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Science Fair Secrets 1: Use Scientific Sources

This blog is usually about the latest research on evolution, but this is the first in a planned series on the secrets of winning science fair projects. Click "science fairs" under Categories (at right) for more on science fairs.

This week's "secret" isn't secret from the judges -- it's right in the judging instructions -- but students don't seem to know about it. The secret is to use scientific magazines and books (not just web pages) in designing and explaining your project. This will automatically raise your score a few points, in addition to improving the project itself.

Here's a list of sources of information, starting with those that are more likely to lower your score than raise it, and ending with those that will impress judges most:

0) WORST: tabloid newspapers (sold mostly in grocery stores, with stories mostly about the sex lives of movie stars etc.) or crackpot videos (claiming scientists are lying about global warming to further their plans for World Domination, etc.)

1) Risky: Wikipedia and most other web sites. These are mixtures of "facts" (only some of which are actually true) and opinions of people who may or may not know what they're talking about. They can be OK as a source of background and ideas; just remember that some of the information is wrong and you can't tell which.

2) OK: David Attenborough videos, major newspapers (The New York Times has a major science section every Tuesday). These may not win you any points, but they won't lose you any points either.

3) Better: Scientific American or Science News (both written for an intelligent but nonexpert audience -- that's you, right?) or science books (if they're shelved near books that have Conspiracy or UFO in the title, they're probably not science books).

4) BEST: peer-reviewed scientific journals. "Peer-reviewed" means that each article has been checked by 2-3 experts in the field, so most (not necessarily all!) mistakes have been corrected.

The two best-known scientific journals are Science and Nature. Both are written for scientists, but an article on X doesn't assume the readers are already experts on X. So with a little work, maybe looking up a few words (even in Wikipedia!), a high school student should be able to get the main point. And that's important. If you claim to have read a scientific paper, but are clueless about what it said, that will hurt your score rather than help it.

Beyond Science and Nature, how can you tell if something is a real scientific journal? One clue is the references at the end of an article. If they're mostly web sites or references to the same "journal", that's a bad sign.

Scientific journal articles come in two main flavors: reviews and original research papers. If you read, mostly understand, and reference one of each, that will put you way ahead of other students. Review articles summarize lots of other papers, often with a good dose of expert opinion. Original research papers will have graphs or tables of results from observations or experiments. The Introduction of a research paper summarizes what was known about the topic before the research was done and explains how they came up with their questions and hypotheses. The Methods section may use equipment you don't have access to, but can still be a useful guide. For example, how many times did they do the experiment? How many plants (or whatever) did they use each time? More than once, and more than one, right? The Results and Conclusions sections of research papers can be a useful guide as you think about how to present your own results, even if they were counting stars and you counted flowers!

Aside from automatically impressing judges with your bibliography or list of references, how will reading scientific papers improve your project?
1) Ideally, you would like to answer a question that hasn't already been answered. Reading even one or two recent scientific papers on a topic will give you some idea of what questions have been answered already. as well as what questions scientists think are important.
2) As suggested in the previous paragraph, you may also get ideas for methods and for how to analyze and present your results.

Where can a high school student find scientific journal articles?
1) Your nearest college or university library. If you act serious, they'll assume you're one of those geniuses that start college at age 16, or maybe some professor's kid. Most university libraries allow the public to read or photocopy journal articles, anyway, just not check them out.
2) You may find Nature or Science in a good public or school library.
3) Journals often make abstracts of their papers available on their web sites. Even reading just the abstract can be a lot better than nothing. They're pretty condensed, but they are often written for nonexperts.
4) If you email the "corresponding author" (usually listed below the abstract), he or she will often email you a PDF of the paper. Use "reprint request" in the subject line of your email.
5) Some journal articles are "open access", available to anyone on the web. This is true of all articles in PLoS (Public Library of Science) journals, for example.

Next time: start early, so you have time to do your experiment at least twice.

Comments

What a great idea for a series! We don't really have science fairs in the UK, so I never took part as a student. However, I had the opportunity to judge one here in Canada a few years ago and I not only thoroughly enjoyed myself, I was also very impressed with the calibre of the best entries. I look forward to reading the rest of the series!

Thanks! I'm about to start out as a student, and it can be pretty helpful for me, I'll go check out the rest of the serires

can you give me good science fair projects

talaalc --
I am so impressed that you are planning to do several science fair projects, rather than only one. What sources have you read so far?

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