Fun Science Fair Projects!

Janice VanCleave

The title of this article is viewed by some people as a contradiction of terms. Too often science fair projects are dreaded by teachers, librarians, and parents, as well as by the students. This is an unfortunate situation usually resulting from a lack of instructional materials to allow students, with a minimum of assistance depending on their age, to develop the project themselves.

Science is a search for answers. Science projects are good ways to learn more about science as students search for answers to specific problems. Instructional materials are needed to give guidance and provide ideas, but students must do their part in the search by planning experiments, finding and recording information related to the problem, and organizing the collected data to find an answer.

Presenting the project at a science fair can be a rewarding experience if the exhibit has been properly prepared. Trying to assemble a project overnight, however, only results in frustration and a poor grade. The student is also cheated out of the fun of being a science detective. Solving a scientific mystery, like solving a detective mystery, requires planning and the careful collecting of data. Students should be encouraged to start their projects with curiosity and a desire to learn something new.

The following sections provide suggestions of how students can get started on this scientific quest. I divide a sample project into its parts and provide a format that can be used to guide students through other projects, regardless of the topic.

Selecting a Topic

Encourage students to look through many science fair instructional books before choosing the topic they like best and want to know more about. The most helpful books contain sample projects, and each project begins with a brief summary of the objectives to be determined. Regardless of the problem a student eventually chooses to solve, the discovery process will make the student more knowledgeable about science.

Keep a Journal

I encourage students to purchase a bound notebook, which serves as their journal. Everything relating to the project should be kept in this book. It should contain all original ideas, as well as ideas obtained from books or from other people, like teachers and scientists. It should also include descriptions of experiments, as well as diagrams, photographs, and written observations of all results. Every entry should be dated and as neat as possible. A neat, orderly journal provides a complete and accurate record of the project from start to finish. It is also proof of the time spent sleuthing out the answers to the project's problem. Information from this journal can be used to write a project report, and the journal itself can be part of the project display.

Creating an A+ Project

I find that most students need more direction than just being provided a list of possible science fair topics to choose from. Most students are more successful if they start with a simple experiment and, using it as the core, develop their project around it. This general procedure in developing any experiment into a possible A+ project is described in the following sample science project. The first section is a "cookbook" experiment - follow the recipe and the result is guaranteed. In fact, the expected results and an explanation of why the results were achieved are given. This experiment not only provides a foundation experiment on which to build, it also can be considered part of the research material.

Sample Project

There are two basic types of reproduction of living organisms. One type, sexual reproduction, requires the union of male and female sex cells, or gametes (sperm and eggs) in the formation of a new organism. The second type is asexual reproduction in which there is no union of sex cells. In this project, you will study one kind of asexual reproduction by examining the ability of plants to reproduce by vegetative propagation. You will also discover some methods and special plant organs by which plants can reproduce asexually.

Getting Started

Purpose:

To produce a new plant by fragmentation.

Materials

Procedure

  1. Fill the jars three-fourths full with distilled water.
  2. Use the scissors to cut four healthy stems with healthy leaves from the geranium plant.
  3. Place two stems, cut ends down, into each jar of distilled water (Fig. 1).
  4. Place the jars where they will receive direct sunlight.
  5. Observe the cut ends of the stems daily for two to three weeks.
  6. Transfer the cuttings to flowerpots filled with potting soil for further growth.
  7. Keep the plants watered and observe their growth for several months.

Results

In 10 to 14 days, small roots can be seen growing from the ends of the stems (Fig.1). These roots continue to grow. The potted stems mature into plants resembling the original (parent) plant. Why?

Asexual reproduction is a method of reproducing a new organism from one parent. One type of asexual reproduction is vegetative propagation (the production of a new organism from a nonsexual part of one parent). In multicelled organisms such as plants, broken pieces from the plants can develop into new plants. Special roots, called adventitious roots, develop directly from stems or leaves instead of from the normal root system.

Fragmentation is an example of vegetative asexual reproduction. In this process, a new plant grows from a part broken from a parent plant. The cutting taken from the geranium plant grows into a plant identical to the parent plant.

Asexual reproduction has several advantages. First, this method can be used to grow identical plants faster and more successfully than a method that relies on seed germination. Second, seedless fruit can be produced and propagated via vegetative reproduction. Third, asexual reproduction preserves the status quo in that the offspring are always exactly like the parent.

Let's Explore

By making small changes to some part of the original experiment, a student can attain different results. The first step in changing the original experiment into a new science fair project is to try new approaches. In this stage of the project, questions are provided to encourage the student to explore the effects of changing one variable at a time, but answers are not provided. In this part of the asexual reproduction project, for example, here are three different ideas for expanding the original experiment.
  1. Do leaves affect the ability of a stem to reproduce by fragmentation? Repeat the experiment two times, first using stems with no leaves, and then using stems with a greater number of leaves than the stems used in the original experiment.

  2. Does the type of plant affect its ability to reproduce by fragmentation? Repeat the original experiment using stems from different types of houseplants. Discuss the project with a professional at a nursery and secure sample cuttings from different types of plants.

  3. For vegetative propagation to occur, adventitious roots must form. The development of these special roots depends on a hormone called auxin. Can the production of adventitious roots be hastened by pretreating the cuttings with a synthetic auxin solution? Repeat the original experiment using synthetic auxin purchased from a nursery. Follow the procedure on the product's packaging for treating the cuttings.

Design Your Own Experiment

Other known related experiments, or experiments designed by the student, can be performed to further investigate and solve the project problem. Student-designed experiments should receive adult approval before they are performed.

The following suggestions for new experiments are based on answering the question "What parts of a plant can grow into an offspring?" The procedures allow you to determine the ability of plants to propagate from roots, stems, and leaves.

  1. Grow plants from carrot tops (roots) by filling a shallow container with sand (Fig. 2). Thoroughly wet the sand with water and insert the cut end of the carrot tops into the wet sand. Place the container in a lighted area and keep the sand wet. Observe the tops of the carrots for several weeks. Transfer them to a deeper container for further maturing of the plants. Check with a professional at a nursery for the best growing soil for carrots.
  2. Bulbs are plants with short, underground stems and thick, fleshy leaves. The leaves store food for the growth of the plant. Plant several bulbs, such as onions, tulips, daffodils, or lilies, in potting soil. After two weeks, make daily observations of one of the bulbs by removing and carefully brushing away the soil. Allow the other bulbs to continue growing undisturbed.
  3. Tubers, such as white potatoes, are plants with swollen, underground stems. The "eyes" on a potato are tuber buds from which a new plant will grow. Leave some potatoes in a closed cabinet for several weeks. Make daily observations of the eyes on the potatoes. Other ways to propagate plants from potatoes include (a) cutting the eyes from a potato and planting them in soil; and (b) placing four toothpicks around the center of a sweet potato and placing the potato, pointed side down, into a jar of water (Fig. 3).
  4. Place a bryophyllum or jade plant leaf on the surface of potting soil. Keep the soil moist and observe the edges of the leaf.
Display photographs of the different stages of development of the plants in each of the preceding experiments. Display the pictures along with data tables of daily growth measurements. Use the healthier plants as part of the project display.

Check It Out

Research, the process of collecting information about the topic being studied, is an important part of the project. Research is not the last step but a continuing process starting with the formulation of the project purpose and hypothesis and continuing with the explanation of all experimental results. Here are some questions and tips to guide students in seeking out specific information related to the project.

  1. All McIntosh apple trees are clones of an original tree found 150 years ago on the farm of John McIntosh in Ontario, Canada. This cloning has been accomplished by grafting. Find out more about grafting of plants. What is a scion? Why is the stock often grown from seed? What are the advantages of grafting?

  2. Strawberries grow from runners, stems that grow horizontally rather than vertically. Find out more about this type of vegetative propagation. What are rhizomes? How does a stolon differ from a rhizome?

  3. Spores are small bodies containing a nucleus and a small amount of cytoplasm. Find out more about sporulation, the asexual production of spores. How do spores ensure survival of the plant during unfavorable environmental conditions? What type of plant produces spores?

  4. German biologist Theodor Boveri's experiments showed that heredity is a result of the nuclear material called chromosomes. Through the continuous process of cell division called mitosis, the blueprint material in chromosomes is duplicated. Use a biology text to find out more about Boveri's experiment and about the process of mitosis. How many steps are in the process. What happens in each step?

Show Time

Students must keep in mind that while their display represents all that they have done, it must tell the story of the project in such a way that it attracts and holds the viewers' interest. It should be kept simple. All the information should not be crammed into one place. To conserve space on the display, and still exhibit all of their work, students might choose to keep some of the charts, graphs, pictures, and other materials in the journal instead of on the display board itself.

While the display should explain everything about a project, students also must discuss their project and answer the judges' questions. Practicing a speech in front of friends who will ask questions helps to "polish" the presentation. A presenter should never respond to any question with "I do not know." Instead, a student should admit that a particular piece of information was not discovered during the research and then offer other, relevant and interesting information that was found.

My final advice to each student is be proud of your project, and approach the judges with enthusiasm about your work.

Science Fair Books

1001 Ideas for Science Projects. Marion Brisk. 1992. 242 pages. Grades 8 and up. Soft cover.
45-1594C Each . . $12.00

The Complete Handbook of Science Fair Projects. Julianne Bochinski. 1991. 224 pages. Grades 7 and up. Soft cover.

45-1596 Each . . $12.95

666 Science Tricks and Experiments. Robert J. Brown. 1984. 427 pages. Grades 1-9. Soft cover.

45-1596C Per set . . $22.95

Science Fair: Developing a Successful and Fun Project. Maxine Iritz. 1987. 89 pages. Grades 7 and up. Soft cover.

45-1596E Each . . $10.95

The Thomas Edison Book of Easy and Incredible Experiments. James Cook. 1988. 146 pages. Grades 4 and up. Hard cover.

45-1597B Each . . $24.95

Simple Science Experiments with Everyday Materials. Muriel Mandell. 1989. 128 pages. Grades 1-9. Hard cover.

45-1597C Each . . $12.95

Botany: 49 Science Fair Projects. Robert Bonnet and Daniel Keen. 1989. 148 pages. Grades 3-7. Soft cover.

45-8007 Each . . $9.95

Physics for Kids: 49 Easy Experiments with Heat. Robert Wood. 1990. 150 pages. Grades 3-7. Soft cover.

45-9403D Each . . $9.95

Projects for Young Scientists Series

These quality publications are written so junior and senior high school students can work on projects independently or as part of classroom assignments. Subjects introduce basic concepts involved, then provide a wide range of projects. Hard cover.

45-1599 Biology Projects (127 pg) . . $16.95
45-1599E Energy Projects (127 pg) . . $16.95
45-1599F Engineering Projects (126 pg) . . $16.95
45-1599G Space Science Projects (127 pg) . . $16.95
45-1599S Set (one each of above) . . $67.80

Janice VanCleave's Science Project Books

Help students discover the FUN of learning science!

Science for Every Kid Series. This popular series by Janice VanCleave for kids grades 2-7 sets a new standard in science activity books. Each contains 101 simple, hands-on, low-cost experiments that have been tested repeatedly - and really work! The author provides a statement of purpose, materials list, illustrated instructions, and a brief discussion for each experiment. 240-256 pages each, soft covers.
45-1592G Biology for Every Kid . . $10.95
45-9010 Earth Science for Every Kid . . $10.95
45-9193 Astronomy for Every Kid . . $10.95
45-9402E Physics for Every Kid . . $10.95
45-9456B Chemistry for Every Kid . . $10.95

Science for Every Kid Set. One each of five very special books at a special price. For a limited time only, purchase all five books and receive more than a 10% discount.

45-1597S Per set . . $49.25

Math for Every Kid: Easy Activities that Make Learning Math Fun. Grades 3-7. Janice VanCleave. 1991. 215 pages. Provides simple problems and activities to teach about measurement, fractions, graphs, geometric figures, problem solving, and more. All activities can be performed safely and inexpensively in the classroom or at home, using activities that relate math to daily life. Soft cover.

91-7930 Each . . $10.95

Animals Book. Grades 2-7. 1993. 88 pages. How do birds eat without teeth? How were dinosaur tracks formed? Janice VanCleave uses 20 simple and fun-filled experiments to explore these and other questions about animals. Experiments use inexpensive household materials and require minimal preparation and cleanup.

96-0340 Each . . $9.95

Gravity. Grades 2-7. How are satellites launched into orbit? Does gravity affect plants? Former teacher Janice VanCleave uses marbles, cardboard, beans, and other commonplace items to teach about gravity and speed. All experiments require a minimum of preparation and cleanup. 88 pages. 1993.

96-0802 Each. . $9.95

Molecules. Grades 2-7. 1993. 88 pages. What are molecules made of? How does heat affect molecules? Janice VanCleave uses 20 simple experiments with everyday materials to explain how molecules work. These make exciting teacher demonstrations or hands-on activities for students.

96-0810 Each . . $9.95
200 Gooey, Slippery, Slimy, and Weird Fun Experiments. Grades 2-7. 1993. 116 pages. Packed with illustrations, this book uses simple problems, activities, and experiments to explain science principles through hands-on experience. Children learn how science relates to their everyday lives by making exciting discoveries about the world in which they live.
96-0723 Each . . $12.95
A+ Projects in Chemistry Janice VanCleave. 1993. 233 pages. You will be amazed at how easy it is for students to turn their ideas into winning science fair projects. For ages 12 and up, this title, written by a former Teacher of the Year, explores 30 different topics and offers dozens of ideas for experiments. Each topic explains how to get started with a basic project and then shows how to design your own experiment based on the original approach.
45-1597H Hard cover, each . . $22.95 45-1597P Soft cover, each . . $12.95

A+ Projects In Biology. Janice VanCleave. 1993. 217 pages. If you and your students have trouble turning their ideas into winning science fair projects, this is the book for you. For ages 12 and up, this title, written by a former Teacher of the Year, explores 30 different topics in botany, zoology, and the human body. Each topic explains how to get started with a basic project and then shows how to design your own experiment based on the original approach.

45-1593H Hard cover, each . . $22.95
45-1593P Soft cover, each . . $12.95

Award Ribbons

Deluxe Rosette Award Ribbons. Award beautiful rosette ribbons for achievements. Each ribbon is imprinted with award (1st, 2nd, or 3rd place) and "Science Fair." Two 10" streamers and 33/4" rosette.
90-1600A 1st Place . . $5.50
90-1601A 2nd Place . . $5.50
90-1602A 3rd Place . . $5.50

Rosette Award Ribbons. Each ribbon has a rosette and one streamer.

90-1610 1st Place. . $4.50
90-1611 2nd Place. . $4.50
90-1612 3rd Place. . $4.50

Award Ribbons. Inspire your students with 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place ribbons. All participants can receive an award with our Honorable Mention ribbon. Box of 12.

90-1620 1st Place . . $11.50
90-1621 2nd Place . . $11.50
90-1622 3rd Place . . $11.50
90-1623 Honorable Mention . . $11.50

Science Fair Exhibit Panel at a Reduced Price!

A great idea for science fairs, math expositions, learning centers, or any other projects where a display board is needed. This 48 x 36" white-surfaced board is lightweight and ready to use, making transportation of the project easy, as well as allowing the student more time to devote to the project itself.

Special! Save Over 25% on Exhibit Panels Call for Quotes on Larger Quantities

65-9000 Each . . $7.30 $5.00
65-9001 Per box of 20 . . $138.95 $99.95