My Science Fair Project

This is a quick overview of how to do a science fair project for a competition like the Mercer Science and Engineering Fair. In fact, since you are reading this on our website you are likely interested in participating in the fair. Hopefully this article will give you a good idea of what is involved. Also check out the ISEF site for additional information and recommendations.

The Mercer Science and Engineering Fair uses this site for online registration. You need to be registered to participate in the fair. Check the links below and to the left for more details. You should read this before you start your project.

Related Links:

Initial research and choosing a topic

A science fair project is based around an engineering project or a scientific hypothesis. The presentation at the science fair is the result of your project. In between, you will develop a research plan, fill in a science fair application, do your experiments, and then analyze your results.

First, pick a general topic area that interests you. If you have an idea for a project already, then you are a step ahead, If not, do some reading and research to narrow your focus. Check out Student Resources on this site for help finding project ideas.

Once you have an idea for your project, you need to do more detailed research so you can come up with a research plan. This may prompt you to change your topic. For example, if you are in the Senior Division and trying to do new research, then you will want to change your project if you determine that someone else has already done this research project.

Develop a research plan

At this point, you have a general idea of what your project will entail. It is now time to put together a more detailed plan on how to complete the project. The plan should address the entire project, including any preperation that is necessary, such as building research apparatus or aquiring specialized research materials. It should present any experiments and how results will be evaluated.

A research plan needs to be detailed. It is not sufficient to say, "I am going to make an airplane" or "I am going to see how a plant grows in dirt." The plan needs to indicate all the steps you plan on taking such that another person reading the research plan could repeat your process.

The research plan must address safety and health issues. This means you must understand the materials and processes involved, as well as the risks and the way to minimize those risks. The risks should be enumerated as well as how they will be addressed. For example, if animals are used in an experiment, then their care, feeding, and housing after the experiment must all be addressed in the research plan.

Your mentor/adult-in-charge/supervisor will review your research plan and may suggest changes. Likewise, the research plan may have to be reviewed by a safety review committee before your experiments can begin. The more details in the plan, the better the chance that it will be approved without changes.

A research plan needs to be as long as necessary. It may fit on one page or many pages. 

Basic Research Plan

The following is a minimal research plan for a bacteria related project. Note, this project would require Form 2 (Qualified Scientist) and Form 6A (Potentially Hazardous Biological Agents) as well, 

A. Problem: Do commercial cleaning products reduce the amount of bacteria on a surface?

B. Hyposesis: Commercial cleaning products kill a significant amount of bacteria

C. Procedures

  • Materials
    • 6 large, 10 cm (4 in) diameter Petri dishes
    • 6 cotton swabs
    • 5 grams of Agar
    • 1 600 mL plastic beaker
    • 2 types of cleaning products
    • 1 incubator
  • Methodology
    • Choose two locations with sufficient space to take two samples after cleaning
    • Prepare agar and place into petri dishes
    • Repeat the next steps for both locations
    • Transfer a bacteria sample using a cotton swap from the center of the area and swab it on a petri dish
    • Clean half the area with a cleaning product and allow to dry. Get another sample into the next petri dish
    • Repeat with the other cleaning product on the other half of the area.
    • Seal the petri dishes
    • Place petri dishes into incubator set to 35 degrees Celcius
    • Allow bateria to grow for one week, record status daily measuring number, color and size of growths
  • Clean up
    • The cotton swabs will be discarded in the normal trash
    • Petri dishes will be autoclaved when the experiment is complete
  • Risk Assesment
    • The cotton swabs only have the amount of bacteria the a person would normally be exposed to so they can be discarded after use
    • Bacteria growth mush be done in a biosaftey level 1 location. Our school lab is BSL-1.
    • The petri dishes have large amounts of bacteria and need to be disposed of properly. They will also remain sealed after the samples are obtained.

D. Bibliography

  1. Alcamo IE (2001). Fundamentals of microbiology. Boston: Jones and Bartlett. ISBN 0-7637-1067-9.
  2. Atlas RM (1995). Principles of microbiology. St. Louis: Mosby. ISBN 0-8016-7790-4.
  3. Bacteria,
  4. Martinko JM, Madigan MT (2005). Brock Biology of Microorganisms (11th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice Hall. ISBN 0-13-144329-1.
  5. Funke BR, Tortora GJ, Case CL (2004). Microbiology: an introduction (8th ed.). San Francisco: Benjamin Cummings. ISBN 0-8053-7614-3.


Research Plan Outline

The research plan for ALL projects is to include the following:

A. Question or Problem being addressed

B. Goals/Expected Outcomes/Hypotheses

C. Description in detail of method or procedures
(The following are important and key items that should be included when formulating ANY AND ALL research plans.)

  • Procedures: Detail all procedures and experimental design to be used for data collection
  • Data Analysis: Describe the procedures you will use to analyze the data/results that answer research questions or hypotheses

D. Bibliography: List at least five (5) major references (e.g. science journal articles, books, internet sites) from your literature review. If you plan to use vertebrate animals, one of these references must be an animal care reference.

  • Choose one style and use it consistently to reference the literature used in the research plan
  • Guidelines can be found in the Student Handbook

Items 1-4 below are subject-specific guidelines for additional items to be included in your research plan as applicable:

  1. Human participants research:
    • Participants. Describe who will participate in your study (age range, gender, racial/ethnic composition). Identify any vulnerable populations (minors, pregnant women, prisoners, mentally disabled or economically disadvantaged).
    • Recruitment. Where will you find your participants? How will they be invited to participate?
    • Methods. What will participants be asked to do? Will you use any surveys, questionnaires or tests? What is the frequency and length of time involved for each subject?
    • Risk Assessment
      • Risks. What are the risks or potential discomforts (physical, psychological, time involved, social, legal etc) to participants? How will you minimize the risks?
      • Benefits. List any benefits to society or each participant.
    • Protection of Privacy. Will any identifiable information (e.g., names, telephone numbers, birth dates, email addresses) be collected? Will data be confidential or anonymous? If anonymous, describe how the data will be collected anonymously. If not anonymous, what procedures are in place for safeguarding confidentiality? Where will the data be stored? Who will have access to the data? What will you do with the data at the end of the study?
    • Informed Consent Process. Describe how you will inform participants about the purpose of the study, what they will be asked to do, that their participation is voluntary and they have the right to stop at any time.
  2. Vertebrate animal research:
    • Briefly discuss potential ALTERNATIVES to vertebrate animal use and present a detailed justification for use of vertebrate animals
    • Explain potential impact or contribution this research may have
    • Detail all procedures to be used
    • Include methods used to minimize potential discomfort, distress, pain and injury to the animals during the course of experimentation
    • Detailed chemical concentrations and drug dosages
    • Detail animal numbers, species, strain, sex, age, source, etc.
    • Include justification of the numbers planned for the research
    • Describe housing and oversight of daily care
    • Discuss disposition of the animals at the termination of the study
  3. Potentially Hazardous Biological Agents:
    • Describe Biosafety Level Assessment process and resultant BSL determination
    • Give source of agent, source of specific cell line, etc.
    • Detail safety precautions
    • Discuss methods of disposal
  4. Hazardous Chemicals, Activities & Devices:
    • Describe Risk Assessment process and results
    • Detail chemical concentrations and drug dosages
    • Describe safety precautions and procedures to minimize risk
    • Discuss methods of disposal

Fair Registration - Starting The Application Process

Note: Elementary Division students (brades 4-5) can start the registration process after their projects are complete if they are doing their projects as part of a school science fair. They do not use the Intel ISEF forms. Most of the following information is for the Junior (grades 6-8) and Senior (grades 9-12) division students.

We know you want to start your experiments, but you need to start your science fair application first. This includes filling in the Intel ISEF forms. A number of these MUST be signed before your experimentation begins. Read the ISEF rules for more detailsand check out the ISEF forms as well.

There are over a dozen ISEF forms but most are not required for the typical project. In fact, most projects require only a few forms. Forms 1, 1A, 1B plus the reserach plan are required for all applications. Walking through the Intel Rules Wizard will result in a list of ISEF forms that your project requires. It only takes a few minutes. Contact us if you have questions.

Online registration is required to compete in the Mercer Science and Engineering Fair. Registration information is the same as on these forms and hand or digitally signed copies are uploaded as part of the process. Blank forms are available for download.


Blank ISEF Forms

We provide a copy of the Intel ISEF forms that can help streamline the application process. You can also utilize the Intel ISEF forms available on the Intel ISEF site. The actual forms are identical but ours have additional material so information can be automatically uploaded if you fill out the PDF files.
A number of the ISEF forms MUST be signed before your experimentation begins. Only a few are completed after the project experimentation is completed.
These forms will also be posted online as part of the online registration process before competition begins as part of your entry. Read the ISEF rules for more details and check out the ISEF forms as well.

Online Registration

Online registration is required to compete in the Mercer Science and Engineering Fair. This can be done at any time before the fair deadline, but it is advantageous to do so when the application forms need to be initially filled in. If you enter the information online, you can download this information and the blank form files, and then print the forms with this information. These forms still need to be signed and mailed in.
If you do not use the online registration system before your experiments begin, make sure that you print out the blank ISEF forms and get them approved and signed.

Precertification Review

It is important that projects are properly designed and documented (as with the ISEF application forms) prior to the start of the project. Projects that do not meet the rules will be disqualified.

The precertification is an optional benefit provided by the Mercer Science and Engineering Club. Our Safety Review Committee (SRC) will check a student's application upon request and give conditional approval. The SRC reviews all projects before the fair after the projects have been completed as well.

Projects that do not meet the fair requirements can be redesigned and resubmitted for precertification. Keep in mind that percertification acceptance must be done BEFORE experimentation starts. Do not start experimentation and then submit the project for precertification. Get the project certified and then start experimentation.

Projects that receive precertification that follow the matching research plan will be accepted for competition.

We highly recommend that Junior and Senior division projects that require more than the basic set of ISEF forms take advantage of precertification. In general, this would include projects that deal with humans, animals, plus hazardous or biological materials. Check out the ISEF Rules Wizard. This will indicate what forms are required. Likewise, our online registration system will provide similar feedback. If in doubt, contact us directly. We are glad to work with you to make sure your project is acceptable. Keep in mind that not all projects are allowed.

Do your experiment or build your device

At this point you should have your research plan plus your approved and signed ISEF forms (Junior and Senior division students). If not, DO NOT START your experiments. You will not be able to compete in the science fair if these steps are not complete.

The experiments or device you might be building should be based upon your research plan. Any major deviations from the plan may require starting the process over. Why? Because your changes may involve new risks and may require new protocols to be developed.

Useful Science Project Skills.pdf9.54 KB

Prepare your presentation

The presentation board is the usual way to display the results of your project. These will be judged at the fair. Senior Division students will also defend their projects in person. Elementary and Junior division projects will be judged only on the presentation board and any materials displayed such as a lab notebook.

There are a number of items that a presentation should have, such as:

  1. Project Title
  2. Abstract
  3. Hypothesis
  4. Data
  5. Analysis
  6. Conclusion

This list is a minimum, and good projects often provide more detail. Additional materials might include:

  1. Research paper
  2. Lab notebook
  3. Photographs (indicate who took the photographs)

In general, you do not want to include artifacts, such as equipment used for experiments or construction.

Related Links:

Final Registration

If you started the online registration process, then you are almost done. If not, you need to sign up for an account on this website and then create an application. Junior and Senior division students need to copy the information from the ISEF forms into the online application.

What happens next depends upon your grade as noted below:

Division Online application Printed forms Check-in letter
Grades 4-5
Complete by deadline Bring to fair Bring to fair
Grades 6-8
Complete by deadline Bring to fair Bring to fair
Grades 9-12
Complete by deadline MAIL in by deadline
Bring COPY to fair
Bring to fair

Always keep a COPY of your forms for your own records.

Bring your check-out letter when you pick up your project at the end of the fair on Thursday.

Writing an abstract

The abstract is a short description of what your project is, why you did it, what your results look like and the analysis of those results. The latter should be the bulk of the abstract.

The abstract is written AFTER the project is completed. It is not written before or during experimentation although you can make notes that would be used in an abstract.

The ISEF abstract is limited to 250 words. That is usually a few paragraphs. This is the same for the Mercer Science and Engineering Fair although we use our own abstract form. Do not use the ISEF abstract form. We are also less strict on the word limit but remember that the abstract is going to be the way for a judge to get an idea of what your project entails so make it concise.

The abstract is printed and placed in front of the project. It can be on the project board but we recommend placing it on the table to free up space on the board for other parts of the student's presentation.


Below are some sample abstracts used by award winning projects at the fair. 

Fault-Tolerant Behavior-Based Robots

Use of robots in the real world requires robust systems that can handle diverse and changing environments. They must also contend with problems that occur within the robot itself.

A behavior-based robot design can be made more resistant to failure through the use of meta-behaviors combined with a hardware design that includes sensor and resources with overlapping capabilities. Meta-behaviors are used to handle fault conditions by changing the set of active behaviors. It is easier to create and debug each set of behaviors versus creating one set of behaviors that handle fault conditions implicitly. The latter tend to be more complex behaviors that are harder to debug.

The system developed using this approach includes robots that communicate using an infrared beacon and radio. They use video and touch sensors for obstacle avoidance. These devices provide additional overlapping capabilities. For example, the beacon and video support can be used to determine the relative position of another robot.

This design approach extends to the robot swarm. Robots cooperate using meta-behaviors to communicate error conditions and support information. In this case, a robot’s video sensor can provide a nearby robot with relative position information by detecting the nearby robot.

Creating and Optimizing Porous Metal Organic Frameworks for the Capture of Carbon Dioxide from Flue Gas Mixtures

Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse identified as a major contributor to global warming. In order to decrease the amount of carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere, and slow down global warming, two issues must be addressed. First, carbon dioxide must be taken from the air in a low cost and energy efficient manner. Second, the captured carbon dioxide must be converted into useful materials or fuel. This project focuses on research addressing the first aspect, specifically, CO2 capture from flue gas mixtures by adsorption-based separation methods. Such methods have the advantages of being applicable over a broad range of temperature and pressure, and having low energy penalty. However, to make such a process practical, it is essential to develop cost effective adsorbents with high selectivity and capacity, especially at relatively low pressures (e.g. ~0.1-0.15 atm, the partial pressure of CO2 in flue gases).

Recent research shows that porous metal organic framework (MOF) materials are emerging as a promising family of such adsorbents. This project centers on the design, synthesis and optimization of MOFs for selective adsorption of CO2 over N2 in flue gas mixtures. Solvothermal and solution growth methods are employed to synthesize and grow crystals of M2(hfipbb)2(ted) [M = Co, Zn; H2hfipbb = 4,4'-(hexafluoroisopropyl idene)bis(benzoic acid); ted = triethylenediamine], and Cu3(TDPAT)·(H2O)3 [H6TDPAT = 2,4,6-tris(3,5-dicarboxylphenylamino)-1,3,5-triazine]. Structures and thermal properties are analyzed using X-ray diffraction techniques and thermogravimetric analysis. This study demonstrates that enhanced interactions between CO2 (adsorbate) and frameworks (adsorbent) may be achieved by modifying the MOF structures and composition.

SRC/IRB Review

The Safety Review Committee (SRC) checks each application to make sure it meets ISEF requirements, as spelled out in the ISEF rules. The Institutional Review Board (IRB) is a committee that meets federal regulations for reviewing research projects.

The SRC will contact any student whose project does not meet the rules. If possible, any missing information may be provided. For example, if a student forgot to mail in a form but has it properly completed can supply this when requested.

Not all issues can be resolved. For example, if a project needed prior approval by an SRC or other body and the student did not get that review, then the project will be disqualified because approval cannot be given after the project is done.

Any project that does not meet the rules will be disqualified and the student will not be able to compete at the fair. Students whose projects are disqualified will be notified prior to the fair.

Online registration information, including the research plan, is used by the SRC to determine whether a project meets the necessary requirements. The printed and signed forms will be matched with the online information, so make sure the two match.

What is an SRC-IRB.ppt95.5 KB

Compete at the fair

The online registration process should be complete and mailed in your printed forms if you are in the Senior Division.

Bring your project to the fair during the set-up time. Stop by the check-in desk. Projects are separated by division. Hand in any forms and show your check-in letter.

After you check in, then take your project to the designated table. Do not leave yet! Your project needs to be reviewed by the safety review member. This is not to check or judge your project but rather to make sure the presentation is acceptable. They will sign the check-in letter that you LEAVE at your project table. DO NOT take it with you.

This process takes about 15 minutes.

Division Printed forms Check-in letter
Grades 4-5
Bring to fair Bring to fair
Grades 6-8
Bring to fair Bring to fair
Grades 9-12
MAIL in by deadline
Bring COPY to fair
Bring to fair

Always keep a COPY of your forms for your own records.

Bring your check-out letter when you pick up your project at the end of the fair on Thursday.

Senior division students must also attend the Senior division judging Monday morning. They will be interviewed by the judges during that time. Elementary and Junior division students are judged soley on their board and any documentation provided with the board such as a research paper.

Senior Division students can check out some of the attached presentations for more information.

Related information:

Presentation Skills.ppt237.5 KB

What Judges Look For

Elementary and Junior division students DO NOT attend the judging session. The projects are judged based on the presentation.

Senior Division students MUST attend the Monday morning judging session, where they will orally defend their projects. Multiple judges will interview each student. Professional attire is required.

Students may provide judges with a copy of the ISEF abstract. They may not provide any other materials to the judges.

What Judges Look For.pdf10.19 KB

Award Ceremony

All awards will be presented at the award ceremony.

Senior division students MUST attend the ceremony to receive any awards. Senior division students who do not attend will forfiet any awards.

Elementary and Junior division students should attend the award ceremony. Any awards for these students not picked up at the ceremony will be available when projects are picked up. Those awards must be picked up at that time. No awards will be mailed to recipients. If you do not pick up your project, then it and the project display will be discarded.

There will be an open house after the award ceremony where evereyone may check out the projects. DO NOT leave any awards or ribbons with your project. There will be papers indicating what award a project may have earned. Please do not remove these. They are for the open house so everyone can see which projects received awards.

Project Pick up

Project pick up is Thusday, starting at 3pm and ending at 7pm. Bring your check-out letter or a photo ID, such as a driver's license.

When you arrive, go pick up the project and then stop by the check-out table. Hand in the check-out letter or show your photo ID. Elementary and Junior divison students who won an award but did not attend the award ceremony will be given their awards at this time.

ANY project left at 7pm will immediately be discarded. There are NO exceptions.

DO NOT call after 7pm and ask for your project because it is guaranteed to be gone.

Anyone can pick up a project as long as they have the check-out letter or photo ID. Please make arrangements with a friend if you cannot pick up your project.