list them in your bibliography.
The methods section of the project outline will eventually become your experimental to-do list. This section should describe, in detail, the experiments you’re proposing or the observations you’re planning to make. You should be fairly detailed in your descriptions, including information like:
- When and where the research will take place.
- What the controls are for each experiment.
- How long each experiment will take.
- What materials and equipment you’ll need.
It is also critical to think about and write down how you’re going to evaluate and analyze your data. It is important to think about this ahead of time, in case you need to gain some skills, like a more advanced knowledge of statistics, have a certain number of repeats, or gather your data in a particular manner. As Terik Daly, an award winner at several top competitions and a Science Buddies volunteer, put it:
“Rigorous data analysis is an important component of a project that is being taken to a top competition. Data analysis at a top competition involves more than bar graphs and scatter plots, it should involve statistically minded exploratory data analysis and inference. In order to be able to perform meaningful statistical analyses, you need to design your experiment with statistical principles in mind. This includes accurately and clearly defining your variables and sample space, accurately defining your factors and levels of your factors, identifying the type of experiment your are running, making sure that appropriate controls are used, that you perform enough replications to create a representative body of data, that you understand the likely distribution of your data, and ensuring that you are aware of and familiar with the types of exploratory and inferential analyses used in your field of science. You must design your experiments with data analysis in mind, because if you don’t think about analyzing your data until after your experiments, you are going to run into problems.”
Once you’ve written the methods section, make sure to go back and determine whether all the methods are feasible and whether the experiments will adequately answer your research question. Revise, as necessary, taking care to ensure that your science project fits within your limitations of cost, equipment, available materials, and the rules of the competition(s) you want to enter. Many top science competitions have a Scientific Review Committee to which you may need to submit special paperwork, depending on the nature of your experiments; consult our Scientific Review Committee guide and each competition’s website for more details.
Writing the predicted results section is an opportunity to think more thoroughly about what the data you intend to collect can and cannot tell you. Think through and record all of the possible results to your experiments. Also, make sample figures or tables showing the possible outcomes, and how you would interpret the data. Are there any conditions under which the experiment(s) fail to give you conclusive data? If so, you may need to think of additional experiments.
Scientists and engineers, both corporate and academic, are often asked to explain the relevance of their work. Use this section to elaborate on how your science project will advance the knowledge base in the scientific field you chose. Explain what greater impact (if any) your project might provide for other areas of science, humanity, and the environment. Explore any practical applications that might arise from your research.
Throughout the project outline, you should cite all relevant sources and record the references in your bibliography. Documentation citing from where different ideas came and on what they were built is always important in scientific research. For more information on how to format references, take a look at our guides on MLA style and APA style citations. Check with the competition(s) you’ll be entering prior to writing to starting your bibliography to see which format you should be using.
Step 5: Run Your Experiment.
Once your project outline is finalized, it is now essentially a “recipe” of what to do. Gather equipment and materials and proceed as you’ve planned in the methods section of your outline. Keep very good records of exactly what you do so that you, or someone else, could repeat your experiments again.
As you collect the data, analyze it and see if is reasonable and provides an answer for your original question. Remember, this isn’t necessarily the same as confirming your hypothesis—it could be that your original predictions are false! It is important to analyze your data as you go, to ensure that your experiments appear to be functioning properly. Based on your data, you may find that you need to modify your experimental plan. You may need to tweak the procedure for an existing experiment, or even design a new one. If you do make changes, make sure to modify your project outline, too, and think through all the outline sections again, given your new findings. Steps 4 and 5 may iterate as your science project evolves.
Step 6: Present Your Findings.
Once you’ve completed all your experimenting and data analysis, you’ll be ready to present your findings. The rules of the competition(s) you’re entering will dictate whether your findings are presented orally, written up as a paper, displayed in poster format, or some combination of the three. Consult the information packages of the competition(s) for exact details. The article on Judging Tips for Top Science Competitions is a good source of additional advice on communicating your research in various formats, and our Display Boards guide has specific tips for creating a high-quality visual display.
Regardless of the method of presentation, it is important to put your data in the formats used by other scientists within your field. The competition judges will be science professionals with an expectation about how data in a particular field is communicated. In general, you should emulate the types of graphs, figures, and data tables you see in top journals within the area of science in which you’re working. Your mentor will also be a good source of constructive criticism on this subject.
Once you’ve put together your data, make sure you’ve practiced your presentation skills and proofread all your written communications. Parents, teachers, and mentors are all great resources for helping you improve your writing and speaking skills. You don’t want poor data communication to obscure your good research!
Step 7: Go to Your Competitions(s) and Enjoy!
After all your hard work spent planning, executing, and presenting your research, it is time to start competing! Keep in mind that you can only gain entry to some of the top competitions by being a finalist in other qualifying science fairs, so make sure you understand the rules and that you plan accordingly.
For glimpses of what it is like to be at some of the top competitions (Hint: fun!) read the Advanced Competition Blogs. They’re full of more helpful tips, too! And remember, as Amber Hess relates in her interview about When Competition Doesn’t Turn Out the Way You Want, winning isn’t everything!
If, after reading through this roadmap and the accompanying articles in the Advanced Science Project Guide, you have additional questions about conducting an advanced science project or participating in a top science competition, feel free to post them on the Ask an Expert Forum. When possible, questions posted on the “Intel ISEF Preparation” board will be answered by students who’ve had firsthand experience at ISEF. It is also a good place to connect with other students who are in the process of conducting novel research.