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Science Fair Secrets 4: start early, work hard

This is a series (copyright R Ford Denison) on the secrets of winning science fair projects. Click "science fairs" under Categories (at right) for more.

Two high school students who did projects in our lab (Kyra Underbakke and Tiffanie Stone) have now won trips to the International Science Fair. Is there something magic about our lab? Both students had excellent mentoring, from my grad students Will Ratcliff and Ryoko Oono. So that's one Science Fair Secret: look for a smart mentor who's willing to spend some time helping you explore ideas and methods. The evolutionary focus in our lab may have helped the students ask more scientifically interesting questions, but we aren't curing cancer or saving cute endangered species (with the possible exception of organic farmers!).

But the most obvious characteristic these two winners had in common was their willingness to put many (hundreds?) of hours into their projects, starting in spring and working through the summer and winter breaks, spending long hours in the lab when other students were off on vacation.

This contrasts with a student I judged at last year's fair. He had an interesting project, but when I asked about an obvious control he hadn't done, he protested: "but that would have taken five hours!" He didn't win.

Another thing both winners had in common was how they dealt with failure. Neither project gave clear results at first, due to unexpected problems. Unexpected problems are only to be expected, in real scientific research. Rather than giving up, both students worked with their mentors to revise methods and try again. This meant more work, of course, and trying again would have been impossible if they hadn't started their project until a month before the deadline, but the results were worth it.

Starting early and working long hours don't guarantee success, of course. But not starting early and not working long hours will probably guarantee that your project won't be among the best at the science fair.

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