Each year the National Science Fair and many of the larger regional fairs boast a selection of project subjects ranging from anthropology to zoology, and including most any “ology,” “y,” or “ics” you can imagine. One large area is that of experimentation and research.
Research and Experimentation
In the broadest sense of the word, research means “a search for new knowledge.” The key word is new, as real research adds to the knowledge of a science.
Research projects (professional, and to some extent science fair) usually follow a sequence of steps leading from start to completion: (a) A question is posed, (b) After considering past work in the field and any pertinent references in other fields, a few “intelligent guesses” are made to answer the question. Each of these guesses is called a hypothesis,
(c) Suitable experiments are invented to test the truth of each hypothesis, (d) From the results of the experiments conclusions are reached about the validity of the hypotheses. Some will be discarded immediately; others may or may not be kept. Additional experiments will be performed at some later date to recheck the surviving hypotheses.
Ideally, a research science fair project should, through careful experimentation, seek the answer to a question posed by its builder. “Experimentation” includes any means used to test a hypothesis. The excavation of a site by an archeologist is as much of an experiment as the more familiar laboratory setup if the scientist hypothesized the existence of something at the site.
It should be recognized, however, that formulating a hypothesis in an unexplored region of science is usually beyond the average science fairer. Instead, existing hypotheses are retested by homemade experiments or they are extended in scope by new experiments that cover new territory. Design of a new experiment is often within the capabilities of a science fairer with a broad scientific background.
If your planned project involves an experiment, try to keep it as original as possible. New experiments, or different twists on old ones, are not as hard to come by as you might think. If you know your field you will be able to find areas that were skimmed over by the professionals where there is still work to be done.
Danger points in research and experimentation projects all basically involve lack of knowledge on the part of the builder. To be able to interpret your results you must first know the limitations of your experiment. This means that you will require a complete understanding of your experimental apparatus. How it works, what affects its accuracy, the best way to operate it, what can go wrong with it, are all bits of information which you must have at your finger tips.
Technical skills which you do not have may be necessary to perform the experiment correctly. Remember, an error in experimental technique will result in misleading data!
Your project should be organized to demonstrate scientific insight into the problem, good scientific method, ingenuity, and your knowledge of the topic. Presentation should be keyed to describe the hypothesis you are working from, experimental methods used, and the results and conclusions achieved. In addition, be prepared to justify your experiment to the judges.
Finally, plan to keep elaborate records of all experimental procedures and data. Even the smallest fact might help you when you draw conclusions. A good rule for the experimenter is to keep on the lookout for the unexpected. Train yourself to watch for it and be prepared to incorporate it into your conclusions.
The wide range of skills required to do a successful research and experimentation project must be kept in mind at all times. You must plan on acquiring these skills as you need them, and this means allowing time for outside study. All experimenters must know the answer to the following question before they can tackle an experimental project: What is the difference between precision and accuracy?
If you can answer it you have a head start; if not, make this your first outside study question. Good luck!
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